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How2 set up a mentoring programme


Mike Bagshaw of Trans4mation presents a useful guide to the concepts behind mentoring, and looks at how to put a mentoring programme into action within your own organisation.

What is mentoring?

When Odysseus went off to fight the Trojans, he chose Mentor, a semi-divine hermaphrodite and the personification of wisdom, to guide his son, Telemachus, through to adulthood. One description of Mentor was a “soul friend.” The Ancients recognised the need for somebody who could offer guidance with freedom, so that individuals could move themselves forward. Mentoring still has a wide-ranging impact. By offering one-to-one support, it provides a tool that can bring outstanding advances to individuals and businesses. Mentoring is not telling people what to do. Neither is it being an uncritical friend who never ventures to suggest alternative actions. It is a helping relationship that supports and challenges the mentee (herein referred to as candidate) into new stages of development, aiming to blend their personal and professional lives to bring alignment between individual needs and corporate objectives.

Why is it a good thing?

It’s a fast-changing world, where what you learn today may no longer apply tomorrow. We need people to be learning continuously, and to have the confidence to break out of old ideas, and to follow through in times of uncertainty. Mentoring has adaptability built in. It is in the nature of the process that individual needs are addressed as well as the needs of the business. It is based on trust, which means the candidate can recognise areas of strength and weaknesses with the steady support of someone who is familiar with the whole situation. This combination can push performance from the ordinary into the extraordinary and beyond.

What about other forms of development?

Mentoring is not a substitute for other forms of development, but an adjunct that will reinforce other learning. Because of the personal relationship, the effects of mentoring generally last longer than other methods.

  1. Plan

    Establish what you want to gain from the programme
    This may seem terribly obvious, but too often programmes go ahead without this important first step. It might be very specific. For example, Littlewoods wanted to reduce staff turnover, and attract recruits from minority groups. As part of this enterprise, they set up seminars for staff trainers, specifically to increase their awareness in Equal Opportunities issues, and to improve their skills as mentors for new employees. At the same time, they liased with people involved with Equal Opportunities issues, as well as bodies like Health & Safety. Mentoring was an ongoing part of a much larger programme. Having more skilled mentors on the staff made it easier to disseminate the message through the organisation, and to ensure that the results were maintained. The result was a resounding success. Their next recruitment drive attracted nearly quintuple the applicants, a third from minority groups. In the first year, staff turnover decreased sevenfold, and sales improved by £125,000.

    A mentoring programme might also be introduced for more generic effects, such as an increase in leadership capability in the top team. You might want to improve motivation by giving the opportunity for one-to-one learning, or increase the skills level across the board. You might use mentoring as a means to give people practice in communication skills, in addition to whatever they need to learn. Any organisation, whatever its purpose, needs a high level of quality communication to do well.

    Choosing mentors and candidates

    The first essential qualification for a successful mentor or candidate is to be committed to making a success of it. Without that, it is unlikely to work. Other deficits can usually be overcome, if the parties involved want to do it. If they don’t, the smallest obstacle is likely to prove too much. Successful mentoring depends on a successful relationship, and you cannot coerce good relationships.

    Selection of candidates is based on organisation objectives. Either they are selected or they select themselves. Candidates are either those who need to fill gaps in their competencies to achieve the objectives or those who would be helped by having a sounding board to develop strategies for dealing with new situations.

    The mentors need to be first-rate communicators. The people with the most knowledge are not necessarily the best people to impart that knowledge. Communication, however, is a skill that can be improved with training.

    Mentors need to be accepting and empathic. They must accept the person as they are, even if their life view is different. They may, in due course, be challenging their assumptions, but that must not detract from their acceptance of the person. Empathy means viewing the world as the other person sees it, without necessarily feeling the same way. This gives better understanding of what will be the best ways of development for that particular person.

    Do you want internal or external mentors?

    It might seem cheaper to use internal mentors, but savings in fees might be offset by the time they spend not doing their normal job. Also, training them in mentoring skills will be an expense. They have the advantage of already knowing the background and issues of this particular organisation, which reduces briefing time, and may reduce mentoring time as well. If they already have a relationship of trust with the candidate, that will give a head start. They are a known quantity, and may be the best choice.

    External mentors are new to the organisation. They know less about it, but that gives them more objectivity. Experienced mentors are likely to build trust rapidly, and it might be easier for candidates to disclose difficult information to an outsider. Their experience is specifically in mentoring; so they will not need any training from the organisation. As they have no part in the organisation other than mentoring, they will not be distracted by the needs of another job. Sessions are less likely to be curtailed by nagging work concerns. The candidate may work harder as a result of the visible investment by the organisation.

    It’s possible to have a mix of internal mentors where there seem to be natural partnerships, and external ones where there are problems. There is no right or wrong about it, but choices have to be made.

    Draw up the ground rules

    There needs to be agreement about how often the mentor will meet and for how long. A typical personal programme consists of about six sessions of about two hours each, but this is highly flexible. It’s better to be clear about what is acceptable in the way of phoning, at home or at work, whether evening meetings are acceptable, and other practical matters. Both parties also need to be clear about what records will be kept. A confidentiality contract is also important, as the candidate is likely to disclose confidential information to the mentor.

    If for any reason, the relationship does not work, there should be a blame-free get-out clause.

  2. Implement at organisational level

    Don’t expect anything to happen on its own. Somebody has to co-ordinate. Choose that person. One of the first tasks is to disseminate the message. Use all the usual channels of communication – newsletters, meetings, e-mails, and memos. This is not just to let people know that mentoring is available, although that is important. It’s also to get across the reasons behind the programme. Apart from fulfilling specific aims to close skills gaps, there is a definite advantage in creating a culture of learning. An organisation with a visible policy for enhancing staff learning becomes attractive to people who want to learn.

    Mentors will need to be trained. If you already have skilled mentors, they might be able to cascade their skills through the organisation. If not, there are external consultancies who can provide tailored solutions.

    There is also the practicality of providing venues. The office where everyday work takes place is not the ideal place. The omnipresence of ‘tasks to be done’ will be distracting. It is also better to give mentoring a proper status – not treat it as something that can be fitted in somewhere. It needs to be in a comfortable room, or a suitable size for two people to converse, where nobody will interrupt. If there is a phone, it should be disconnected. If there is no suitable room on site, it would be better to rent a private room.

  3. Implement at individual level

    It’s important that mentoring is voluntary on both sides. It won’t work unless both parties are committed People have a strong tendency to do what they want to do. They may try to do what they think they ought to want to do, but that has a high failure rate. New year’s resolutions rarely last past January 2nd. One big step is to identify what the person wants, and harness that.

    Personal Development Plans

    The first step in mentoring is to draw up a personal development plan for the candidate. This comes from discussions about what the individual wants to learn, and what the organisation wants from them. The plan needs to align the two. This alignment is important. People perform better when they do what they want to do. That’s why some people who never get far in their careers become experts in the history of football. Imagine a bank that wants to boost sales. There are two people in the department who they might promote. One has recently qualified and is a bit green, but is burning to create a star financial package, and is forever jotting down ideas. The other has a brilliant track record, but has become bored and wants a career change. Who would you choose? With mentoring, the former will probably do a better job. The plan should set specific goals that can be measured. (‘learn to use the storage and retrieval software, and get my data on it in the next four weeks,’ rather than ‘’back up my files more.”). The goals should stretch the person’s abilities, so they feel the thrill of challenge and achievement, but be achievable, to prevent failure and the demotivation it brings.

  4. Mentoring at a distance

    Many organisations are now geographically dispersed and people travel a great deal. Face-to-face mentoring is sometimes difficult to arrange on a regular basis. Modern technology opens up alternatives, which are not a direct substitute, but can combine to create multiple communication channels. Face-to-face seems better, partly because we are more used to it. You get an immediate response, so the process can move faster. The relationship builds more quickly and it might be easier to gain trust. Non-verbal cues, like looking away or fiddling with the chin, can give extra information to the mentor. It’s easier to adapt the interaction to suit the mood when you’re in the same room. The phone is not new technology, so people are comfortable with using it for any type of interaction. It increases people’s availability, as they can operate at any distance, even in different time zones. It can be used in a more impromptu way, or can be scheduled in at a fixed time. Some non-verbal cues are lost, but the tonal variations, speed of speech and silences can still impart the ‘music behind the words.” It might also be cheaper than travelling.

    E-mail is relatively new, although there are still some objections on the grounds that it requires computer literacy. This is not a mentoring problem, but a skills problem. Modern business needs computer literacy. If people say they can’t use e-mail, they should be taught. Some object that e-mails are cold and impersonal, but this need not be so. When used simply to transmit information, it needs to be concise and to the point, but it can also be used to develop ideas and formulate plans. Writing things down can be a good technique for ordering thoughts and reassessing priorities. There is less risk of rambling on, and time to think, and edit, before sending it. Messages can be sent impromptu, literally at any time of the day or night, whenever the great thought strikes. The reply is equally at the person’s convenience. It is also easier to broach embarrassing issues, although care must be taken over security. It is also cheaper than either travel or phone.

  5. Potential gain for the candidate

    People thrive on achievement. Feeling stuck can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, as not succeeding can give the illusion that they can’t succeed. Similarly, the first small success has a tendency to increase effort and increase effort. Being given personal attention helps this to happen. Partly, it has a catalytic effect simply because it improves the feeling of self-worth. It also puts the focus on personal needs, in terms of gaps in ability, and in terms of aspiration. The candidate gets what the candidate needs. Even if it doesn’t bring career advancement, it is likely to improve performance and job-satisfaction.

  6. Potential gain for the mentor

    One good way to check your own understanding is to try to impart it to somebody else. Mentors may find their interest revitalised through having the fresh perspective of the candidate. It also increases their own skills in mentoring, and the more fundamental skill of communication. They gain upward feedback as to their own performance, and can enhance their own performance.

  7. Potential gain for the organisation

    There is an all round gain of skills, which has to be good news. Issues are brought out into the open in a supportive setting, which brings a strong likelihood that problems will be rectified. This leads to more satisfied employees (both mentors and candidates), which leads to better performance, which leads to better customer satisfaction, which leads to more revenue. There is also a benefit in having a visible culture of learning and support. It helps to create, develop and sustain processes of change in response to the changing market. This is especially so if the programme covers all levels of the organisation, from new recruits to the top team. The benefits are likely to become embedded in the organisation, as opportunities for self-development will attract recruits who want to develop, and in so doing will add yet more value to the organisation.

  8. Possible pitfalls

    Pitfalls probably mostly occur when the groundwork has not been done. Candidates may get swept into areas that are not of particular benefit, because initial discussions did not pinpoint areas of need. The candidate might want to concentrate on personal gain, rather than align self-development with organisational goals. If this happens, the original goals need to be reviewed.

    Mentoring can be time-consuming, so it is important to link it to results. It is possible that either or both parties find it so rewarding that other work gets neglected Another risk is that the candidate might become dependent on the mentor, and find it difficult to make a decision without checking first. Mentoring is meant to be a support process in helping candidates to choose their own direction. Mentors need the skills to facilitate this, and to resist any temptation to take over. Occasionally, jealousies develop, especially if there are few opportunities for promotion. The mentor might feel the candidate is progressing too rapidly for comfort, and fear for their own job. If the relationship doesn’t work, for whatever reason, it can leave both parties losing confidence in themselves and their abilities.

    These pitfalls can be best avoided by thorough preparation, so that everyone involved knows what is expected. Mentors should be chosen for their experience, or have thorough training. When planning what shall be learned, there must always be an eye on how it will benefit the organisation as well as the individual. The time scale should be agreed in advance, and only altered after further discussion. Care should be taken when matching mentor to candidate. If the personal chemistry doesn’t work, they should not plough on through bad feeling. They should withdraw, without any blame being attached to this. A quality relationship is vital to the success of mentoring.

  9. Evaluate

    It’s important to evaluate the effects of any development programme, otherwise there is a risk that it will be used simply because it’s new, then simply because it’s established. We need to keep track of how effective these interventions are. It is more difficult with soft skills, which are harder to measure than more practical skills. There are many ways it can be done. Donald Kirkpatrick’s model of training evaluation is one of the most widely used. It was not developed specifically for mentoring, but the principles apply.

    It operates at four levels. The first level takes the response of the trainees. This could be as simple as using a five point scale. The next level goes deeper into what has being achieved. What has actually been learned? The third level looks at whether performance has improved as a result. For this, there needs to be a before-appraisal and an after-appraisal. These appraisals could come from the candidates themselves, their managers, subordinates or peers. There should be a time gap between the first and second appraisal, to allow time for the skills to be assimilated and practised. About three months is usually sufficient to see a change. To be sure it is the mentoring that is having the effect, and not just the passage of time, you can also assess a control group that is not part of the mentoring programme. Kirkpatrick has a fourth level of evaluation, which looks at more general results, such as a reduction in staff turnover or reduced costs.

  10. Use experience gained to plan again

    It’s a circular process. The experience gleaned from the programme will help you with planning for the next stage. We live in a world where we have to adapt more, and take more risk than ever before. We need, as well as work skills, the ability to rethink, and the confidence to keep going forward in an uncertain world. Mentors can provide a strong support for this. They don’t teach, train or instruct. They listen and provide a sounding board for the candidate to follow through their own ideas. The confidence that grows in the relationship has a strong business benefit. Where employees are growing and moving forward, so will the organisation.

Re-published with permission: Oct. 2002.


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