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Effective mentoring, the structure of learning relationships


Kyla Nicholson, Consultant
Caliber Leadership Systems

Effective mentoring – the structure of learning relationshipsEffective mentoring is far from easy. While companies recognize the value of mentoring programs and commit to implementing them in their workplaces, many fail to recognize the structure and skills required to make a relationship-based, informal feedback development process, such as a mentoring program, work. Effective mentoring takes planning.

Maybe the connotations of the words “informal” and “relationship” have created the perception that once people are paired together, they will automatically know what to do. Case study after case study proves that this is not the case.

Creating a successful mentoring program is more complex than playing matchmaker and crossing your fingers and hoping it works. What will support you to succeed?

Six tips for building effective mentoring programs
1.    A purposeful purpose: For some this may come as a surprise, but learning and development is not the purpose of your mentoring program – it is the way that your mentoring program achieves its unique purpose. Each company has its own strategies, culture, and challenges. From building the tolerance for change required to drive a new organizational strategy, to addressing specific learning gaps critical to your company’s evolution, your mentoring program is a tool that can support you to target the skill and behavioural development needed to overcome your organization’s unique challenges and meet your strategy.

2.    Avoid pitfalls with process: Being a mentor, being a mentee, having a mentoring relationship — these are all things that mean different things to different people. It’s up to you to decide – what do these things mean for your organization? Support your mentoring program in a way that will make it successful; focus on defining expectations for your participants (mentors and mentees) and providing guidelines for interactions, outcomes (goal setting), and development activities with the flexibility to suit a wide range of needs. Include guidelines for bringing the relationship to a mutually satisfying and no-fault conclusion. This will prevent mentoring from moving forward without direction or simply dying off after a while.

3.    Matchmaking like a pro: A matchmaker without clear objectives and expectations is destined to struggle to make the “match made in heaven”. Once the mentoring program has a clear purpose and there are clear expectations for participation, putting in place criteria for mentors and mentees entering the program supports the organization to target and build meaningful relationships that will develop talent in ways that align with the program’s overall objectives. Key considerations:

•    What knowledge, skills, and behaviours are required to drive toward the purpose?
•    Who will need the knowledge, skills, and behaviours for the purpose to be realized?
•    Who already has the knowledge, skills, and behaviours?
•    Who is open to the experience?

4.    Training and tools: Relationship building is a skill. Relationship building in a condensed timeframe in a combined work and learning environment is an art. Setting mentors and mentees up for success means providing them with the training and tools that they need to understand the requirements of the program and to participate effectively in the mentoring relationship. This means training to build the skills for relationship building, goal setting, supporting, and troubleshooting challenges. Mentoring is a two-way street and training should happen for both mentors and mentees. Similarly, tools should be intended for cooperative use – mentoring contracts, development planning tools, etc. – to clarify expectations and outcomes, and solidify the relationship.

5.    Measure and refine: Did the mentoring program fulfill its purpose? Measuring the results involves two steps. Did mentees meet their development goals in their own mentoring relationships? Did business outcomes linked to the program purpose improve as a result? In addition, assessment of participants (mentor and mentee) satisfaction with all aspects of the program (from training to relationship wrap up) should be undertaken to identify needed refinements to support the program to achieve its intended purpose.

6.    Senior leadership buy-in: Yes, we’ve all heard it a million times before, and agreeing with the principle has become a no-brainer, but what does it look like in your organization? Buy-in from your leaders is more than a memo from the CEO announcing another “exciting new program”. It’s a commitment from program design from review to refinement that shows mentoring participants that there is recognized value in the initiative and there will be resources in place to support and grow the program. The outcome is a cycle of buy-in circulating through all levels of the organization.

Mentoring programs have a unique ability to simultaneously build mutually beneficial learning relationships, increase expertise and leadership bench-strength, and address current organizational challenges and build alignment with the organization’s strategy; however, their value is not realized in the absence of applying flexible structural elements to the typically perceived “information relationship learning”.

Is your mentoring program achieving maximum impact?

Related to effective mentoring
•    New hire training: paving the way for new staff
•    Employee retention programs – ideas for retaining staff
•    Employee retention programs
•    Company culture as a recruiting technique
•    Employer branding
•    Being an employer of choice


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