“We tried mentoring once, it never really worked. Anyway, people find their own mentors informally. What I need to know is how to fill my leadership pipeline.”

I recently held a seminar on mentoring, and this was one of the stranger comments I heard, because mentoring is ideal for helping to build a leadership pipeline. It got me thinking; what makes mentoring work well?

I’ve always been involved in mentoring as a mentee and as a mentor, and I’m delighted to see the recent surge of interest in mentoring. However, I’ve also come across a range of views and opinions on what makes for a successful mentoring scheme.

Let me share my interview with the HRD of a global pharmaceutical company. We were talking about a mentoring project we had been working on, so I took the opportunity to hear her views on what she thought were the most significant factors in the success of the scheme:

Q: How did you prevent mentoring being perceived as simply another initiative from HR?

A: We spent time making sure we had a few very clear reasons for introducing mentoring, and we took the time to show how this would improve things for the operational teams. We didn’t do it just because it was a Good Thing.

Q: How did you get buy-in from other leaders in the business?

A: Getting the CEO to sponsor us was vital, and he contributed to the communication plan. Ultimately mentoring has to be driven by the functional business areas and not HR, and they need to know why it is important, what’s in it for them, and who says so!

Q: What do you think was a key factor in establishing trust in the scheme itself?

A: Remember our discussions about confidentiality in the mentor relationship? It was so important to sort this out. It helped us shape the relationship between mentor, mentee and line-manager. It is a critical issue.

Q: Initially you targeted a discrete group of people, and went for a ‘soft launch’ of the scheme. How did this work out?

A: We were right to start small. Even then, we were getting lots of ‘me too’ requests for access to a mentor. It does take time to get the right mentors and mentees recruited and briefed. Only now is it the right time for us to extend the scheme.

Q: How useful was the training?

A: Training mentors and mentees on skills for developing the relationship and holding mentor conversations was critical. You can’t assume senior people will have the right skills for mentoring. We also found that simply having senior mentors in the same training event gave them a chance to talk about our leadership values in a context that had real and current application. It also elevated the status of the scheme.

Q: How did the mentees’ line managers get involved in the scheme?

A: It was good to discuss with the mentors about how we handle the line managers. The line manager does have a peripheral but important role to play. They did not need training but they did need a full briefing about what a mentor does and does not do.

Q: Apart from training, what else did the mentors need from you?

A: We absolutely had to support our mentors. After their first few meetings, they had lots of questions and some came across sensitive situations. By creating mentor-champions in each business area, we could get coaching support in place for the mentors.

There were a number of challenges in getting a robust and sustainable scheme in place, so I asked about some of these:

Q: Has the scheme run exactly as planned?

A: Most mentees are being promoted earlier than planned, and expected to perform immediately. It is good that we are now looking at Tactical Mentoring as well as Strategic Mentoring options.

Q: You also have coaches working with some people, has this conflicted with the work of mentors?

A: When you and I first talked, you asked me how our coaching program would fit with mentoring and I was not sure why this would be an issue. Today, our mentors are also doing some coaching within the mentor meeting. We need to re-think how these work together.

In the next article I shall ask; how much coaching is involved in mentoring? These articles will be in a forthcoming guidebook.

In the meantime, I invite you to reply with any tips you can offer to ensure the success of mentoring scheme.

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