My interest in mentorship programs was sparked by the program we launched in eMAG, the company I work for. I’ve always dreamed of doing this for our organization, as a means to diversify the learning methods we use and get people used to something else than training. The feedback was pretty great, and we’re working on launching a second iteration. Since I had a personal interest in learning about how others work with mentorship programs I thought others might have too. So why not make it public.
So a couple of months ago I dropped a post on LinkedIn. It sounded something like this:
I received dozens of messages from people who were willing to share their stories about creating mentorship programs. I was impressed and happy to experience how open L&Ds are to help others grow. 8 people took the time to answer my questions and I couldn’t be more thankful. So before going further, I have to mention and thank those who offered their time and energy to answer my questions:
This article wouldn’t have been the same without you!
Now going back to mentorship, I hope you will take as much as I did out of this small guide I put together. It’s a guide that will help you in launching your own mentorship program.
Let’s take a step back and look at the various definition of mentorship across dictionaries:
Just by looking at these two definitions a reason for building a mentorship program is already shaping in everyone’s mind. Passing the knowledge from senior people to junior people. And yes, this was a common factor in the answers of everyone I talked to. But it was more than that. Going beyond the transactional idea of sharing knowledge, one of the first reasons people deploy mentorship programs is to support a culture of continuous learning.
TIJANA KOVACEVIC: Skills & role requirements often change at the speed of light. Designing a formal course would take months and cost a fortune. So, why do all that if knowledge already exists within the network, both outside and inside your organization? Apart from those practical & commercial aspects, mentorship is one of the most effective ways of learning, and maybe one of the “oldest” too. Having said that, it is important to look at mentorship, not as a formal program but as a cultural element you should nurture in your organization.
By stepping out of the training room and in the mentors’ or mentees’ shoes, you make people take a more active approach in their learning process. Moreover, you make them a part of someone else’s learning process. Both of which send the clear message that we, as an organization, always try to learn.
Moreover, mentorship can help your culture with becoming more inclusive, while supporting your DEI initiatives.
LUCINDA BIANCHI: A very common reason for our clients to approach us for a mentoring solution is to improve their culture in one way or another – often wanting to use mentoring to help make their culture more inclusive and help support DEI initiatives.
Personalized learning is all the fuss in L&D right now. It’s mostly related to tech, but I think it can go beyond that. What best way to make learning personal than to have someone guide you through your struggles, challenges, and needs of development?
MONICA BARCAN: Our company mentoring program has been running for 10 years, so before I joined this department. The main reasons we continue doing it are: To offer support to our colleagues in their development from someone who has been successful in the organization and passing the knowledge from an experienced employee to someone emerging in the department.
Another reason for building a mentorship program is helping people get to know each other, understand each other’s struggles, and supporting each other’s growth. Since the pandemic lowered the chances of individual encounters, facilitating networking helps them stay sane, and get out of their daily business. In return, this leads to higher engagement and productivity for businesses.
LUCINDA BIANCHI: The three other most common objectives for a mentoring initiative are: help support employees, help upskill and develop employees, help connect employees with each other and create a sense of belonging (this has been especially important during the pandemic as people are becoming more isolated).
Of course, there are also transactional reasons for building a mentorship program. First of each is knowledge transfer. If you’re working in an agile organization such as the one I work for, you know knowledge management is such a pain in the ass! Yet, it’s one of the most important assets of an organization. When people leave your company, one of the things you’re grieving for is what they knew, their skills, and capabilities. Making sure people talk to each other and share the knowledge they have increases your chances of success because the knowledge will stay in your company for a longer time.
SONJA POLT: Talent across the organization was asking for mentoring and we also identified a need to pass on know-how within the organization.
Another more transactional reason why is keeping L&D costs low. A mentorship program can be done fully in-house. No external resources needed. Hence, no huge budgets needed. Of course, if you want to use some tech providers, you will definitely need some budget. But a basic mentorship program can be done by you and your other L&D peers. The only costs you should take into consideration is the time spent by people in 1:1 meetings or preparing for their mentor and mentee role.
Now, a quick recap. This will help both with convincing yourself you need to develop a mentorship program and with selling the program to your stakeholders. Why should you build a mentorship program?
The structure of your program can vary depending on how hands-on you can be.
You should give the tone in terms of selecting mentors and mentees for a time-bound period.
EUGENIA DABU: Our initiative was time-bound – up to 9 months.
MONICA BARCAN: The program is structured on one-year time-bound, but most of these relations continue even after this year.
EVELINE DICU: I ran a time-bound 6-month program a few years back with an externally contracted mentor – now I’m coordinating an internal program, not time-bound, but revised every quarter to check if the participants actively wish to carry on. If I were to choose between the two, I’d vote for the latter.
You can first set-up a spreadsheet where people give various details about themselves such as name, skills, function, role, why they want to be mentors, what are they looking for in their mentees, and their LinkedIn profile. Then share the spreadsheet with everyone in the organization, encourage people who are looking for mentors to reach out, and maybe check in from time to time to see how things are going.
Grasp, the mentorship platform is supporting such an autonomous process by using the tech behind the product.
LUCINDA BIANCHI: Our platform works on the principle that everyone can be a mentor and everyone can be a mentee – everyone has something to learn from each other. We capture information such as skills you have, skills you want, interests, experience, department, areas of the company they would like to know more about, areas that they can provide support to others and from this information, we make recommendations to users for who to connect with. Users can either send an informal meeting request or a mentoring request so it’s really in the hands of the employee.
Drawing from my experience and the experience of those who contributed to this article, if you’re just starting out, you should think of a pilot program at first. There are various considerations to do it this way, one of them being you can fail with less impact. Also, by running a pilot you can check:
Depending on your needs, you might want to address your mentorship program to specific target audiences like new employees, people managers, potential managers, entry-level employees, and the list can go on.
EVELINE DICU: At the moment, I’m running a pilot to be later extended to the organization. For a past employer, the program was run for high potential managers and was subject to formal enrolment and assessment centers.
You can always address your mentorship program to the whole organization. Before doing so, be aware of the following:
MONICA BARCAN: The mentee application is open to all employees who have at least two consecutive years in the company and at least a “meet expectations” performance rating. It is not bound to a specific managerial level.
No matter if you’re opening your mentorship program to the whole organization or just for a few people, knowing your audience will help with:
Since we’re talking about crafting your message to your target audience, I should mention this is the first tip in attracting mentees.
So first, know what your audience needs. Know their challenges, their ways of communicating, even the words they use. Also, brand your program, give it a name, craft a tagline, build a logo.
Second, you can apply the scarcity effect. Both us in eMAG, BerLearn, and ING communicated a limited number of seats to boost interest in the program.
EUGENIA DABU: We’re big fans of learning branding and communication was key. Starting with the launch message to other activations integrated throughout the program. Everything was built around a key message: „you have a leading role in your development/career”. Having limited seats helped – there was a sense of opportunity and urgency to act and save a seat.
Third, use all channels available. Do you have an Intranet? A learning platform? A newsletter? An All Hands meeting? Use them. Not only to promote your program through the “Come and get it” call to action. Add on quality content as well. In eMAG, we built an infographic with the results of the pilot program and the feedback we got and we’re building an article to showcase how everything happened. We expect this to attract new mentees to our second iteration.
MONICA BARCAN: We promote this program through our internal SharePoint page, showcasing feedback from both previous mentors and mentees. Also, we communicate it via e-mail through an influential HR partner.
OLLA JONGERIUS: We also have testimonials from our mentees and mentors from the previous programs that are featured on our channel on YouTube.
Fourth, leverage word of mouth. Make sure the experience your mentees have is top-notch. This will make them talk to other colleagues and spread the word about your program.
EVELINE DICU: I launched a small pilot and ensured relationships were carefully crafted – naturally, feedback spread across the organization, and people started volunteering. As the pilot will now morph into a framework, a recurring enrolment process will probably be set up. Hopefully, by that time, I’ll have a few success stories to share from the pilot pairings.
Fifth, leverage your current relationships. Make sure HR Business Partners are kept in the loop from A to Z with what’s happening with the program. Tell the people managers you’re connected with about it. Use other interactions such as workshops or informal meetings to share the news.
OLLA JONGERIUS: The success of our mentorship program is pure because of our mentors. We have selected the best of the best and are extremely proud to have knowledgeable, professional, passionate, and extremely kind and giving people on our team. 70% of the program’s success depends on how well we pick our mentors.
Letting mentors know they are helping others is the key. Everyone is doing this and the result is attracting specifically those with the right motivation.
EUGENIA DABU: We had a good foundation in building this program as „helping others to be successful” is part of our culture and DNA. Hence, mentors were fully committed to take this opportunity and make the best out of it. In driving a mentoring program, this is critical – a commitment to being there in the process, dedicated and focused. This aspect needs to be previously screened. In our case, both mentors and mentees had to complete a questionnaire, reflect on their motivation to enter the program, set a development goal, and fully subscribe to the journey.
Public recognition. Let mentors know you appreciate their effort by using their names or the feedback they got from their mentees publicly.
TIJANA KOVACEVIC: Public recognition, besides the rewarding feeling of acting as a mentor. No monetary incentive.
Show them other benefits. Grasp wrote an article about other benefits mentors get out of this role such as career development, expanding their network, and others. Use those when sourcing for mentors.
Turn mentees into mentors. Who better understands the importance of being a mentor than someone who had one? Look for those mentees who can give back.
LUCINDA BIANCHI: Mentees don’t stay mentees forever, they will become another important connection in a mentor’s network. Especially today where the agility and varied skillsets of the millennial and gen Z generations will play a vital role in the innovative development of organizations. These mentees are going to be integral to a lot of mentor’s futures.
There are various ways to support both mentees and mentors throughout the program. The most common ones I found while talking to companies such as Fitbit or ING or organizations such as BerLearn were:
I was recently talking to someone in my team about the idea of giving mentors a greater perspective about their role. I got the idea out of an HBR article on sponsoring junior talent and was pretty inspired by it. Although they are not emphasizing the role of the mentor as being more than one of an advisor and coach, I think it’s an amazing opportunity for mentees when mentors wear more hats:
Still, for a mentor to be able to do all this, they need awareness about their role, training on how to do it, and the appropriate environment. It’s not mandatory for them to fill all those shoes, but if they have the potential to do so, why not encourage them?
Of course, just like any other learning program, a mentorship program comes with its own challenges. Some already familiar to us, L&Ds, some fresh on the table.
Clodagh Logue, Human Resources Director (Devices & Services) at Fitbit presented a rather interesting and particular challenge of such a program. One that I went through myself, in eMAG, together with my team. Making the right match between mentors and mentees. When you deploy such an initiative throughout departments, and across timezones and geographies, you should expect the complexity of the matching process to be higher. Moreover, the matching process being one of the most important factors of a successful mentor-mentee relationship, this should be your focus from day 1.
In order to overcome it, Clodagh mentioned to me an interesting solution: setting clear matching parameters. I took the idea with me and I now think of it as designing your own algorithm. You can set yourself to match people:
Don’t expect this to make your life easier. As long as an AI won’t do your job, this will be a challenge you’ll encounter.
A way too familiar challenge of a mentorship program is continuous engagement. Everyone will experience it and as we already know it doesn’t feel good. To overcome it you can set regular check-ins with both parties. If you want to run a more loose mentorship program just acknowledge that it’s ok for some people to loose their interest.
Still, in both cases, you should know why they gave up and try to design the program to avoid those disengagement triggers.
LUCINDA BIANCHI: Continued engagement is always a challenge, people start with the best intentions. It’s like starting a diet or exercise regime, you know it’s good for you and should you take the time for it but when the pressure is on and timetables fill up it becomes easy to push something like mentoring out.
If we build it will they come? No, not always. Sometimes just putting the program out there won’t do the job. You have to convince people it’s worthy. Use the attraction tactics mentioned above to bring onboard both mentors and mentees.
MONICA BARCAN: We offered 30 available seats for selected mentees, but I found it challenging to receive more than 40 applications for this program (even though the organization has almost 3000 employees). This year we tried to improve the communication by working on a new SharePoint site for this initiative, where we showcased feedbacks and promoted our previous mentors.
How else would you know what to improve if you don’t ask for feedback, right? Of course, this depends again on how loose you’re running your program. As a common ground, our contributors use surveys, focus groups, and informal talks with other stakeholders involved.
Apart from asking for feedback, knowing what to investigate is just as important.
You can dig into these questions in the middle of the program, at the end of it, or on each opportunity you have to reach participants.
Knowing your program has the desired impact goes beyond the feedback you get. The important thing here is to define what’s your desired impact. Depending on your goal you can track:
Still, it’s up to you how closely you look at data!
SONJA POLT: We have not yet tracked metrics, but are now looking at how many employees who have been mentored stayed in the company and have made a move in their career. We would also like to track if their performance has increased.
In my conversation with Clodagh, she also touched on the idea of reverse mentorship, where senior people get to be mentored by more junior ones. The benefits are endless, from taking in the ideas and growth mindset of someone who’s just starting out, to just seeing how younger generations think about work and their roles.
Treat your stakeholders well. They matter in promoting your programs and gaining traction. Pitch them before you launch, and keep them engaged with recurrent follow-ups to let them know how your program is doing.
SONJA POLT: Senior leadership support is invaluable in making a mentoring program a success – without that the program will have a hard time winning mentors and gaining traction.
This was an interesting thought Tijana shared with me. Although people leave your company, they might still be emotionally attached to your program and their colleagues. Give them the opportunity to keep sharing their knowledge as long as they want to do so.
Although not without roadblocks, a mentorship program might be the best way for you to keep L&D costs low, while still perpetuating the idea of continuous learning at all levels.
This guide should help you not run into the same challenges we all did, provide some inspiration, and give you a sense of what matters and what should be done. The decision is up to you!
Lavinia Mehedintu has been designing learning experiences and career development programs for the past 9 years both in the corporate world and in higher education. As a Co-Founder and Learning Architect @Offbeat she’s applying adult learning principles so that learning & people professionals can connect, collaborate, and grow. She’s passionate about social learning, behavior change, and technology and constantly puts in the work to bring these three together to drive innovation in the learning & development space.
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