How to Build a Professional Mentoring Program

January 28, 2013

Have you ever been a part of a formal mentoring program at your organization? If so, how did it go? It not, would it have been helpful? Maybe you’ve even wondered how to set up a mentoring program yourself so that you and/or others could benefit from it.

Mentoring Program

In my last post, I shared the basic principles of mentoring from a potential mentee’s standpoint that I’ve learned over the years. But I’ve also built a professional mentoring program in a previous role and also advised clients on mentoring programs they’ve set up themselves. I’d like to share some of the best practices I’ve collected.

Identify Your Objective

Mentoring programs can be great for development, but you shouldn’t build one just to have one. There’s nothing worse than setting up a mentoring program (or any type of program) that no one wants, or that is so generic that no one gets any value from it. Are you sure a mentoring program is actually needed? Would people sign up? What gaps would a mentoring program address? What outcomes do you want to see? Begin by identifying your program objective.

Identify Your Mentee Population

This may seem like a no-brainer, but it requires more thought than you might imagine initially. Most people probably consider entry-level employees as having the highest needs for mentors, and by and large they are correct. But additional groups could include new experienced hires, first time supervisors, first time executives, or employees who gain a new certification or join a new group. Or it could be a group of high potential employees being groomed for additional leadership responsibilities down the road. Your mentoring program will be most effective if it divides these populations into separate programs instead of one large program which accommodates everyone. Or you may want to focus exclusively on one group and address other needs at a later time.

Identify Your Mentor Population

Once you identify the mentees, you’ll need to identify which group would make the most effective mentors. Mentors should have more experience and knowledge in order to maximize the value of their insight. But they don’t need to be senior executives (in fact, for many mentoring programs, the tendency to recruit mentors from too high a level results in only mediocre results). A good rule of thumb is to match mentees with mentors who are 1-2 steps ahead of them in terms of career level, competency, certification, etc. Mentors should not also be a mentee’s direct supervisor.

Set Clear Expectations

Of all the steps included, this one might be the most critical. Many mentors are happy and honored to agree to serve in that capacity, but without clear expectations, their mentoring duties can remain a low priority when competing with all their other responsibilities. Here are some of the areas that need basic expectations:

  • How long the mentoring relationships will last
  • Maximum number of mentees that mentors should take on
  • What mentees will seek mentoring for
  • How often they will be expected to connect
  • Where the mentor’s responsibilities begin and end
  • What (if anything) is considered “out of bounds”

Incidentally, one of the most helpful expectations you can set for your mentors is that they shouldn’t try to provide 100% of the solutions to their mentee’s concerns. Encourage them to provide insight, but also to help their mentee think about the best solutions themselves. Mentors should also be encouraged to reference other resources and share their own networks.

Choose a System for Mentors/Mentees to Connect

Once the mentees and mentors are identified, they need a forum to connect. There can be various ways to do this, from publishing a list of mentors that mentees can choose from, hosting a kick-off event to make assignments, building an online system so mentees can choose their mentors independently, having the program manager assign mentors, or a number of other ways. Objective, budget, infrastructure, and preference for being hands on (or hands off) play major factors in choosing the most effective system for any given program. The biggest mistake is to not have one and to just assume that once the two groups are identified, they will make it happen on their own.

Obtain Executive Sponsorship

This practice is less crucial than some of the others, but can go a long way in generating both involvement and awareness. Try to get a senior ranking person in the organization to sponsor the mentoring program. Put their name on it. Let them speak publicly about the benefits and include their name and picture on communications. Use their influence to enlist more participation.

Utilize a Communications Campaign to Launch the Program

Once the program is ready to go, it will need some type of communications campaign to let everyone know. Generally, the more communication outlets the better. You might consider an internal web page, a corporate email message, a newsletter article, or a memo encouraging supervisors to promote the program directly to their teams. One effective method is to give a short in-person presentation at a town hall or community meeting to generate broad visibility. Make sure to reference start dates and links to additional resources and points of contact.

What other best practices would you add?

Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, trainer and thought leader.  Receive his ebook Trusted Leadership Advisor by subscribing to his website or   follow him on Twitter.
  • I wish we would do this where I work….I’ll have to bring it up. Thanks for setting the framework.

  • I’m self-employed, so this might be a little silly at my workplace 🙂
    However, I have done this at my church. It’s been incredibly beneficial.

  • ranaemog

    Hi Nathan, great step-by-step article on how to build a professional mentoring program! The other best practice I would include is to identify a Mentoring Program Manager (MPM). The MPM is a critical player in a professional mentoring program. An effective MPM can often make the difference between a failed mentoring relationship and a successful one. Aside from creating the program and assisting with matching pairs, the MPM’s roles include training participants, evaluating the mentoring program, providing reports to senior management, facilitates between mentors/mentorees/senior management, resolves challenges between pairs, and motivates and protects participants.

    I would love to share a link to your post on our blog as well. Thanks again for the great article!

    • Great point, Ranae – I had taken having a program manager for granted, but seeing you list all the roles, it is definitely worth including. Would love you have you share a link or a summary.

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  • Jodi Carlson

    Hi Nathan, I am looking to set up a mentoring program for our MBA students, during their 3.5-4 year program, with business professionals. I am thinking of creating a survey to gauge interest in such a program. Do you have any additional suggestions to assess need/desire to utilize such a program?

    • Hi Jodi, I’d start with the organizations that already have a recruiting relationship with your MBA program since they obviously already have incentive. Then it depends if you wanted to survey administrators (I’d probably get on the phone with the A-listers first) or the potential mentors themselves, but probably you’d want to know how many would potentially be interested and how much time they’d have. When people get busy (all the time), this is a calendar items that tends to get dropped. I’d also make sure the students really want (and would follow through) on this. Finally, because time is so hard to come by (and mentor programs require so much ongoing work to run), I’d consider alternatives to ongoing 1:1 mentoring such as speed mentoring or group mentoring events. Those can be very developmentally rich without requiring long-term commitment or follow-up for either party.

      • Alumni would be another great source of potential mentors

      • Jodi Carlson

        Thank you, Nathan!! This is very helpful.