How to Support Employee-Led Mentoring Programmes
One of the biggest barriers to widespread use of mentoring in organisations is HR time and focus. Lean HR teams in many companies have a wide range of urgent tasks and projects that tend to take priority over deep learning initiatives. Minimum effort solutions, involving matching platforms that put largely untrained mentors and mentors together on the basis of a specific learning need, have a very poor track record of delivering value, beyond occasional transfer of know-how. So, HR professionals frequently take the moral high ground of “if we can’t do it properly, we should wait till we can”. Not only does this lead to long-term postponements of mentoring initiatives, but it often means that when they are launched, they are under-resourced and so less likely to achieve the radical change expected of a well-designed and well-supported programme.
So, how can these companies make mentoring freely available in a cost-effective way without a large input of HR resources? The answer lies in passing responsibility for mentoring away from HR and into the hands of employees.
Building the Foundation for Employee-Led Mentoring
A small but convincing volume of case studies suggests that this is relatively easy to do. The two most obvious ways are to work through business functions in the formal organisational structure and through informal networks.
It is typical in large organisations that each business unit and/or function has its own challenges in addition to those faced by the organisation as a whole. For example, retention may be a problem in IT; helping talented people build reputation an issue in finance functions.
HR Business Partners are (or at least, should be) well aware of these challenges. They also know who in their area of responsibility is particularly concerned about the issue and who is looking to build their reputation outside of their normal job role. The HRBP can choose to be a catalyst or a reagent (depending on how much they are willing to become directly involved) for these people, by:
- Helping them establish a steering group
- Advising on mentoring good practice
- Promoting the steering group to the function’s senior management
- Identifying sources of finance
We recommend that this becomes a regular feature of all reviews between HRBPs and their internal clients.
The formal and informal networks so essential to an organisation’s functioning are typically under-used as a resource. With appropriate support and encouragement, enthusiasts within these networks can take over most or all of the functions of mentoring programme design, implementation and evaluation. Examples of suitable networks include:
- Diversity based groups (gender, race, LGTB and others) often initiate employee-led mentoring programmes by requesting HR to arrange them
- People introducing new ways of working, such as agile teams, often create informal networks of mutual support
- People in similar job roles – for example, first line managers, or corporate lawyers
- Alumni – for example, people, who have attended the same course or been part of the same action learning set
- Returners to work – for example, after maternity or paternity leave.
Overall, these programmes tend to be more effective and more durable than those driven by HR alone. The people in these networks live and work with the issues they are concerned about, so their attention is less likely to be diverted elsewhere. What they need is support (there is a clear correlation between knowing that the organisation is supportive of the aims of a programme and the quality of the relationships within the programme) and a modicum of financial resources.
A starting point to employee-led mentoring is to identify these existing networks and establish their interest in collaborative self-development. HR can also stimulate the creation of networks, encouraging employees with similar interests to link together. The key ingredients in setting up a network are:
- A small group of enthusiasts, who share a common interest
- A set of standard instructions to help them establish and promote their group’s objectives
- Helping them to find other potential network members (for example, providing a list of everyone with a relevant job title, or simply announcing the formation of the network in the employee newsletter)
- Allowing them to create an online forum and / or have meetings in company space
- Encouraging them to make common learning and development needs known to HR
- Providing them with access to the leadership team, where they can find champions for their cause.
Once a network is established, it can be supported in forming a mentoring steering group in just the same way as within functions or business units.
Creating a Cost-Effective Mentoring Capability
The danger in encouraging a multiplicity of unconnected and uncoordinated mentoring initiatives is that they vary substantially in quality and impact. (For example, it’s common in large multinationals to find programmes with completely different definitions and styles of mentoring.) Yet at the same time, creating an expensive administrative bureaucracy is also undesirable.
Among the simple, practical and low-cost solutions that we have observed in employee-led mentoring programmes are the following:
- A regular six-monthly workshop to train employees outside of HR (HR professionals are welcome, too, but are not the target audience) in the basics of how to design and manage mentoring programmes. Alternatively, this training can be delivered online. Participants can also achieve a formal qualification in mentoring programme management from the European Mentoring and Coaching Council.
- Online training for mentors and mentees through regular series of webinars, open to everyone in the company
- Train the trainer workshops for members of steering groups to develop their own skills to educate and support mentors and mentees
- Online resources to troubleshoot mentoring relationships and enhance the portfolio of tools and approaches mentors can apply
- A network of mentoring programme managers, in which the dominant membership is outside of HR (and hence resourced from other departmental budgets)
- An annual celebration of mentoring, organised by informal programme groups coming together. International Mentoring Day every October provides a useful peg, on which to hang these events
- Although we have discussed the idea with various organisations, none to our knowledge has yet launched an internal award for best mentoring programme. (However, Mentor of the Year awards do happen in some companies)
- Creating a central database of trained mentors, with their areas of interest. Programmes can tap into this resource as needed.
These and other approaches help to distribute the effort and cost of mentoring from HR to the wider organisation. HR can choose whether to organise these activities or simply act as an advisor to a steering group reporting to the leadership team. By encouraging ownership and delivery of mentoring to shift from HR to the business, HR can achieve much greater impact for a lot less effort, much more quickly.
We can help you explore opportunities for employee-led mentoring in your organisation.
Contact us for a strategic business review and training support that will put you on the front foot!
© 2019 David Clutterbuck
Professor David Clutterbuck is one of Europe’s most respected writers and thinkers on leadership, coaching and mentoring. He has written nearly 50 books and hundreds of articles on cutting-edge management themes.
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