Smaller companies often write off the idea of running a mentoring programme because they believe it will be too time-consuming and can only really work well in organisations with a large workforce and the HR resource to manage it.

The reality, however, is that it’s perfectly possible to get low-maintenance mentoring running in a smaller business – and if approached the right way, it can be a really cost-effective way of developing talent, sharing knowledge and keeping employees motivated and engaged.

employees working around a desk

The beauty of mentoring is that it is (or should be) informal, voluntary and non-hierarchical.  It gives employees the opportunity to find a ‘critical friend’, who they can talk to confidentially about their career plans, next steps or issues they may be struggling with, such as a difficult relationship with a colleague or trouble juggling workload.

It complements, rather than replaces, the relationship people have with their manager – giving them a safe space to get an outside perspective and discuss challenges and opportunities they may not want to raise through formal channels.  Mentors who have deep experience in a specialist area can also help people who are developing their skills by advising on how to approach projects and sharing tips and tricks to get the best results.

It’s a win-win for the business and employees, and it doesn’t have to be complicated or costly. So what is the best way to introduce a mentoring programme that delivers the goods without putting too much strain on HR time and resources?

Do a test run

As an HR professional, you’re probably already well-versed in the concept of mentoring and may even have had or been a mentor yourself.  If, however, you feel you need a refresher before launching it into the business, try using yourself as a guinea pig.  Offer to mentor someone, and seek a mentor yourself (either within or outside the business), to get a good sense of the kind of challenges people might come up against and what kind of support they might need.  When you feel the time is right, ask for some volunteers to help you pilot the idea internally so you can see how it lands.  You will also find a range of fact sheets and resources on the CIPD website to help you think through how best to introduce mentoring into the business.

Be clear about objectives

One of the traps many businesses fall into is introducing mentoring without a clear idea of what they actually want it to achieve.  Think about how mentoring can support the company’s overall business objectives and L&D strategy.  Does a move into new markets mean you need to strengthen staff capabilities in a particular area?  Are you struggling to find good calibre people to support ambitious growth plans? Is lack of support for new joiners leading to a retention issue?  Do you need a more robust succession plan so that the business is not left vulnerable if key people leave unexpectedly?  Making the most of mentoring in a small business means targeting your efforts in areas where it can make a real difference.

Keep it simple

You don’t need to set up a complex, admin-heavy mentoring programme with formal matching processes and costly training.  In fact, by its very nature, mentoring is an informal intervention and often works best when people are supported and encouraged, rather than heavily managed.  Get top level support for the concept and kick-start the project by getting a couple of senior people to act as advocates or role models.  If employees see their leaders actively investing time in developing others, they will want to follow suit. Put a call out for people to act as mentors and invite those who think they’d benefit from being a mentee to come forward. Make it clear the business sees mentoring as a valuable learning and development activity and that it’s OK for people to incorporate it into their working day.

Make matching easy

Formal matching processes take time and don’t always deliver the best results.  What looks like it might work well on paper doesn’t always work in practice.  The best people to make decisions about who they will gel and successfully work with are the individuals themselves.  Try helping people find their own mentors by holding ‘speed dating’ type sessions.  One approach that works well is to get people to write up on flip charts around the room what they can offer as a mentor and what they are looking for as a mentee.  If it’s difficult to do this face-to-face, you could replicate the process on your Intranet.  This helps to underline the fact that mentoring is a two-way street and that even in a smaller organisation, everyone has something to offer, regardless of their level of seniority or experience.

Provide support and resources

If people are going to get the most out of mentoring, they do need to understand the principles of how the approach works and what makes for a successful relationship.  This doesn’t mean, however, that you have to send people on lengthy and expensive training programmes. Try running a couple of ‘lunch and learn’ type sessions where you can explain what mentoring is (and isn’t) and what skills voluntary mentors will need.  The reality is that most people already have many of the skills they need to be a good mentor, they have just never thought about using them in that way.  If you’re unable to run this yourself, or feel that some people may need more support in developing skills, look for a trainer who could run a short introductory session for you or investigate what’s available via e-learning.  You can also signpost people to useful articles and checklists and point them in the direction of the many books available on the subject.  The Mentoring Pocketbook is a quick read and covers the key issues

One of the biggest challenges with mentoring is keeping the momentum going once you’ve started.  If there is very limited capacity within HR to support a programme, think about whether you could offer it as a developmental or stretch assignment to someone who would benefit from building project or people management skills.  If you can find someone who is a real advocate for learning and personal development, they will inject enthusiasm into the project and take others along with them.