figurine of Yoda, the ultimate mentor

How Mentoring Programs Encourage Employee Engagement

July 27,2020 Learning and Development
Virginia Backaitis
By Virginia Backaitis

Gone are the days when getting a mentor involved walking up to someone whose career you admired and popping the question, "Will you be my mentor?" Sure, some mentor-mentee relationships still start that way, but an increasing number of employers are providing career guidance and job-related and situational advice via company-sponsored mentorship programs.

According to the American Society for Training and Development more than 71% of Fortune 500 companies (paywall) have formal mentorship programs. Great as that might sound, only 37% of workers claim to have a mentor according to an Olivet Nazarene University survey.

The Multifold Benefits of Mentorship

If the figures are correct, that’s a shame because mentor/mentee relationships can be game-changing according to Brad Johnson, co-author of the classic, "The Elements of Mentoring."

“Over five decades of research we’ve learned that people who have great mentors do better. They get more promotions. They’re more confident. They get higher performance ratings. They have better networks. They make more money and they are more committed to their jobs. A good mentor can change a life,” explained Johnson. 

In case it isn't obvious, Johnson’s research also shows that companies win when their employees are mentored because they become better, more engaged performers as a result of the process.

Not only that, but the mentors themselves typically benefit as well, according to a study conducted by Michael Gill, associate professor at the University of Oxford and Thomas Roulet, senior lecturer in Organization Theory at the University of Cambridge.

“Our experiment results showed that people who served as mentors experienced lower levels of anxiety, and described their job as more meaningful, than those who did not mentor,” they wrote in the Harvard Business Review article, "Stressed at Work? Mentoring a Colleague Could Help."

Related Article: The Benefits and Challenges of Remote Mentorship Programs

Mentorship Programs Come in All Shapes and Sizes

All of that said, it only makes sense for companies to build mentoring cultures, provide mentor training and take advantage of the many forms of mentoring programs. These can be rolled out and maintained with the help of software programs which use employee data and algorithms to match workers with mentors, track engagement, feedback and progress. Johnson, half-joking, called this kind of matchmaking the “eHarmony of mentoring.” Cheesy as that may sound, he cautioned against ignoring these kinds of programs.

Here are some types of mentorships commonly used in today’s working world:

Onboarding Mentors

Starting a new job is stressful. New hires worry about whether they’ll fit in, will be able to do the work and get along with the boss. At companies like IBM, new hires are paired with “connection coaches” even before they start their jobs. Other companies like Microsoft assign “onboarding buddies.” These tenured employees, who often work in the same department, can provide context such as who the relevant stakeholders are, create awareness of unspoken and unwritten rules, and so on. These pairs generally spend three to 12 hours together over a 90-day period, so it isn’t much of a burden on the mentor’s back.

But the meetings do need to happen regularly. Microsoft, for example, sends automated reminders to mentors, mentees and their managers. Worth noting: The mentor should be someone who has stepped up to the role without hesitation.

What’s the win? New hires tend to become productive more quickly and the company benefits as a result. Mentors often feel more engaged and more confident and are more likely to be seen by management as leadership material.

Related Article: Improve Your Onboarding for a Better Employee Experience

Mentor Matching

Managers in charge of mentoring programs used to use Excel spreadsheets with the names of, and information about, individuals asking for or needing mentors. That information was matched with data about those who volunteered or agreed to serve in that capacity. Many of those who were responsible for administering and tracking their progress were disappointed in the quality and quantity of engagement and subsequent results.

"We put a lot of thought into the (matching process) and our success rate was 65-70%," according to Tobias Olson, leader development program manager at the Loy Institute for Leadership at the US Coast Guard Academy. That figure frustrated him because he felt the stakes were so high.

After much research, Olson brought in software to do the matchmaking. It asked prospective mentees to answer questions like “tell me about yourself,” “what are you looking for in a mentor?” as well as multiple choice questions about demographics and more. The data collected was then mashed-up and fed into an algorithm, similar to what dating sites might do. Mentees, to this day, are presented with a list of mentors to choose from. If they do not like any of them, they can readjust the weight of the criteria. Olson said the program now sees about 97% engagement. One of the bright spots of this approach is that mentoring administrators can monitor and measure engagement so if things are not going well, new arrangements can be made.

Mentoring Circles

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is often credited for inventing mentoring circles (Sandberg calls them Lean In circles). They consist of groups of five to seven workers who gather to discuss specific topics such as time management, managing up, working moms, how to work at home when everyone’s home, how to ask for a promotion, racial inequity in the workplace and so on.

Members of the circles typically come from across the organization, so in larger companies they might even be strangers to each other. In addition, where an individual sits in an organization often doesn’t matter. In other words, anyone from an individual contributor to a corporate officer can participate on an equal basis. Circles generally have a trained facilitator or moderator to encourage everyone to participate, to control crosstalk and handle any questions or issues that may arise. Mentoring circles software exists, which helps set up circles, assigns and invites individuals who show interest and then helps to scale and measure engagement.

Flash Mentors

Not every form of mentorship needs to lead to a relationship. Flash mentorships are one-time meetings where workers with specific questions meet with employees and managers from other departments to gain insights. Questions that get considered might include: "I want to move from public relations to marketing, what path would you recommend?" or "I need to understand how advertising fits into the circular economy?" or "How do I construct a budget that gets approved the first time around?" and so on  ....

The wins from these kind of relationships are multiple: because they are one-time meetings, mentees can engage with many experts rather than one. Busy mentors tend to be more available for these “one and done” events. And finally, they are a great way to build networks and break down silos since they reach across the entire company rather than a few departments.

As with most types of corporate initiatives, software can help administer, automate, facilitate, govern and measure efforts and results. While this may be unnecessary for smaller companies, larger enterprises with hundreds or thousands of employees are likely to find such software helpful and even necessary.

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