How to develop a successful mentoring program Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2010

Starting a job with your company can be difficult for new hires, with new people to meet, policies and procedures to learn, and a company culture to fit into.

By offering a mentoring program to help them adjust, you can make them feel more comfortable and welcomed, allowing them to settle in and be productive more quickly.

“Research has shown that when employees develop good relationships quickly, they’re more likely to adapt to their new roles and stay with the organization,” says Wendy Marcinkus Murphy, Ph.D., assistant professor of management with Northern Illinois University. “You’ll reduce your turnover rates and increase productivity and performance.”

Smart Business spoke with Murphy about how to develop a mentoring program and what you can do to ensure it succeeds.

How has mentoring changed over the years?

Mentoring has become more widely adopted as a human resources strategy over the years. Early research talked about how important mentoring was for young executives in developing their careers, which drove a lot of formal programs.

Today, more than 70 percent of Fortune 500 companies in the U.S. have a formal mentoring program. Mentoring has changed dramatically from an individual perspective because of how different career paths are now. The traditional career, in which employees stayed with one company for 30-plus years until they retired, doesn’t really exist anymore. Instead, most employees will work for multiple employers throughout their careers.

As a result, research has moved beyond the traditional mentoring relationship, in which a senior, more experienced individual is paired with a young, new or high-potential employee. New hires are now encouraged to develop relationships throughout their organization and professional field. This developmental network approach allows them to get the support they need from multiple people as their careers develop, instead of just that intense, one-on-one relationship.

Why is mentoring important?

Relationships are one of the most important developmental tools a company can employ. The amount of learning that happens cannot be underestimated.

Both parties have something to learn from one another. Protégés get insight from their mentors in terms of skill development, new techniques and approaches to work, and obtain knowledge about the organization. And mentors learn about the perspective that employees from different areas of the company have on what goes on in the organization.

How can business owners develop mentoring programs?

Mentoring programs reflect the culture of the organization. You need to make encouraging developmental relationships — both informally and formally — an integral part of the culture of your organization.

It’s essential to have top-down support so that mentoring is recognized as part of the formal human resources strategy. Research suggests that the more upfront investment, time and resources that organizations commit to formal mentoring programs, the more successful they are. Both parties need training to set expectations for their relationships.

Typically, the relationships last one to three years, depending on the developmental needs of the parties involved. However, they could be ongoing and change over time into a colleague relationship instead of a mentor/protégé relationship.

The employees may continue to talk to each other as their careers develop but might not have the same needs from the relationship as they did when they started.

How can you ensure your program succeeds?

Successful programs involve overlap in interests or skills between mentors and protégés, and participation by both in the matching process. One way to assess the success of a program is to get feedback from participants. It’s important that both parties are satisfied with the experience. You want to ensure that mentors feel like they’re making a difference and that the investment of their time is worthwhile in their own career development.

Mentors are finding opportunities to give back, reconnect and learn for themselves how to better manage employees from different backgrounds and age groups. Satisfied mentors are more likely to participate in the future, so you create a virtuous cycle of mentoring as part of professional development.

Successful protégés who have been in good mentoring relationships are more likely to seek and initiate new developmental relationships that fulfill different and new needs for their own development. They’re also more likely to act as mentors for both their peers and for other employees.

What is the future of mentoring programs?

Organizations are experimenting with new and different forms of mentoring. There’s a lot of work being done on mentoring circles, which pair a more senior employee with several employees from different levels in the company to develop a group mentoring relationship. People get exposure to several different perspectives on developmental issues.

There’s also a movement to incorporate peer coaching by matching co-workers who are at similar levels of development but who might be on slightly different tracks with different experiences to share and contribute to each other’s learning.

Technology has changed the way mentoring occurs because you can have electronically based mentoring relationships, which eliminate geographic and time barriers and increase flexibility. However, participants still appreciate the chance to meet face to face or talk on the phone once to create a sense of connectiveness. These blended media relationships have been shown to be as successful as more traditional relationships. Technology has broadened opportunities for individuals (and organizations) to develop and maintain mentoring relationships that flourish.

Wendy Marcinkus Murphy, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of management with Northern Illinois University. Reach her at (815) 753-6320 or wcmmurphy@niu.edu.