Updated: November 30, 2023
Here at Fast Mirror we get a chance to talk to lots of companies about how they use mentoring or coaching in their organizations. We often explore issues or pain points they are having with their mentoring programs or issues they anticipate they’ll have while developing them. One of the biggest challenges we hear about is that there are more people that want to be mentored than those willing to serve as mentors.
When we ask for reasons why, the answers usually fall under a few common themes:
• Potential mentors feel the relationship is too one-sided.
• Some people won’t mentor because they feel ill-equipped or underprepared.
• Potential mentors believe they don’t have the time.
Program designers are understandably frustrated by these challenges. But really, should any of these things surprise you? Mentoring programs are often designed with the unrealistic image of a robust mentor pool being full of altruistic, generous individuals who will selflessly dedicate their time, energy and knowledge to others, for little in return. The truth is, while people like this do exist, they are extremely rare, especially in corporate settings.
The challenges of building up a mentor pool robust and large enough to meet your mentoring program needs ultimately relate to three key areas: reciprocity, education; and time. First, we will look at each of these challenges more closely, and then we’ll look at what you can do to address them.
Reciprocity – What’s in it for me?
It is human nature to want something of value for our time, energy and effort. The concept of value is not limited to monetary compensation. It also includes psychological elements, such as a feeling of well-being, or a personal sense of fulfillment.
The concept of reciprocity is compounded within the context of mentoring because for many people the idea of giving away their insight for what they perceive as getting nothing in return is demotivating.
Ok, I had to find this old clip from Friends on selfless good deeds. It’s a little exaggerated but I think you’ll get the point.
One of the hallmarks of a struggling program is the lack of education around role responsibility and how the program is structured. Lack of education for both mentees and mentors is a significant challenge and derails many mentoring programs. When we talk with individuals serving as mentors we often find they’re anxious about the lack of role clarity. Here are some examples of concerns we’ve heard from mentors in struggling programs:
• “What am I supposed to do?”
• “How can I help my mentee set goals?”
• “How do I know if I’m being a good mentor and doing it right?”
• “Should I treat the person like a direct report – how should I behave?”
• “What do I do when my mentee isn’t doing what they’re supposed to?”
• “How long do I mentor this person for?”
Time is a challenge for mentoring programs in two key ways. First, when mentors feel they are dedicating more time to the mentee than is worth given what they are receiving, the relationship registers as less important and time becomes a convenient scapegoat for shirking mentor responsibilities. Second, we often see time become a legitimate issue when an individual is asked to mentor too many people. Even the most well-intentioned, educated mentors cannot compete with time if they’re overloaded with too many protégés.
Mentoring programs often get great support from senior leadership, which is great. Often, there are a few key leaders that are enlisted as mentors. They’re usually highly sought after either due to their level or proximity to the corporate celebrities – or maybe they’re the celebrities themselves. Before too long, they’re mentoring more people than they can handle, and the program fizzles because mentoring pairs can’t find the time to do what they’ve committed to do. They truly do have no time left.
Solutions – How to Fix the Problems
The best way to address the reciprocity issue is to acknowledge its existence in the first place. Organizations must dispel the myth of the mentor as an altruistic being that is driven to be a mentor mainly out of the interest of others. While it’s great if you have people like this in your program, there are likely many more individuals who will be great mentors given the right incentive.
If you grew up in the late seventies or early eighties like I did he is one of the earliest mentors you probably encountered was Mr. Miyagi from the beloved 1984 classic The Karate Kid. As great as Mr. Miyagi was, he still sought reciprocity in his relationship with Daniel. Daniel learned karate, took on the Cobra Kai dojo, and won, but Mr. Miyagi also got something from Daniel. He got his fence painted, the deck floors of his backyard sanded, and most importantly all of his classic cars waxed (“Wax on, wax off.”)
Building reciprocity into your mentoring program isn’t as difficult as you might think. There are many ways to reward individuals who choose to engage in mentoring relationships beyond monetary compensation, such as:
• Senior level exposure
• Access to high value projects
• Public recognition
• Technology products (tablets, fitness devices, etc.)
• Gift cards
While financial recognition is great if you can do it, many mentoring programs don’t have that kind of incentive in the budget. However, most organizations have unique rewards they can offer that don’t revolve around monetary compensation.
In one of my past consulting projects I designed a mentoring program for an outbound sales team. Sales were booming and the company was hiring faster than it could handle, so there were lots of inexperienced, junior sales folks. I designed to program based on the objective to connect the inexperienced new-hires with seasoned sales professionals as a means of getting them up to speed as fast as possible. The challenge with this approach was as you might guess: the seasoned professionals were resistant to engage because it meant time away from focusing on their respective territories and thereby a reduction in sales and ultimately commissions.
Understandably, they had little interest in taking a financial hit to mentor junior salespeople and give away all their hard earned experience and knowledge. How did we solve this problem? We paid the seasoned professionals. Specifically, they earned commission on the sales of their protégés to make up for time away from their own territory.
While there are many aspects of the mentoring program that participants should be educated on, the two most critical areas are 1) role clarification, and 2) program structure. Participants should clearly understand their expectations, deliverables, and commitments. Essentially, you should provide both mentors and protégés with a job description for their roles. Below are some examples of questions you’ll want to be sure are answered in your educational materials.
• Who should make first contact?
• Are there specific parameters for interaction (e.g. you must meet once per quarter, month, week, etc.)
• What are some guidelines for behaving in a meeting or outside of a meeting?
• What happens if either party is not engaged or non-participatory?
• As a mentor should I guide or tell my protégé what to do?
• What is the objective of the mentoring program? Is the program tied to a specific objective or are participants allowed to determine their own objectives?
• Does the program have a specific end date or is it up to the participants?
• How it the program tracked?
• Who will see the information?
• What tools are available and where can any pertinent information be found?
• Is there specific training that needs to be completed?
• Is participation mandatory or voluntary?
• Will mentors be formally compensated for their time?
• Will the program affect my performance appraisal, bonus, or merit?
These are just examples of questions. Your company’s culture or unique needs may provide you with additional insight regarding what information to include in the education component of the mentoring program.
In mentoring programs, mentors not having enough time to fulfill their roles is only an issue if they have too many protégés. I suggest limiting mentors to no more than three protégés. Additionally, protégés should work with more than one mentor at a time, a concept that’s becoming increasingly accepted as effective as well as efficient. Multiple mentors help provide a better experience for protégés by exposing them to more diverse perspectives and individuals. Multiple mentors also help to balance the load among mentors, allowing them to focus on “quality over quantity.”
How to Get Started
If you’re having trouble getting mentors for your program, consider facilitating a more balanced relationship between mentors and mentees. You can do so by incorporating a mentoring request system into your program. Rather than just being assigned a mentor, proteges request specific help from potential mentors by submitting answers to three key questions:
1. What do you want to be mentored on and why?
2. What are you willing to provide in return for this mentor’s time and knowledge?
3. What is your preferred method of contact or interaction?
The mentor request is powerful because it does several important things. First, it puts the protégé in the driver’s seat of the mentoring relationship by being the first person to establish contact with the mentor. Second, the protégé is immediately establishing reciprocity with the mentor by answering the second question. The second question allows for open dialogue about reciprocity and provides some incentive for a mentor to engage. Third, these three questions together help form a mutually beneficial agreement that frames the parameters of the mentoring relationship. Ultimately it provides potential mentors with enough information to engage in further conversation about how the relationship will work.
What have you done to increase the availability of mentors in your organization? Let us know in the comments.