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Mentoring: Steering or drowning?


Last Autumn, I spent a number of months helping an organisation 'rescue' a mentoring programme that had fallen into a black hole, and looked as if it was never going to emerge. The problem? The steering committee. Or rather, the lack of one. While there was a group of people that looked very like a committee, there wasn't much steering going

Early this year, I found myself 'rescuing' an induction programme that was suffering from the same fate. Just recently, we participated in a couple of retention initiatives that were also suffering from 'too many cooks'. Here's our take on that bane of detail that we all run into sooner or later...steering committees:

1. What Is A Steering Committee And Should You Have One?
Particularly in larger companies, it is worth considering putting together a steering committee to assist the programme co-ordinator (that's you...) in designing, implementing and managing your mentoring, induction or retention programme. In addition to the programme co-ordinator, the steering committee can consist of a minimum of two people, and a maximum of six (although even this is rather a lot to handle and makes diary management difficult. Four people, including the programme co-ordinator, works well).

2. Why Have A Steering Committee?

A steering committee can be of great assistance in a number of specific ways:

  • Setting the overall objectives of the programme;
  • Agreeing definitions and terms that are acceptable throughout the organisation;
  • Nominating and vetting, e.g. mentor and/or protégé applications (mentoring programmes); SME's to use on your programme (induction programmes), Departments or divisions in which to pilot your programme (retention activities) vendors, consultants and suppliers;
  • Agreeing terms of engagement between any and all of the above;
  • Settling disputes, or intervening in relationships that require 'handling';
  • Obtaining 'buy-in' for your induction, mentoring or retention programme across divisions and up and down management levels;
  • Providing the programme co-ordinator (you again) with a mask of anonymity for those... shall we say... 'awkward' decisions that need to be made from time to time.

3. Who Should Be On The Steering Committee?

If you do intend to have a steering committee, you should choose your intended participants carefully. You do not want the steering committee to become either a 'rubber-stamping' exercise (you'll become frustrated, and wonder why you need to have the committee there in the first place), or a self-perpetuating bureaucracy (you won't be able to get anything done). Essentially, you're looking for individuals who will not just 'do the job', but who will also make good mentors to you as the programme co-ordinator - supportive, but ready to challenge and question you where necessary.

In order to achieve the maximum amount of support throughout the organisation for your retention, mentoring or induction programme, you should aim to have a mix of people, representing the following interests:

  • A 'programme champion' from senior management;
  • A line manager (or supervisor) of those who will be directly involved (the new employees, the mentors or protégés, etc.); and
  • A competent, disinterested observer - someone from within the organisation with no DIRECT stake in the success or otherwise of the programme.

(some of these roles may be represented by the same person).

Later, after the programme has been successfully piloted, you may wish to add a former programme participant to the steering committee, who can give perspective from having been through the programme.

4. Relationship Between The Steering Committee And The Programme Co-Ordinator

All organisations have different ways of structuring committees, and it may be that in forming a steering committee you will not have too much say on either its composition or governance. However, if you have the authority to structure the committee as you will, I suggest that the best structure is that of an ADVISORY BOARD, where the programme co-ordinator has executive power to make decisions, reports to the steering committee, and the steering committee in turn advises the programme co-ordinator. Otherwise, if the steering committee is given executive power to make decisions, and the roles are reversed (the programme co-ordinator advises and the steering committee decides), your programme will be in danger of becoming slow and bureaucratic.

5. How Long Should The Steering Committee Continue For?

There are three options regarding the lifespan of the steering committee:

  1. 1. It exists only to assist in the design and piloting of your mentoring / induction / retention programme - once the pilot programme has been run, and the full programme is rolled
    out, the steering committee is disbanded.
  2. After the roll-out of the full programme, the steering committee meets only at the programme co-ordinator's request, to advise on specific issues.
  3. The steering committee continues indefinitely, with a permanent role in the management of the programme.

It is up to you to decide which model works best for you, but it is essential that you make the position clear at the outset, so that the steering committee participants are not misled as to the contribution that is expected from them.

6. How Often Should The Steering Committee Meet?

This will depend on each organisation's individual needs, but a manageable timetable needs to take into account both the amount of work that needs done at any one time; and committee members availability. Here's what I find to be a workable timetable (your mileage will vary):

During The Programme Design Process: weekly

During The Programme Pilot Process: monthly

Thereafter (i.e. ongoing programme management): quarterly

Do You Need A Steering Committee?

Don't take the issue of forming a steering committee lightly - if you don't have one, you could run into political or operational difficulties down the line where the existence of a steering committee would have been exceptionally helpful. Forming a steering committee is a big decision - let's see if one is appropriate for you... This two - minute checklist will help you decide.

Checklist to establish the need for a steering committee:

  1. Does your organisation have a policy, or have you received instructions, that mandate the formation of a steering committee?

  2. Does you organisation employ more than 100 people?

  3. Do you operate on more than 2 locations of at least 50 people each?

  4. Are there more than 2 operating divisions of at least 50 people each?

  5. Do you have more than one 'programme champion' (senior management who is strongly supportive of instituting the retention / induction / mentoring programme)?

  6. Are there active opponents of the programme at senior management level?

  7. Is the implementation of the programme likely to be dependant on the outcome of a pilot programme and / or the production of a cost / benefit analysis?

  8. Are there named individuals in the organisation (other than you) who have previous experience in the design and implementation of a mentoring / retention / induction
    programme, and whose views are likely to be regarded highly with regard to your organisations programme?

  9. Can you foresee the likelihood of material disagreement at senior level regarding definitions, roles, or rules of procedure of your programme?

  10. Would you feel more comfortable personally if you had a steering committee to assist you with the implementation of your programme?

If you answered 'Yes' to Q1, obviously you must have a steering committee. If you answered 'Yes' to one or two of questions 2 through 10, you should consider the possibility of a steering committee. If you answered 'Yes' to three or more of questions 2 through 10, then you definitely should have a steering committee. If you answered 'No' to all questions, don't bother with a steering committee.

The author of this article is J. Leslie McKeown, President & CEO of Yellowbrick, who provide employee development solutions for organisations of all sizes, particularly in the areas of retention, induction and mentoring and coaching. In addition to being the author of 'The Complete Guide to Induction and Re-Induction', 'The Complete Guide to Mentoring and Coaching', and the ‘Deliver The Promise Retention MasterClass, Les travels widely, speaking and consulting on issues of employee development and corporate strategy.

Next week's follow-up article: Mentoring and coaching: What about the person being mentored?

Previous article: Mentoring - Your managers don't buy it?


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