Why mentoring programs derail (and what to do about it)

Why mentoring programs derail (and what to do about it)

In 2016 and 2017 we surveyed companies and professional associations and found that only just over half were actually satisfied with the results being delivered by their mentoring programs. For the most part, dissatisfaction was to do with the difficulty of establishing and maintaining the momentum of the matched mentoring pairs. Symptoms included a high rate of drop-out, low rates of engagement in group activities and low program satisfaction. Yet when designed and implemented well, mentoring can deliver a high return on investment. According to our colleague, Professor David Clutterbuck, highly effective mentoring programs:

  • Deliver substantial learning for at least 95% of mentees and at least 80% of mentors.
  • Lead to at least one third higher retention amongst people mentored than peers, who are not.
  • Demonstrate measurable improvements in mentee job commitment, engagement and relationships at work (particularly with their bosses!).
  • Improve and reinforce mentors’ confidence and ability in coaching their own direct reports.
  • Provide useful insights into people management undercurrents – broader issues that can lead to improvements in HR policies and processes.
  • Give leaders greater confidence in succession plans.
  • In the context of diversity management, have a clear and substantial contribution towards the achievement of equal opportunity targets and have a measurable impact on cultural awareness.

If your current program is not delivering outcomes like these, or you are about to create a new program, there are some simple design guidelines and traps you can avoid:

  1. Start with the end in mind
    By far the most important element to get right is the program purpose. If you can’t tell a convincing story about why your organisation needs a mentoring program, you might as well not even start. Everything else flows from this—the program design, measurable objectives, eligibility, matching and training strategy and a compelling reason for mentors to sign up.
  2. Get the ducks in a row
    Programs with low commitment, particularly from senior leadership, suffer from poor program management. When senior leaders commit to a mentoring program, they indicate to others the program is an organisational priority. The truly committed participate fully as mentors themselves, by role modelling and gently creating pressure for those below to step up.
  3. Find the glove that fits
    Getting the degree of structure right can be tricky. Too much structure (templates, tools, forms, reporting, guidelines) causes disengagement. Remember, mentoring is a very human process! Not enough structure can leave people feeling unsupported, especially first-time mentors. By far the most common mistake we see is lack of structure. It simply isn’t true that if given digital access to a portfolio of mentor profiles, potential mentees will seek out and choose a mentor that is right for them. And left to their own devices, novice mentors can feel out of their depth, resorting to “telling” rather than “guiding”.
  4. Plan and take time to execute
    Smart organisations plan their mentoring program design, starting with considering whether mentoring is the right intervention to achieve the organisational objective. They involve key stakeholders at the beginning who can help steer the program once launched. They also don’t rush the execution. Just as with any development program, it can take a few months to rally key people, promote the program internally and then invite people to apply. Rushing the execution to meet a deadline almost always ends up with something being compromised; usually the application and matching time is cut short and poor-quality matches result.
  5. Measure, measure, measure!
    This is linked to the first issue: If there are no clear objectives, then measures of success are unclear. This leaves a mentoring program open to being shut down on a personal whim by a leader who does not understand the organisational benefits.
  6. Don’t compromise
    You can have two of these three – high quality, speed and low cost. We’ve already warned against rushing. If you have high program dropout rates, low goal achievement by mentees or low satisfaction rates from all participants, you are almost certainly under-resourcing your mentoring program. Well-resourced programs have a dedicated program manager who stays in contact with the pairs and nudges them along, educational resources to prepare the mentors and mentees before commencement and for larger programs, software that automates and streamlines program management.

When mentoring pairs fail to engage well, or stop engaging altogether, it most often is because they have not been matched well or have not reached a shared understanding of their commitments to each other. Preparing mentors and mentees to articulate clearly what they each want and can offer, and helping them to discuss this together once matched, can make all the difference.

© Melissa Richardson, 2020.

12 Habits of a Toxic Mentor (Prof David Clutterbuck)


A guide to unleashing the hidden value in your organisation through high impact strategic mentoring programs.

Most human beings and organisations have one thing in common – they both want to do better. But it’s hard for one to achieve without the other. When you can harness both you can achieve great things.

Unfortunately, most organisational structures are hierarchical, which may aid efficiency but not necessarily “real” human interaction.

Solving the human equation is the cornerstone of great culture and the larger and more diverse the workforce, the more challenging it becomes, even before we factor in things like location, technology and pay rates.

Well designed and managed mentoring programs can have a dramatic impact on workplace culture and people engagement. A strategic mentoring program transcends hierarchy, creating relationships and interactions to build individual and hence organisational value.

In this guide we present you with proven practical insights on how to design, build, implement and automate a high influence mentoring program and create your own ripple effect.

Download My Copy
the ripple effect