How to get mentoring into your learning and development mix

Learning is fundamental to the growth and success of any organisation, and mentoring is increasingly recognised as an essential part of the mix. It’s a personalised, focused and frequently more cost-effective way to speed up learning, improve productivity and ensure important knowledge gets shared. There’s also a positive impact on employee retention and engagement – studies have shown, for example, that people are 77% more likely to stay in a job if they are in a mentoring relationship.

The danger is that mentoring is launched with great aplomb, only to fizzle out after the initial burst of enthusiasm. The problem is almost always a lack of preparation, coupled with a culture that just doesn’t support the process.

So if you want to give your mentoring programme the best chance of success, what are the key steps to take before launching in?

1. Do we have support from key stakeholders in the business?

Getting key stakeholders on board at an early stage is vital. If the Chief Executive is an enthusiastic advocate of mentoring, others will happily follow suit. If the enthusiasm isn’t already there, don’t give up. Time is money, especially if senior staff are involved, and an untried approach may not get sign off immediately. As with any new initiative, start with the business case.

Take a look at past performance reviews and exit interviews: which skill sets were most often singled out in need of development; could they be developed through mentoring; and what would be the cost of external training. If the maths add up in favour of mentoring, you’ll stand a much better chance of gaining support from the management team.

2. Have we assessed the readiness of the organisational climate for mentoring?

Once you have sign off, there’s still a certain amount of groundwork that needs to take place if a mentoring scheme is to be effective. Encourage senior management to make it clear in all communication that informal learning is valued as much as formal taught courses and that the business is committed to helping employees develop their skills and careers. Role modelling is also important. Senior managers need to walk the talk by putting themselves forward as mentors – or indeed as mentees if you are planning to include peer to peer or reverse mentoring in your scheme.

Do people in the business understand what mentoring is, how it works and what benefits it can bring? Will managers embrace the concept enthusiastically or will they see it as a time-consuming activity which will take employees away from their day jobs? Is there a culture of learning and knowledge-sharing in the business or are people protective about what they know and locked in a silo mentality? Try organising some focus groups or informal lunchtime sessions to raise awareness of mentoring and what it can achieve and to assess what preparation you might need to do before going ahead. This will also help to whip up enthusiasm for the project and create demand among employees.

3. Are we clear about what we want a mentoring programme to achieve?

Many mentoring programmes fall by the wayside because no-one is really clear about what they are trying to achieve. Use your business case to develop and communicate clear objectives for your mentoring programme. Is the aim to help younger employees develop ‘political’ and relationship skills and understand ‘how things get done around here? Do you want to make sure that valuable specialist knowledge is shared across the business so that it is not lost for ever when employees retire or leave? Or maybe you want to use mentoring as a way to help different generations in the business develop relationships and work together more effectively? If everyone is clear about why they are doing mentoring, there is a much better chance it will deliver the right results.

4. How will we support and train participants?

There’s often an assumption that people will automatically ‘know’ how to be mentors. But while it’s a skill that comes naturally to some, others will need help to develop their capabilities. Mentees also need to be clear about their part in the process and to understand that they are equally responsible for making sure everyone gets the best out of the mentoring relationship. Before you start, explore what kind of training will work best for your organisation, whether that’s bringing in external help to run a workshop, accessing some of the resources and material you’ll find on line, or tapping into some of the initiatives run by the government. The training doesn’t have to be time consuming or expensive, but giving people the tools and techniques to support them in their role will ensure that the mentoring that takes place is high calibre and that there is a consistent approach.

5. How will we measure the effectiveness of the mentoring programme?

It’s important to think about how you will evaluate the success of your mentoring efforts before you start. It will be hard to justify asking for more time/resources/budget to continue the scheme if you can’t show in some way what it is achieving. A good HR software system will help you track retention rates, performance and career moves, but you can wire informal feedback into your mentoring scheme too.

Encourage mentees to complete a learning log so they can monitor what new skills or insights they are developing as a result of their mentoring relationships. Try organising regular check-ins with managers too, to collate information about what difference in skills and capabilities they have noticed among employees who are being mentored. A combination of factual and anecdotal evidence will help you demonstrate just how much mentoring is supporting the business and helping it develop the talent it will need to remain competitive.

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