5 Steps to Start a Mentorship Program in Your Workplace

UPDATED: April 24, 2024
PUBLISHED: February 11, 2023
Muture business women showing younger staff how to start a mentoring program

When you start talking about mentorship programs, you’ll usually get one of the following reactions: a collective groan about the additional work that such a program might entail, intimidation about where to begin or excitement from people who have experienced successful mentor relationships and the growth that comes from them.

Nearly every company can benefit from having a mentorship program. Mentorship programs not only improve employee job satisfaction and retention, they are also helpful for targeting those often left in the forgotten middle, such as underperforming programs, emerging leaders and mid-level performers.

Your top performers will have the opportunity to get some real-time guidance, and your mid-level performers will often be inspired to take it to the next level. Though it may be the people who are slogging along day-by-day who benefit the most.

How to start a mentorship program

Quality mentorship is extremely beneficial when it happens naturally. Within a structured program, it can be an even more powerful tool to drive company engagement, leadership development and business initiatives. 

“Mentoring is not a replacement for good management or leadership, nor is it a replacement for the appropriate development or training program,” says Alaina Love, management consultant and coauthor of The Purpose Linked Organization: How Passionate Leaders Inspire Winning Teams and Great Results. “Nor is a mentor necessarily someone at the decision-making table advocating for someone to get a job or promotion.”

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Instead, Love says, a valuable mentoring relationship is “one of trust between two individuals—one of whom is more experienced in the organization than the other—and provides insight and guidance, and perhaps helps to make connections.”

Here are five tips on how to start a mentoring program:

1. Find enough people

To begin with, your company must have enough critical mass for mentoring to actually take place. You don’t want managers mentoring their direct reports, because a managerial relationship involves dispensing specific work-related feedback. A mentor, on the other hand, can deliver a different type of counsel because they are coaching, not supervising.

Receiving coaching from people who aren’t your managers also exposes you to different points of view. It gives you an opportunity to ask questions and explore different parts of the company, which is especially important with topics such as company politics, history and policy.

If you are part of a small company, consider finding a sister company with similar values and lining up mentors and protégés. You might find that this ends up functioning almost like a mastermind group, where your companies are able to share lessons learned and apply history to problems and initiatives, even if you are in different industries.

2. Start with a pilot mentorship program

An effective way to test the waters for a formal mentorship program is to start it as a pilot with a few mentors and protégés. When you start a program, you want to create structure so that it doesn’t feel like a time suck. Setting up regular sessions, general goals, desired outcomes and a template for discussions can be helpful and is more likely to yield a concrete result.

During the pilot program, look to match mentors and protégés based on common interests and skills. If the teams start with something in common, it will facilitate connection as the relationship develops. Have your pilot pairs meet once every two months with guidelines and meeting agendas.

During this time, you can assess what is working well and what could work better in the large-scale launch of the program. If it fizzles out, it could be because there wasn’t enough mutual benefit for the parties, or because there wasn’t enough interest or energy behind it to begin with.

3. Involve the boss

If you start a mentorship program that does not involve the C-suite, it will fail. Management will fill the time with other issues that preclude the mentorship program from having a full effect.

Senior management should be heavily involved in setting guidelines, actions and goals for the program. The more buy-in, the more support. Ideally, executives will also participate as mentors, but because they typically have less available time, a good alternative is to have them host small group sessions. This way, the protégés can benefit from their wisdom and insight without the tinge of favoritism that could otherwise arise.

4. Create a framework for the relationship 

Love advises requiring a one-year commitment from both parties and setting a minimum number of meetings, say, biweekly. “Establish a formal platform, then allow people to develop more natural relationships going forward,” she says.

It’s also important for mentors to aid protégés in finding their passions. Ask the mentees about times when they were really excited or fulfilled. “Accept that the path the senior executive took might not be the right path for the mentee,” Love says.

Then, schedule gatherings for all participants to connect and share experiences. Quarterly meetings for the mentees and another for mentors can be great ways to build on experiences.

5. Measure success

Over time, a successful mentor program should improve the individual mentee’s professional success, as well as job satisfaction for both parties. “A successful mentor program should reduce turnover,” says Beth Carvin, CEO of HR consultancy Nobscot Corporation. If you’ve sought out people who are truly passionate about being mentors and trained them on how to do it well, that is.

At the end of the day, any time employees feel valued and invested in, you will see an increase in performance and retention. What do you have to lose?

This article was originally published in October 2017 and updated April 2024. Photo by fizkes/Shutterstock.com

Dr. Lisa M. Aldisert is a speaker, author and business adviser based in New York City. She is the president of Pharos Alliance. Her latest book is Leadership Reflections: 52 Leadership Practices in the Age of Worry.

Emma Johnson is a business journalist, gender-equality activist, and founder of the world's largest community of single moms, WealthySingleMommy.com. Emma and her best-selling book, The Kickass Single Mom, and her organization, Moms for Shared Parenting, have been featured in hundreds of national and international media outlets.