This post was written by Lauren Trees, a research program manager at member-based nonprofit APQC, the world’s foremost authority in benchmarking, best practices, process and performance improvement, and knowledge management.
Interest in workplace mentoring programs has heated up in recent years as companies look for ways to hold onto younger employees and help them move up the ranks.
On the surface, mentoring can seem like an easy, cost-effective way to provide millennials with the learning and development opportunities they clamor for. After all, these programs tap into the latent knowledge and capabilities of the existing workforce instead of requiring investments in classroom training or external consultants. But a sustainable mentoring program requires a large supply of capable and committed employee mentors, and it can be difficult to persuade leaders, experts and high-performers to add mentoring to their hectic schedules.
Organizations that want to succeed with mentoring need to pay close attention to both the qualifications they seek in mentors and the recruitment tools they use to get people to sign up.
What makes a good mentor?
The profile of an ideal mentor depends, at least to some extent, on the goals of the mentoring program in question. For mentoring designed to transfer job-specific knowledge, most organizations choose mentors based on their mastery of the knowledge to be imparted.
In some cases, the mentor must be a true subject-matter expert; in others, he/she needs only a certain threshold of knowledge and experience in the field the mentee wants to learn about. Some organizations also look for soft skills in their knowledge-transfer mentors, but these requirements must necessarily be secondary to topical expertise.
For mentoring that focuses on more general guidance around career counseling and soft skills development, however, organizations tend to minimize participation requirements in order to make their programs as inclusive as possible while securing a sufficient number of mentors. Beyond the basics like a certain number of years at the company and acceptable performance ratings, qualifications tend to focus on the desire to share and give back. The general sentiment is that, if employees are excited to participate and willing to commit their time, they have already overcome the biggest obstacle; more specific qualifications (such as the soft skills needed to interact effectively in mentoring relationships) can be acquired through training and experience.
APQC’s research found that, no matter what goals an organization pursued through mentoring, attracting qualified mentors in sufficient numbers to meet mentee demand is a common challenge.
The mentoring programs featured in the research leverage a range of strategies to address this issue. For example, several intentionally build flexibility into their processes to accommodate mentors who would rather keep mentorships informal and undocumented; others have streamlined mentoring commitments to better accommodate mentors’ busy schedules. However, even with these adjustments, the programs must undertake proactive recruiting strategies to attract and retain mentors. Since this recruitment relies on personal communication and outreach, it is a big part of the behind-the-scenes support that program leaders and administrators provide to their mentoring initiatives.
Because of the high demand for mentors within Cardinal Health’s various mentoring programs, Susan Moss of the company's enterprise-wide mentoring program spends a lot of time communicating the benefits and urging candidates to sign up. “Recruiting is an ongoing effort,” she said. “You always have to build that pipeline of mentors.” She actively recruits mentors by presenting to leadership groups, functional area groups, and employee resource groups across the organization.
“There is no way I can talk to everybody,” she said, “but I try to talk to enough people that they can share the message with their respective groups.”
Information about mentoring is available in the employee development section of the HR website and via intranet newsletters that feature top-rated mentors talking about their mentoring experience and what they’ve gotten out of it. “I feel like a sales person, constantly promoting and encouraging people to just try it,” Moss said.
Praxair devotes similar energy to ongoing mentor recruitment for its two-year leadership technical orientation program (LTOP). According to Barb Jordan, global market development director for knowledge management, the program’s biggest challenge is securing mentors with the time to fully embrace and support the program.
“If we’re not careful, we risk burning out individuals that are passionate about mentoring,” she said. “Time constraints impact mentor availability and may at times undermine their commitment to the program; this can reduce some mentors’ ability to work closely with mentees.”
To secure a sufficient quantity of mentors, Praxair recruits high-potential employees based on performance ratings. According to program representatives, the most effective strategy is to ask managers for recommendations and then directly approach those employees with information about the program. Praxair also asks former LTOP mentors to give presentations on the benefits of volunteering time to younger co-workers.
Boeing faces similar challenges with engagement in its engineering mentoring program. According to program leaders, it is a continuing effort to get employees to check the box within the organization’s business networking platform that indicates they are available to mentor. Individuals in specific roles (e.g., fellows) are required to participate, but most others enter only the most basic information into their profiles.
To combat this problem, Boeing’s HR group uses information sessions and an instructional website to communicate the benefits of making oneself available for mentoring. Boeing HR also promotes mentoring success stories through its communities of practice and reaches out to managers, who can encourage senior employees to mentor as a way to increase capacity and build bench strength on their teams.
The messaging promotes the educational benefits of participating as a mentor, since feedback indicates that mentors learn just as much as their mentees. According to program representatives, positive word of mouth and peer endorsements are crucial to driving participation.
GovLoop Government Social Media and Knowledge Network, which runs an industrywide mentoring program for federal, state, and local government, concurs that personal outreach is crucial to mentor recruitment.
When GovLoop launched its program, program leaders handpicked mentors they believed would be suited to the task, often based on their own interactions and experiences with the individuals. Along with sending email announcements, the program leaders reached out personally to solicit prospective mentors. They also asked these contacts to recommend additional candidates from their networks. Although the program developed a more formal mentor-application process as it expanded, personal invitations still play a big part in securing mentors.
MD Anderson Cancer Center’s mentoring program involves less overt recruitment, but the organization does host an annual conference called “mentoring day” that helps attract potential mentors to the program. This event allows employees to learn more about the mentoring options at the organization and how they can get involved.
Finding enough high-quality mentors to meet demand is no easy task, and organizations that are serious about mentoring need to proactively market their programs in order to lure potential mentors.
Although intranet sites, information sessions, and email campaigns are part of the equation, it’s important not to ignore more individualized approaches. Program managers should be prepared to get in touch with qualified candidates, explain why they would be great mentors, and pitch the benefits of participation. They should also extend their reach by enlisting managers and past/current mentors to refer strong candidates from among their direct reports and personal networks.
Usually, organizations that combine formal communciations, positive word of mouth, and personal outreach achieve the most success in terms of building their mentor pipelines.
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