How to Start a Mentorship 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 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 one, though. Mentorship programs not only improve relationships and engagement, they are also helpful to target underperforming programs, emerging leaders and midlevel performers who are often the forgotten middle.

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

Quality mentorship is extremely beneficial when it happens naturally on its own, and within a structured program, it can be an even more powerful tool to drive company engagement, leadership development and business initiatives. Here are three ways to get your program started.

Related: 7 Ways to Be the Best Mentor Ever

1. Find enough people.

To begin with, your company must have enough critical mass so that mentoring can actually take place. You don’t want managers mentoring their direct reports because a managerial relationship involves dispensing specific work-related feedback. A mentor can deliver a different type of advice and counsel because she is coaching, not supervising.

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

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.

Related: 6 Mentorship Do’s and Don’ts

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 maybe because there wasn’t enough interest or energy behind it to begin with.

3. Involve the boss.

A program that does not involve the C-suite will fail, because 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, you want executives to 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, too, the protégés can benefit from their wisdom and insight without the tinge of favoritism that could otherwise arise.

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

                Related: Leaders: You Can’t (and Shouldn’t Have to) Lead Alone


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.

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