Client satisfaction. Employee retention. Succession planning. These are not simply corporate buzz phrases. They are the competitive edge that differentiates a great company from all the rest. Mentoring is the critical component, and awareness of its importance has increased to the point that few question its value.

As a result, many companies have implemented mentoring programs. Unfortunately, without thoughtful program design, few of them succeed at fully engaging both the mentors and the mentees in a long-term, transformative relationship. To help companies understand how to create a successful mentoring program, we interviewed several Nashville business leaders to understand their experience.Quote

We started by looking at how transformative a good mentoring experience can be. When talking with Carolyn Kitts of Gresham, Smith & Partners, she shared a memorable experience:

“My first experience with a mentor was when I was working as an administrative assistant for the President of the company. I was hardworking, but lacked self-confidence. He saw something in me that I didn’t see I myself and he spent time helping and coaching me. It is because of him that I have the success I have now.” – Carolyn Kitts

For some leaders, such as Traci Nordberg of Vanderbilt University Medical Center, her transformative mentoring experience also came from a boss:

“Early on, I had a great boss at a critical time of my career. That person put me in situations I didn’t know I could handle, but he saw ability in me that I wasn’t aware of.” – Traci Nordberg

No matter who you have a mentoring experience with, according to Carolyn Kitts, “Being open and honest is what is needed to break through and have a great relationship.”

There are two schools of thought surrounding mentoring programs. Some favor informal mentoring where the mentoring relationship develops organically and both parties become invested in the growth process, as in the case of both Carolyn and Traci. Others believe a more formal approach is better because it ensures that mentors and mentees connect and provides a set of guidelines for how they can build a successful and productive relationship.

Both types of mentoring programs can be valuable and which one you choose depends on your organizational culture and resources you have available. Implementing a formal mentoring program can be challenging and requires a delicate balance of support and flexibility. If your company decides to undertake a formal mentoring program, here are some best practices to help ensure your program is successful.Best Practices

KISS – As best you can, keep it simple. Less is usually better.

Provide Guidelines and Training – Do not assume mentors and mentees know what to do. Provide guidelines on what is appropriate and what is not. Mentees need to be clear on what skills they want to develop from the relationship. That will determine which mentors to select. Mentors need to know what is expected of them in terms of time and preparation. Are they simply sharing their experiences or are they preparing the mentee for their next challenge or growth opportunity?

Flexibility – One size does not fit all. Each mentee will have a different set of goals and ideals they want from the relationship, so make sure your program can accommodate their unique needs. Suggest topics for their meetings to help them get started, but allow the latitude for the meetings to evolve to meet the needs of the relationship. The more you try to control things, the less likely it will work. The more flexibility you offer, the more likely it will work.

Reporting Structure – Although many bosses make great mentors, in a formal mentoring program you must make sure the mentor and mentee are not in the same chain of command. The success of a mentoring relationship depends on the mentee’s ability to safely and candidly share their experiences without fear of retribution. This is also a strong argument for encouraging external mentors.

Chemistry – It is critical that the mentor and mentee have chemistry with one another and are able to establish a good rapport. Without it, a lack of commitment to one another will likely surface and the relationship will fall apart. Giving the mentee more than one mentor to choose from and see who they connect with will help ensure a more successful relationship.

In discussing mentoring in relation to the overall leadership development strategy, everyone agreed that mentoring is an important strategy for growing the organization. Although mentoring can be used to address specific issues, it is usually used to develop leaders and help them advance to the next level in their careers. Mentors play an important role in helping mentees see and understand what success at the next level looks like and how to get there. They share their experiences both positive and negative as learning opportunities.

Best Practices

Evaluating organizational resources is a must when developing a mentoring program. For example, when talking with Traci Nordberg, she said, “It required a lot of organizational resources to do a mentoring program.” Not having sufficient resources is a common challenge among organizations. The smaller the organization, the less resources you have available; the larger the organization the more likely you will need a dedicated team to run the program.

Encourage employees to seek external mentors, particularly in high level positions where peers become scarce. External mentors bring an outside-the-box, objective perspective. Conversations are viewed as safe and can be extremely productive at solving challenges and understanding how to maneuver politics at the senior levels. Ginger Duncan of Ingram Barge had external mentors and said, “External mentoring gives you a perspective that you may not have because you get too silo focused in your world.”

Whether you decide to have an informal mentoring program or a formal one, internal or external, there is no question that mentoring will generate positive outcomes in your organization.

If you have additional questions on how to best integrate mentoring into your organization, contact your local CPI office.