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

In 2016, 2017 and again in 2022, we surveyed organisations and found that only just over half were actually satisfied with the results being delivered by their mentoring programs. An analysis comparing those that were satisfied (leaders), with those that were not (laggards), revealed once again in 2022 that lack of program success is highly correlated with a lack of program structure, training, support and resourcing. Yet, mentoring can deliver a high return on investment, when designed and implemented well. 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, equity and inclusion, 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, here 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. The best programs we see are those that are well–targeted and designed to achieve a specific purpose. Here are some examples:

  • A professional association mentoring program supporting graduates in their first year, when they are prone to burn–out, mental health issues and leaving the profession.
  • A government program designed to help people from different generations to work in reciprocal mentoring relationships to foster cross–generational learning and experience transfer, as well as to build a collaborative culture.
  • An enterprise–wide mentoring program to build career mobility and provide development options for employees who miss out on other training opportunities.
  • Mentoring to encourage and support women into more senior roles to meet diversity goals.

Without a clear purpose, mentoring programs become a ‘tick–a–box’ exercise to which no one in your organisation will fully commit to. They need direction, commitment, and a little bit of love to help them flourish.

So, the best place to start, is to ask: What is my organisation trying to achieve in the next 1–3 years and how will mentoring help?

2. Get your 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. Find people in your organisation who are passionate champions for mentoring and get them involved.

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! On the flip side, not enough structure can leave people feeling unsupported, especially first-time mentors. The degree of structure needed will vary across industries and professions – some like more and some prefer less. 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”. Their lack of confidence about themselves as mentors gets in the way of authentic communication, which is at the core of good mentoring. Fully unsupported, unstructured mentoring initiatives often lead to what we call ‘fast knowledge transfer’ rather than true developmental mentoring. Good mentoring requires some skill on the part of the mentor, which can be trained. Mentees, too, need to be well-prepared to engage. So, don’t just match people up and then walk away – make sure you equip everyone involved, mentors, mentees, and program managers and sponsors, with what they need to ensure mentoring success. Even line managers of mentees and mentors may need to be briefed so that they can support the time devoted to mentoring.

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 mentoring 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. If you want your mentoring program to be sustainable, be able to demonstrate the ROI.

6. Don’t compromise: You can only have two out 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 2022

View the recording below of our 2020 webinar.



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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.

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the ripple effect