Having mentored many people over the years and advised plenty of programs, I’ve seen their uneven results. Few people today are surprised that mentoring is offered as a structured program rather than just organically and casually. That’s because there are so many more mentoring programs now than before. Women in the technology sector, startup founders and those in financial services are among the professionals who are benefiting from programs that have become almost ubiquitous. Many more women and men could benefit from having a mentor available to them, yet let’s not confuse greater numbers of programs with greater quality.
Not All Programs Are Equal
A mentor is someone who takes a personal and professional interest in someone with less experience and is committed to their growth. They offer them encouragement, challenge them to go further and give them tools and advice, some of which may stick for a lifetime. People often ask me where they can find a mentor to support their career and develop their leadership. Workplaces have them, some were started by professional associations, and others are offered by schools. Not surprisingly, there is a great variation in how they’re designed and managed. Some are well considered so that participants are carefully matched and fully supported. Others are too laissez-faire about how matches are made, and inexperienced mentors are left on their own to figure it all out. And there are programs that are far too prescriptive to allow for a variety of approaches about how to mentor, the frequency of meeting and even the domain of what to talk about.
Whatever the case, many programs don’t get renewed after their inaugural year because too many pairs stopped meeting beyond their first or second time. Or, less obviously, some programs continue to chug along year after year without much oversight or evaluation. The sponsoring business or organization is just pleased to report that they have a mentoring program.
Here’s my advice on how mentors can turn around a failing mentoring program.
Give Them Appropriate Resources
Among the other reasons why mentoring programs fail are that too often they’re resource-poor, with coordinators taking on the management of such programs in addition to all their other tasks, or they’re without the right number of administrators to manage the number of mentorships. It may be easy to pay lip service to leadership’s good idea to have a mentoring program to increase engagement, accelerate the talent pipeline or enable professional success, but it can often fall short of realizing real impact and leave people with the view that mentoring isn’t meaningful.
Of course, success isn’t all about the program specifications. Mentors themselves can benefit from learning how to elevate their game and be at their best.
Clarify What’s In It For You As A Mentor
Surprisingly for some, good mentoring doesn’t usually start with the mechanics of how it’s done. That typically comes later. A good mentoring relationship usually begins with a mentor who is clear about their reasons for offering their time. If you’ve participated in a program yourself, you know that the focus is often on the mentees, who are asked why they would like to be mentored and maybe encouraged to set goals. But what about mentors? If participating in a mentoring program is strictly charitable work, a mentor is likely to drop their commitment as soon as they seek to recover time in their busy schedule. What seemed like a good idea at the start might not in time with competing priorities and without an understanding of what motivated them to participate in the first place. That’s just disappointment for everyone waiting to happen. And it happens a lot.
Mentees deserve better and many mentors could be far clearer about their interests. Not only will it increase the probability that they’ll keep their commitment, but it also will likely translate to their greater satisfaction.
Mentors are usually motivated to help others, but they sometimes focus on the needs of the mentees to the exclusion of recognizing needs of their own. When people are encouraged to think about what drives them to be a mentor, too many mentors don’t know. Look at it this way: Wanting to be helpful might be the foundational reason for your involvement, but there are many other reasons to want to contribute in this way. Here are a few common ones. See whether any resonate with you.
• Wanting to learn about another generation — their drivers and choices and what they think about the work they do
• Seeking exposure to new ideas
• Believing that influencing the new up-and-coming leaders is vital
• Believing that mentoring a younger person is invigorating and that it can renew a sense of optimism and enhance work life
• Having curiosity about a different part of the company that’s innovating at a rapid rate
• Wanting to expand the ties between your own function and another area of the business
• Wanting to enhance your skills as a people developer
• Wanting to learn the barriers that members of underrepresented groups face and champion them
The more that mentors know about their genuine purpose for getting involved, the less likely they are to communicate mixed signals to their mentee about their availability, which is a constant source of misunderstanding across programs of many types. Mentors may also find sustaining their involvement right through to the end without distraction far easier, no matter what shows up to compete for their attention.
Naturally, good mentoring means putting your focus on the person you’re supporting. But first, get straight about your motivations and what you want out of it.
A revised version of this article appeared on Forbes.com on Feb 8 2019. Thank you to Christopher William Adach for the photo.