Mentoring has the potential to be life-changing for individuals. It can also be a tremendously impactful practice that can significantly move the needle on core organizational measures (e.g., employee engagement, retention, and speed to productivity).
Yet, even given the positive results that can be achieved through mentoring, not all mentoring programs are successful. You can’t just wave a magic wand, uttering “Abraca-mentoring” and expect results to magically materialize. As with any program, attention needs to be paid to the manner in which mentoring is implemented to ensure success.
So what makes a mentoring program fail? Here are five pitfalls we’ve seen over the years.
Pitfall #1: Not Setting Clear Expectations
When working with our clients, we emphasize the importance of setting the proper participant mindset. To ensure success with any mentoring program, participants (both mentees and mentors) first need to understand the WIIFM (“What’s in it for me”).
Program administrators also need to set clear expectations for participants and how they will be held accountability. Such expectations can differ from one mentoring program to another, so be careful not to assume that participants will naturally intuit what you want them to do. For example, in one program, it may be expected that participation is more ad-hoc and at will, but in another program (e.g., one with more structure and control, such as a high potential program), you may want your mentoring pairs to meet at least once every other week. If that is the case, tell them so!
Finally, be careful assuming that your mentees and mentors naturally know “how to mentor.” You may need to do some light education around mentoring basics to set your participants off on the right path.
Pitfall #2: Lack of Executive Support
You might think that the importance of securing executive support goes without saying, but you would be surprised. We have encountered some situations with our clients where executive awareness/buy-in/support was weak to non-existent. Do you know what typically happened in those cases? In just about every instance, the program didn’t last more than two years—and sometimes didn’t even make it out of its first year, even when the impact to participants was shown to be positive!
The lack of executive support can harm programs in a few key ways. First, programs cost money, both in terms of the purchase of software and related services, as well as the dedication of internal headcount. I’ve seen very few programs of any kind (i.e., not just mentoring) last without the commitment of money and resources. Next, programs often need advocates who can help navigate political waters. Having an executive on your side can make it substantially easier to overcome internal barriers. Finally, depending on the purpose of your specific mentoring initiative, having one or more executives participate as mentors can go a long way to meeting the initiative’s purpose.
Pitfall #3: Putting Mentoring on an Island
It would be nice if we worked in utopian work environments where everyone simply engaged mentoring because it was the right thing to do. The reality is that most, if not all, of us work in busy cultures where we need to prioritize and reprioritize how we spend our time with good regularity. In such environments, when mentoring is exposed with a “come join if you’re interested” type of invitation, participation, while not non-existent, will typically fall well short of desired levels.
To be successful, mentoring cannot exist as an isolated program. Instead, organizations will be well-served to look at where and how to integrate mentoring. Making mentoring a part of other organizational learning and development initiatives (e.g., Leadership Development, Onboarding, New Manager Training, High Potential Programs, D&I/ERG initiatives) will naturally instill a level of accountability into the mentoring process, helping to ensure people engage the practice at the desired level.
Pitfall #4: Viewing Mentoring as "Once and Done"
While it likely wouldn’t be one’s intention to launch mentoring with a “flavor of the month” approach, that is sometimes the unintended result when an organization looks to “check the box” on mentoring. Mentoring programs will not run themselves. While the amount of energy that needs to be put toward a mentoring program will ebb and flow with the cycles of a particular program (e.g., with more energy put forth during the matching phase, mid-point monitoring, and program wrap-up), managing a mentoring program takes a consistent level of attention.
Wise organizations will also look to build off the success of their programs to expand mentoring momentum over time. After proving the successful impact of mentoring within a program, administrators should ask themselves whether it makes sense to expand the scope of that particular program. Similarly, they should ask where else mentoring could be applied across the organization.
Pitfall #5: Measuring Improperly (or Not at All)
What gets measured gets done. The general concept here is that by measuring something, accountability is brought into the mix. While the specific things that should be measured for mentoring will differ from program to program (based on the purpose of a particular program), in our experience, both qualitative and quantitative measures are always important.
From a qualitative perspective, at a minimum, programs should measure overall satisfaction with the process. Building on a satisfaction measure, depending on program need, it may also be useful to assess perspectives around productivity, knowledge gains, attitudes related to engagement/retention, etc.
From a quantitative perspective, more consideration probably needs to be given to the purpose and structure of the particular program and the subsequent desired behaviors of the participants. For example, in a formal high potential program, there may be an organizational need to measure frequency of meetings between mentor and mentee (e.g., ensuring that the pair is meeting at least once per month for at least one hour), wherein that same type of measure might not apply to a more open mentoring process being leveraged within an Employee Resource Group program.
Here’s the takeaway: be sure to have a measurement strategy in place and ensure that what you are measuring will both provide meaningful data with which to assess the program and encourage the right behaviors and activities on the part of participants.
We know about the above pitfalls because we’ve lived through them with some of our clients. Over the years, we have learned quite a bit about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to running successful mentoring programs. If you would like to talk through these learned lessons further, please reach out to us to set up some time to talk. We’re happy to share what we know.