Mentoring programmes: What works

An article summarising lessons on successfully delivering mentoring programmes

By Jon Huggett and Peter Babudu

“From small acorns grow mighty oaks” — Helmut Postels via Wikimedia Commons

Why mentoring?

Mentors are more than helpful, we see them as critical for anyone wanting to climb the ladder of life.

It’s easy to see how mentors can be so critical. Mentors can nurture and help develop people. A mentor can help illuminate the path for their mentee, so they can see possibilities ahead. Mentors can be critical in helping mentees navigate obstacles, by validating their challenges, and helping identify solutions or coping strategies.

But what makes mentors so critical is that they can bring both confidence and connections, which are key to anyone wanting power in an organization or in politics. Alone, it’s hard to feel confident or to get connected. This is particularly true for people who grow up without close relationships to people that have strong professional networks, whether in their family life or in their school life.

The British public school system gives its students confidence and connections. Yes, it also knows how to cram students to get good grades. But once the students from the top 7% of British society enter university, their academic performance lags their peers from state schools. Despite this, after university, in the professions, their progress can often outpace their state-school peers — even when their performance does not. What matters is confidence and connections. There is a fair amount of research that strongly supports this claim.

And, to be honest, we have a few stories, too. We remember friends from school who never got the grades to get into a “good university”. Then we were each lucky enough to get into a good university ourselves, and met students who had come from “top public schools” who did not sparkle like some of the friends we had grown up with. But they were always confident, speaking in capital letters. And they knew people.

For the rest of us, mentoring can work too. It just takes a bit of effort to level the playing field. We’ve seen mentoring work in professional service organizations, for minorities in business, and for people coming out of prison.

We were moved by the story a colleague shared of “Fatima” (not her real name):

“I’ve never forgotten the note that an employee wrote to me when I left a firm. I had mentored her informally, and we had worked together, on and off, for several years. I thought she was sharp, diligent, and kind. I liked working with her, and valued her perspective. She spotted things I missed, for example in meetings. I never doubted that she would rise to the top. In her note to me, “Fatima” thanked me for my mentoring, and said that I was the one that never doubted her abilities, even when she never believed that she could do it. Her performance was excellent, but that was not enough. I gave her confidence, without really trying. I discovered by accident how effective mentoring can be.”

Why mentoring programs?

Left to their own devices, people will often find mentors, eventually. For the 7%, the search is easy and swift. For the rest of us it can take a lifetime. Mentoring programs help create relationships without such a long wait.

Large organisations often set up mentoring programmes, both to be nice, and because they work. They nurture, and help retain talent. Mentees are more likely to feel that they fit, and become more resilient. Mutually beneficial relationships and friendships bind people to an organization. We’ve seen mentoring programs work in for-profit and nonprofit sectors.

One firm we know set up a mentoring program for LGBT professionals:

“To be honest, we were not that strategic. We backed into mentoring from recruiting. But the impact shocked us and changed the firm.

“It all started in the 1990s when students asked if there were any gay employees in our firm. Yes, there were, although there were only eight of us who were out of the closet in a firm of over 2,000 people. After doing a few recruiting events together, we realized that some competitor firms had official LGBT employee groups. We decided to form one ourselves, with some support, and facing a little suspicion, too.

“Once the group was “out”, with official backing, employees came out, too. Our numbers swelled from less than 10 to over 100, and kept growing. We saw gay communities flourish in offices with supportive heads. We created a mentoring program. And people stopped leaving. HR had been aware for a while that it was easier to recruit than retain minorities. They now had the stats that showed the Chief Talent Officer a minority group which was successfully supported and subsequently stayed around.”

We cannot be sure of the other conclusions that the Chief Talent Officer drew, but we’re happy to share our observations.

What works?

Where we have seen mentoring programs work, we have seen:

1) Chemistry between the mentor and mentee: they each feel that they have something in common, and can see the world through the eyes of the other.

“What made the mentoring special in my LGBT group was that it was easy to ask the questions you did not want to ask straight people. What if people in the office asked odd questions about your partner? What if they do not ask after your partner? How to deal with the homophobic client?”

“I also set up mentoring programs for everybody in two offices. What I saw there, too, was that chemistry was as important.”

“What drove the bond was invariably personal: it could be race, class, sexual orientation, religion, church, home town, kid’s school, football team, or whatever. The mentee felt that somebody “like them” had made it. The mentor felt that that they could help someone like them flourish. Mentors were often also curious to learn from the mentees (for example explaining Snapchat). In the best mentoring relationships, both mentor and mentee look forward to meeting.”

At the same time, “contrasting demographics” can lead to great insights, too:

“It can sometimes be helpful to hear the views of someone you see as very different. In reality, we all have points of similarity and points of difference. If both sides are aware, they can make the most of each.”

Such differences can also give mentors the chance to learn from “reverse mentoring”. One of our colleagues related:

“I was approached by an engineer at Facebook. He wanted me to mentor him. It turned out that he was an expert in machine learning. I offered him equal time discussing his career and teaching me about machine learning. I’ve learned a lot from mentees about the sharing economy and the gig economy.”

2) Self-selection: Mentors and mentees should have some say in who they are matched with (even if it’s providing a top 5 set of preferences). It’s their choice, and they want it to work.

“Having designed and run three mentoring programs, I’ve learned that I’m not always the right person to match mentor and mentee. They invariably know more about themselves than I do. And it helps to give both a sense of agency. If it is their choice, the relationship is more likely to last.”

3) Focus on personal development: While relationships between mentors and mentees should be warm and friendly, they are more than friendships: they are professional relationships. When meeting, the mentor’s primary goal is to help the mentee.

One great mentor said”

“I insist on a ‘lightweight agenda’. Both parties should agree at the start of each session some goals for the meeting. And, it is useful to keep some unstructured time at the end to see what bubbles up”.

Some people that you mentor will never have reflected on their own professional needs and development beyond the skills they need to deliver on their current role, or even just their current tasks. One person that we know spent a long time in a role that she did not feel was helping her grow. After taking up an opportunity to be mentored, she realized her manager could help her grow into a new role: others could pick up many of the aspects of her role that were doing little for her professional development; and her manager could help her carve out more time to work on areas that were both critical to the firm and key development points for her.

I prefer not to report to my mentor. My boss is responsible for delivering results, managing the team, and helping me grow. My needs may not top that list, right now. And if I’m having a bad day, it’s hard to be too vulnerable with my boss. I want to tell my mentor what is worrying me with the confidence that my mentor will focus on hearing and helping me.”

4) Confidence and trust: Mentees need to feel that the mentor has confidence in them, and wants them to succeed. A mentee should feel comfortable being vulnerable with a mentor, particularly on a bad day. Conversations have to be frank and minimally mediated.

One youth mentor we know shared the story of a mentee, who had been offending from a young age, that thanked him for all the time he’d spent mentoring him and shared how he didn’t think anybody would give him the time to help him develop. When he felt safe to reflect on his flaws, knowing that it wouldn’t be used against him, this mentee made the most honest reflections which helped aid his personal growth and development: he told his mentor how he acted up because he could, and he knew that nobody (other than the authorities, eventually) would do anything about it. In his own words: “I’m a brat”. By working with the youth mentor over a number of sessions, this young person eventually trusted that somebody believed in him, even if he did not know why, and he felt safe enough to be open about the things he was doing wrong, which eventually helped him to figure out how he needed to change.

“There is an old adage that people join an organisation and leave a boss.”

This is as true in the world of business as it is in the criminal justice world.

There is an old adage that people join an organization and leave a boss. We are often attracted to the reputation, the team, and the possibilities for advancement. We often leave because of conflict with a boss.

Mentors are critical as the person to go to on a bad day. They can listen, see the world through the eyes of the mentee, and help plan what might be needed to make tomorrow a good day. That way mentors help to retain an organization’s talent.

One senior manager we know has mentored a number of LBGT employees in his firm. He is a good listener, so he is always happy to hear out someone having a bad day. He is very professional, so easy to move from hearing the frustration to helping find solutions. And he has a sharp eye for the talent in someone that has not been spotted by their boss, or even themselves. As a result, he has guided many employees to transfer to other roles in his firm where they have flourished. And the firm has retained more of the talent it tries to grow.

That way mentors can share and transmit their confidence. And confidence is a critical ingredient for the success of the mentee.

Confidentiality builds confidence. Mentor and mentee need to trust with their sensitive stories, which are the lifeblood of great mentoring.

5) Stickiness: Successful mentoring is a relationship, not an event. Like all relationships, they need work and routine. Mentors needs to be accessible to mentees. And tracking how much people are meeting can show what is working, and what isn’t.

Writing this piece, one of us realized that we had not heard from one mentees in a while. We sent a short email and received a swift reply. The mentee had been hoping for an email. It takes two to keep a relationship going

How do you grow mentoring programs?

The successful mentoring programs we’ve seen started small, delivered well, and then grew. They have focused on quality and stickiness of relationships: analyzing successes, and replicating aspects of those as far as possible. They have scaled once they had some successes to show.

So where to start?

To launch a mentoring programme, we would recommend to:

  • Start with a small set of committed mentors: quality before quantity
  • Identify mentees who are clear about what they want from a mentoring relationship and are equally committed
  • Create a process to help match and connect mentors with mentees
  • Consider both one-on-one mentoring and other formats, such as one mentor and a group of mentees, or even a group of mentors meeting with a group of mentees.
  • Track mentoring interactions, developing a mentoring relationship takes effort
  • Decide how to ensure quality, and what to do when relationships drift

When to start?

As we mentioned, mentoring programs can start small. So, with that in mind, you can start now! By mentoring someone, or finding a mentor, or both. From small acorns grow mighty oak trees.