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How corporate mentoring can work for your company

5 min read


Beth N. Carvin is president and CEO of Nobscot, which describes itself as “the pioneer in exit-interview management software” and also provides corporate-mentoring services. Carvin has more than two decades of experience in business management and human resources, including stints as HR and business-development officer at BancWest and managing partner at Excel Employment. She is a member of the Society for Human Resource Management and has taught classes for the American Institute of Bankers. I recently asked her about mentoring programs and what companies need to know before taking them on.

How has mentoring changed in recent years?

From a corporate mentoring program, it has grown. Because managing a mentoring program can be cumbersome, companies tended to limit the size and scope of mentoring programs. Today with technology, HR and learning and development, managers can offer both specialty-type mentoring programs such as those for high-potential employees, diversity networks and new hires, plus general mentoring programs so all employees can participate.

Another change is the addition of group mentoring, which we are now seeing in the form of online groups with a particular mentoring and development focus.

Can a mentor/mentee relationship be forced? What’s needed beyond a natural connection?

One of the things the research on mentoring is very clear on is that the more the mentee is involved in the selection of their mentor, the better the outcome of the mentorship. Having an outside person or computer algorithm make the match without any input from the mentee is a risky proposition. Unless the administrator knows the participants extremely well and the mentorship is focused on a very particular development need, it’s best to allow the mentee to participate in the selection of their mentor.

Likewise, for a computer algorithm to be effective, the profile form would need to be inordinately long and cumbersome. The best approach is technology-assisted, where mentees can search for mentors based on a wide variety of criteria to meet their various mentoring goals and objectives.

To the second part of the question, there is an interesting piece of research that says that a natural connection is not needed for the mentoring relationship to be successful. I’m skeptical of that result though. In our experience, in the best mentorships there is a natural affinity between mentor and mentee. Most important is that the objectives of the mentee align with the knowledge, experience and expertise of the mentor.

When is formal mentoring the best choice? When is informal preferable?

Mentoring programs tend to run along a spectrum from very informal to very formal. On one end, you have organizations that encourage mentoring but provide little in the way of resources. On the other, you have highly formal program with extensive mentoring contracts that must be signed and multiple activities and trainings that participants are required to attend. Somewhere in between the two is a nice happy medium of program that provides guidance in helping mentees connect with mentors and some assistance as needed for how to conduct the mentorship.

Also important are tools for the administrators of the program to manage and measure the success of the program. The administrators need to be able to keep the program energized and build enthusiasm around the program. Showing how mentoring has made an impact in the success of the individuals and the organization makes that easy to do.

Highly formal programs are best when there is a small mentoring program for a specific audience such as high-potential executives. In that case, all the participants are well-known to the administrators and the needs of each mentee are clearly delineated.

How do generation gaps affect mentoring programs, particularly when the mentor is younger?

There is some academic research that shows the optimal age difference where the mentor is a certain number of years older than the mentee. The concept is that too close in age and they are like a peer, and too distant in age and the mentor becomes a parental figure. I’m not sure how much accuracy there is in that, but it’s interesting to consider.

Reverse mentoring, where the mentor is younger than the mentee, generally works best if there is a specific subject matter in which the younger mentee is an expert. This can also play out well in a group mentoring format where you have a few younger mentors and some more senior mentees learning about a particular subject matter.

The interesting thing is that in most mentoring relationships, even if the mentee is the younger person, the mentor gains just as much if not more than the mentee. You don’t have to be the mentee to learn and benefit from the mentoring relationship.

How do you measure success? What role does self-reporting play?

Success for the individual mentorship is best measured by setting and achieving specific goals. Goals can be broken down into steps and each step actively worked on by the mentee with guidance from the mentor.

Success of the mentoring program can be measured by participation, active mentorships, goals achieved, increased commitment to the organization (as measured via survey), increased employee retention (as measured via employee turnover analysis of those in the mentoring program versus those not in the program), and promotions/career growth for those in the program.