5 pitfalls to avoid before setting up a mentoring scheme

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Mentoring is a buzzword these days, and many organisations use it for a variety of purposes, from talent management, to leadership development, to knowledge transfer and succession planning.

As somebody who has been working for over 10 years facilitating and implementing mentoring programmes across the UK and internationally, I am not only a passionate advocate of mentoring but also an experienced challenger of programmes that are put in place without serious consideration being given to the needs, aims, context and circumstances in which they are supposed to develop and fluorish.

In case you are beginning to question where this article is going, let me tell you a few things loud and clear:

  • Mentoring is not for everyone
  • Mentoring may not work for your organisation 
  • Mentoring may not be your staff’s ‘cup of tea’

Therefore, before thinking about a mentoring programme for your business, department, division or indeed your entire organisation, consider what is required for the programme to deliver on your organisational needs and so that it will not stop from succeeding. 

Pitfall 1: lack of transparency in communication

How much does your organisation encourage honest, transparent communication? Is feedback part of your culture? Do your managers engage in ongoing and timely reviews with their teams? 

If, hands on your heart, the answer to these questions are not a straightforward and resounding "yes", mentoring will not work. To flourish, mentoring needs a culture of transparency that enables learning through feedback, which in turns requires trust.

The presence of silos, power games and differing, hidden agendas prevents staff from embracing mentoring fully, for fear of confidentiality breaches as well as a sense that people won’t listen.

Pitfall 2: lack of dedicated resources

In my experience it’s not unusual that mentoring is placed on somebody's 'work plate' – whether HR, L&D or even PAs and admin personnel – simply because the person has ventured to suggest that the organisation should introduce a mentoring programme.

“Great idea,” the boss will say and then add, “why don't you go and read about it/learn about it/put together a proposal, programme...”

And so the programme starts, often creating a great amount of workload for little return. Eventually the programme fizzles out due to lack of time, budget and perhaps adequate expertise. 

Mentoring requires a great amount of effort, knowledge, ongoing review and monitoring.

Mentoring, just like any other change management intervention, requires a great amount of effort, knowledge, ongoing review and monitoring. 

If you are planning to implement a mentoring programme, ensure you have dedicated resources and a budget to go with it. You will most likely need external expertise too, either in a consultancy capacity or as an ongoing facilitation.

What you will invest however, you will gain in longevity, momentum and tangible outcomes.

Pitfall 3: lack of clarity in aims and objectives

This should be a no-brainer, but actually it is quite common for companies to jump on the mentoring bandwagon without really knowing why.

Mentoring is not a fad, it is a century old - as a matter of fact millennia old – activity which has now taken new meaning by being implemented in the workplace. 

So please do not start a mentoring programme unless you are totally certain about what it’s going to deliver to you, what you’ll focus it on and what needs it will help to address as you would do for any other interventions.

The fact that mentoring is considered a 'soft' activity does not mean that it will not deliver hard and tangible outcomes. But KPIs need to be set up from the beginning, for the programme, the organisations and the individuals taking part in it, whether mentors or mentees.

Pitfall 4: lack of staff willingness

Have you engaged your staff in deciding whether they have needs that could be met via a mentoring programme? Because if you have not, be prepared for an uphill struggle in recruiting mentors and especially mentees.

Mentoring 'en masse' does not work, nor does mentoring 'at all costs'. Mentoring has to be chosen by staff: people need to be willing to be mentored and accept that at times this may mean challenges and feeling outside their comfort zone.

Mentoring needs to be understood as aspirational, inspirational and a wonderful opportunity to learn outside the box

Furthermore, mentoring needs to be understood as aspirational, inspirational and a wonderful opportunity to learn outside the box in today's hectic workplace. Therefore people must feel committed to it and must show this in their behaviour whether their are acting as mentors or as mentees.

Not everyone is suitable to mentor and not everyone makes a good mentee. Please ensure you do not coerce anyone into a mentoring relationship, and that you review commitment on an on-going basis.

Pitfall 5: lack of leadership support 

I would love to say that mentoring in the workplace is a grassroots activity, but unfortunately it is not so. To work effectively, any mentoring initiative must be actively supported by the leadership and ideally must have a champion and sponsor in one or more leaders.

When the senior level of any organisation believes in the value of mentoring, the message is pushed down and reaches all levels, giving permission to dedicate time and resources to mentoring. Best of all is when C-suite executives act as mentors themselves and also are mentored by less senior staff. By role modeling mentoring, senior managers are actually reaching out to junior staff and proving that everyone can find time to help others develop and flourish.

So, are you planning to set up a mentoring programme? Before you do check out whether any of the five pitfalls exists in your context. If so, get ready to struggle or make sure you address them before mentoring is launched to give yourself a greater chance of success.

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