Effective mentoring

August 2009 » Columns » BUSINESS Q & A
Gerry Salontai

Dear Gerry,
We want to create a mentoring program to make sure the knowledge of our most experienced talent gets transferred to the up and comers in our company. We have relied on a completely voluntary approach for mentoring and it is not working very effectively. Do you have some suggestions for a formal mentoring program to get this moving?
J.M., Texas

Dear J.M.,
Clearly, mentoring is essential in creating a learning organization and maintaining a sustainable company. Mentoring can take many forms and be initiated in a variety of ways.

I don’t favor a very structured or formal mentoring program that requires individuals to participate because mentoring is such a personal initiative — one that can’t be forced. I do favor establishing a framework for such a program with a primary purpose of facilitating introduction of potential mentors and mentor candidates (protégés). Essentially, it provides a mechanism to identify those with a particular talent or experience to share with those who desire help. Consider the following in establishing a mentoring program.

First, decide where the greatest need for mentoring is in your organization and where the best benefit can be derived. It is not realistic to begin a mentoring program at all levels in your company because you may create a situation of having too much internal focus on the initiative and not enough people taking care of the business. The second through fourth levels of an organization are the most critical for mentoring (using the CEO and his or her team as the definition for the first level, their reports as the second level, etc.).

Mentors should self-identify their interest in serving, availability, and what areas of expertise they can provide. Depending on the size of the company, the CEO, senior leadership team, vice president of human resources, or a designated mentor advisory group must validate the mentor’s area of expertise. Far too often, mentors claim that they are “the best” in areas in which they really are not.

Make an effort to identify all the areas of need for the potential protégés. Poll a representative sample of these candidates, asking what their needs are to move personal learning forward. After the polling, the CEO or senior leadership team should review the identified needs to ensure all needs are captured from the perspective of the company as a whole.

A data bank of mentors and a catalogue of core experience can then be developed and shared with all staff. It is important that this information is continually communicated to all eligible participants and kept current, so assign someone this responsibility — generally an individual in the learning development or human resources area.

Developing a “culture of mentoring” is crucial for the long-term success of a sustainable learning company. Creating this culture requires that the most senior leaders in your company be engaged personally in mentoring and drive an attitude that all have a responsibility to both teach and learn. The leadership serves also as the prime facilitators in matching mentors and candidates while continuing to communicate broadly the importance of this activity.

Some final thoughts for the protégé in choosing and working with a mentor:

  • Choose mentors whom you are comfortable sitting down with and having a conversation. Mentoring cannot be forced, and if the chemistry is not present to have a casual conversation, then it will be a very difficult process.
  • Broader learning can be developed by choosing mentors whom you do not directly report to. Identify more than one mentor you can learn from in the various topics you have identified as needs, matched with their expertise. A multiple-mentor approach can accelerate learning.
  • The most effective sessions are those that are arranged for a specific date and time. Agenda topics should be prepared in advance so both the mentor and protégé can do some advance work. Also, hold sessions off-site or in a location where you are not distracted by everyday work. The “let’s just get together and chat” approach in the office yields less value.
  • Consistency is a key to success. Regular sessions are important to maintain the velocity of learning. Mentors and protégés share the responsibility to maintain regular sessions.

Good luck and let the learning begin.

Gerry Salontai leads the Salontai Consulting Group (www.salontai.com), a management advisory company focused on helping companies achieve success in the areas of strategy, business management, and leadership. He can be reached at 858-756-5169 or gerry@salontai.com. Get answers to your questions about design firm and project management, finances, marketing, and related topics by sending them to Q&A c/o: CE News, 330 N. Wabash, Suite 2525, Chicago, IL 60611, or faxing them to CE News at 312-628-5878. Include your name and telephone number in all correspondence. Your name will not be used in connection with published questions.


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