Mentors

Why Workplace Mentoring Programs Fail

A mishandled mentoring program can end up doing more harm than good.
Why Workplace Mentoring Programs Fail
Image credit: Ingolf Hatz | Getty Images
6 min read
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It’s no secret formal mentoring programs can increase employee engagement. They’ve even been proven to increase promotions for mentors and mentees five to six times more than non-participating employees. But if a mentoring program is mishandled, it can ultimately do more harm than good. In fact, negative mentoring experiences can have more lasting effects than positive ones. Research has even found that poor mentoring experiences can lead to lasting physical and psychological effects. A bad interaction can also erode trust and confidence in an employer. Yet, many of the mistakes we see in mentoring programs are entirely preventable.

So what are the pitfalls to watch out for? Based on experience helping Fortune 500 companies build impactful mentoring programs, here are the five areas where I’ve seen mentoring programs go wrong.

Related: Gary Vaynerchuk's Best Advice on Self-Awareness and Mentorship

1. Flaws in mentoring program design.

Often times, program owners hear mentoring and want to get right to launching the program. That enthusiasm is great, but if you don’t identify the program’s purpose or success metrics, you may not be happy with the results. And while mentoring for the sake of mentoring checks the good deed box, it isn’t enough to create sustainable impact.

To create a successful mentoring program, define clear business objectives for why you’re starting the program, and align these objectives with the strategic goals of the organization. You might be looking to increase overall employee retention, or increase the number of women or minority employees in leadership positions. Identifying the objectives up front will help align mentoring program outcomes with the milestones of the business, illustrating to senior leaders why mentoring should be a priority for the organization moving forward. With clear business objectives, you can also pinpoint the right type of mentoring to implement in order to reach these goals.

2. Poorly constructed matches.

High-quality mentor matching paves the way for successful mentoring down the road. It can also be the trickiest part of a mentoring program to get right. For mentoring to thrive, you need solid mentor/mentee relationships. Using the wrong matching model could produce disgruntled participants and ultimately low participation. Similarly, consider the number of mentors and mentees you’re trying to match. A group of 20 might be easily matched by one admin, but what happens when that number grows to 50 or 100? Mentoring programs that have broken down over this step often misjudged the time it would take to match mentors and mentees, or the impact complex matching criteria would have on creating initial match options. Don’t misjudge the time needed to make matches according to complex matching criteria.

Related: Requiem for a Mentor

In order to provide optimal mentor-mentee matches, identify which type of matching is best for your organization. Whether this is self-matching, admin-matching or a hybrid, understand your target audience and their needs in order to create a thoughtful process. For example, with an employee population that is very preference-oriented (wants a mentor with a certain job function, tenure, skillset or beyond), you’ll want to allow them to have a say in the match with a self-matching model. If the leadership team has identified the potential employees who would make good mentors and mentees, then you will want an admin-matching model in order to control the connections. Maintaining high quality matching across all participants requires a staff, system or software equipped to handle the process. Make sure you’re ready to meet this task.

3. No participant direction within the mentoring connection.

Mentoring isn’t necessarily intuitive. Getting started on the right foot can take a little training, especially if it is someone’s first time. Programs without instructions for participants often receive feedback of mentors and mentees feeling unprepared. Again, this leads to a poor experience and can cause program dropouts. It’s important to understand what challenges your participants may experience in order to build proper support.

The most successful programs provide training to mentors and mentees regarding program goals, participant roles and mentoring best practices. Include tips for having a productive mentoring meeting and how to share constructive feedback. Help mentors and mentees clarify their own objectives, and stick to these goals over the course of the mentorship. Guidelines help keep everyone on track and productive rather than simply having "nice conversations."

4. Low mentoring program participation.

The dread of "what if no one participates" haunts the dreams of any employee development program owner. A mentoring program is no different. Do not be lured into the false notion that if you build it, they will come. Organizations that build a mentoring program, only to set it and leave it once it launches, are gravely disappointed. Enthusiasm doesn’t always lead to participation.

Like any other employee program, marketing is key. Building a proper marketing plan around the mentoring program can be the difference between its prosperity or demise. Whether through emails and flyers or intranet messages and information panels, make sure your target audience understands why it’s in their best interest to participate. Mentors are often busy people. How can you convince them this is the right commitment to include in their schedules? And remember, promoting your mentoring program doesn’t stop after initial launch. For ideal participation rates, you have to consistently remind mentors and mentees, as well as new prospects, what mentoring can do for them.

Related: Why Good Mentors Don't Tell You What to Do

5. Limited mentoring program data.

Finally, a mentoring program must show real impact. If not, it becomes a nice-to-have program. And the thing about nice-to-haves is they often become used-to-haves. Organizations fall short when they fail to track program data. Without correlating activity to impact, mentoring programs very rarely pass the organizational goal threshold, and are quickly discarded -- long before their true effects can take hold.

Make sure the right KPIs are built into the program plan and are being measured. Strong mentoring programs follow mentors and mentees to see if they have higher promotion rates and retention rates compared to employees not in the program. Whether through surveys, performance reviews, job band tracking or otherwise, data is vital to the progression and scalability of your mentoring program.

When made up of only good intentions, mentoring programs often fail. But when crafted, launched and maintained under watchful precision, they can be used to provide employees with great development and learning opportunities that strengthen an organization.

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