Corporate mentoring programmes are making something of a comeback. They help to ensure that knowledge can be transferred in all directions: up, down and sideways. They also recognise that we all have things that we can learn from each other. But what are they all about, and what do you need to know about them?

Frequently used, with many benefits

Huge numbers of companies now have corporate mentoring programmes. The most well-known corporate mentoring programmes may be in some of the big tech companies, but in total, around 70% of Fortune 500 companies have a formal or informal mentoring programme. That is, by anyone’s standards, a large proportion of companies.

Mentoring programmes have a number of benefits for businesses. The most obvious is that new and more junior employees get to learn more about the business and develop their skills in a very business-centred way. This is unlike, say, external training courses, which are often much more general. Mentoring also ensures that knowledge is not lost when someone decides to leave the company. It also, however, has some more unexpected benefits. For example, companies with strong mentoring programmes report that they support the development of a healthy corporate culture of learning from each other. 

Purpose, format, style and participant qualification

Mentoring programmes support and drive personal development.Well-run mentoring programmes do not just support a culture of learning. They also provide practical assistance for rapid personal development. For example, they give those who are mentored double opportunities for learning: from their manager, and from their mentor. This can really accelerate personal development, particularly if mentors and managers have complementary skills. 

The most effective programmes are designed around four key aspects: purpose, format, style and participants. The purpose of the mentoring programme drives everything else. You therefore need to define this first. Once you have done that, you can easily identify the right participants. Decisions about format and style then follow from those first two. You may want the programme to be formal and structured, or much more informal and participant-led. Ultimately, this will depend on what suits your purpose and participants. 

The objectives of mentoring programmes must be linked to overall corporate objectives. We often talk about strategic alignment, or the way in which activities within an organisation fit with the overall goals. This is also true for mentoring programmes. To be effective, the objectives of a mentoring programme must be designed to support organisational goals. They must also fit with the organisation’s overall culture and values. 

Sponsorship and knowledge flow

Top management support is vital to get a mentoring programme ‘off the ground’—and keep it there. There is no question that few projects thrive for long without commitment from senior managers. However, this is perhaps even more true for mentoring programmes, because they often depend heavily on senior managers and executives to act as mentors for those in the level below. The organisation therefore needs to be fully committed to the idea and practice of mentoring.

Mentoring does not have to be just a top-down process. Programmes often struggle to find enough mentors to satisfy demand. On one level, this is good, because it means that the organisation is full of self-motivated learners, keen to improve. However, it can also be frustrating for would-be learners if they cannot find a mentor. One way round this is to be more flexible about the nature of mentoring relationships. Ask staff at all levels to identify their strong skills, and encourage peer or even bottom-up mentoring. This encourages a much more open culture, recognising that everyone can learn from each other, and that learning is not simply a matter of senior-to-junior information transfer.

Measurement

As with any other corporate programme or initiative, it is important to assess whether your mentoring programme has been a success. This means measuring it against its goals and objectives—whatever those were. It is therefore essential to measure the state of play before the programme starts, and then monitor progress. It is also important, however, to remember that mentoring programmes may sometimes have unexpected effects, such as a change in the corporate culture. Ultimately, these may even turn out to be more valuable than the planned benefits. Wise organisations therefore take steps to assess and monitor corporate mentoring in more than just the obvious ways.

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