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How to Get Mentorship Right (Hint: It's Not What You Think)

One thing I often hear, both from organizations and from the employees within, is “We need a mentorship program.”  And yet, once I’ve dug a little deeper, 90% of the time a mentorship program is not what’s needed. 


And while this might be an unpopular opinion, I’d go so far as to lump “We need a mentorship program” into the same category as “My employees are leaving for more money,” or “My team isn’t engaged because they want more money.” To me, statements like these are akin to a blinking neon sign pointing to bigger organizational issues. 


For the record, I have no beef with mentorship. My quibble instead is with poorly managed mentorship programs, which are often administratively burdensome and don’t produce the desired outcomes. 


Here’s why.



When are mentorship programs the wrong solution?


Mentorship is not a fix for systemic issues. Mentoring addresses individual development and doesn’t address broader organizational issues. While it can help individuals gain new skills and insights, if an organization is struggling with an unhealthy culture, murky communication, or lack of leadership, mentorship isn’t the answer. Instead, companies should work on a larger level to address these macro issues.


Mentoring is not a substitute for training and development programs. While mentoring can provide valuable on-the-job learning experiences, it’s not a replacement for formal training and development programs. Employees require a range of learning opportunities to build their skills and advance their careers, including structured training courses, informal learning, and stretch assignments. While mentorship can be an important complement to these things, for best results it should be paired with a rigorous approach to talent development.


Mentorship is not easily scalable. Mentorship requires a significant time commitment from both mentors and mentees, something that’s difficult to sustain as programs grow. As the number of participants increases, it also gets harder to ensure that mentors and mentees are properly matched, which can lead to pairings that might not offer the level of support and guidance that’s needed. Finally, as anyone who’s ever run a formal mentorship program knows, it’s a very manual process! The human power needed to oversee matching, scheduling, and assessment can quickly become unwieldy as the program scales. AI solutions are helping, but not every company budgets for this investment. All these factors make it hard to maintain the quality of mentorship programs as they grow.


Mentorship programs can negatively impact DEI efforts. Yes, you read that right. If not carefully managed, mentorship programs can actually exacerbate organizational problems with inequity and bias. Research shows that mentorship programs often favor those who are already privileged within the organization, such as high performers or those from dominant social groups. This means that individuals from underrepresented groups may be less likely to access mentorship opportunities, further exacerbating existing disparities in the workplace.


When can mentorship help?

Now, while mentorship programs can be administratively burdensome and have some of the negative effects listed above, mentorship in and of itself has some great benefits. (In fact, mentoring relationships over time have been incredibly impactful in my own career.) That said, these benefits have the most impact when tailored to the individual's needs and strengths. In other words, mentorship is most successful when it’s not a formal, one-size-fits-all program owned by HR, but rather a flexible development experience enabled by HR and leadership.

Managers are likely just as equipped (if not more) than HR to identify individuals who would benefit from mentorship.

In this context, HR can guide when and how mentorship has the most impact, but at the end of the day, managers are likely just as equipped (if not more) than HR to identify individuals who would benefit from mentorship, and to help create the structure and environment for both the mentor(s) and mentee to flourish – for example, in the scenarios I’ve outlined below.


Supporting the next generation of leaders. Mentorship can be a lifeline for younger workers. Many Gen Z workers, in particular, graduated from college remotely without a network and have been largely stranded working at home ever since. And because they haven’t had a traditional office experience, many of them don’t understand how important having a mentor can be to your career – because they’ve never seen it in action. Mentorship can help younger workers understand the power of professional networks and accelerate them into leadership positions, something that’s particularly important as organizations look to strengthen their talent pipelines.


Enabling career transitions/stretch roles. Mentorship can be a critical support in helping employees transition into new roles within the company and providing them with the guidance and support they need to succeed in their new positions. This is especially important during talent shortages like the current one we’re facing.

Broad workforce participation still remains well below pre-pandemic levels, so companies with robust internal talent strategies – of which mentorship can be a key component – have a clear strategic advantage.

Promoting specific aspects of diversity and inclusion. As I pointed out earlier, when not structured properly, mentorship programs can have negative impacts on DEI. However, when set up in an intentional way, mentorship can do a lot to help promote diversity and inclusion. Because while finding an informal mentor is hard for many people, it’s especially difficult for employees from diverse backgrounds. These workers are the ones who benefit most from intentional, HR-enabled mentorship, which gives them opportunities to connect with senior leaders and develop their skills, things that often translate into retaining these workers at higher rates.


Facilitating smooth succession planning. Organizations looking to ensure a smooth transition during periods of leadership changes or succession can benefit significantly from intentional mentorship. When senior executives actively work with potential successors to facilitate knowledge transfer and get new leaders up to speed, everyone wins. Organizations that encourage this 1:1 support will find themselves well-prepared when it comes time to pass the leadership torch.


Tapping into a diverse set of expertise. I couldn’t leave this topic without sharing that I am a fan of personal advisory boards. This is a fantastic way to gain knowledge from more than one individual, spreading your network further, and your exposure to experiences. A successful advisory board includes mentors who satisfy different aspects of our lives or gaps in knowledge and experience. This can be particularly impactful early in a career journey or at a career pivot.


When it comes down to it, mentorship programs can be hugely beneficial - but only when implemented thoughtfully and in the right context with clear outcomes and committed participants.  As HR professionals, our role is to discern the most fitting support for our employees while addressing the organization's core issues. Sometimes, a mentorship program aligns perfectly with the needs, but recognizing when it's not the answer and digging deeper into the organization's concerns is equally crucial.


Interested in learning more about building human workplaces? Send me a note at Katherine@worksproutpartners.com.


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