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Authors Offer Advice on Creating a Mentoring Program

Two men in business suits walking down the street.

​Most company leaders know there are strategic benefits to mentoring programs, but how do you set one up?

Sherry Hartnett, founding director of the University of West Florida's Executive Mentor Program, and Bert Thornton, former Waffle House president and chief operating officer, offer advice in their book High-Impact Mentoring: A Practical Guide to Creating Value in Other People's Lives (BookLogix, 2021).

Thornton recalled the impact of a mentoring program during his tenure at Waffle House. Within five years, he said, the company had quadrupled the ranks of its middle and senior leadership potential. 

[SHRM members-only resource: Creating a Mentor Program]  

But a mentoring program does not consist only of casual chats between mentors and mentees, Thornton pointed out. What's important is the investment of quality time.

"When mentoring emerging leaders at Waffle House, I would often work a shift alongside my new mentee to see them in action," he said. "Some mentoring relationships lasted a year or two after that, but others have spanned four decades." 

It's important to have a formal program, Hartnett told SHRM Online. "It does not need to be rigid," she acknowledged, but it should be tied to business goals. "You need to have some structure to make all of that happen. Otherwise, people kind of say they're going to have a mentoring program and they throw it together. Companies need to plan and execute a mentorship program that delivers consistent, quality results to all participants." 

Thornton and Hartnett offered the following steps for creating a mentoring program:

  1. Define the reason for the program. This will help you thoughtfully shape it and get buy-in from all involved.

    "What is the value to your business and to your employees?" Hartnett asked. "Is it retention? That is a huge thing today. Is it succession planning? Is it adding diversity?"

    A mentoring program provides on-the-job training and can act as a cushion for your training budget, which may have taken a hit during the pandemic, and it can be a great retention tool.

    "A mentoring program shows employees you care about them, you're investing in them," Hartnett said.

  2. Find the right person to champion the program and make it his or her primary focus.

  3. Set goals and metrics and align the program with your business objectives.
    "Tracking this data will tell you whether your program is succeeding and what you may need to change" and show senior leaders why it should continue to be a priority, Hartnett noted.

  4. Start small, such as with a pilot program. Create systems for selecting mentors and mentees, training, communicating with participants and evaluating the program. 

    "When building the program, start off with in-person orientation. If you can do this virtually, fine," Hartnett said, but conduct separate orientations with mentors and mentees about the expectations, tips and techniques. Consider having a best practices guide that ties into the orientation.

    When meeting virtually, she recommends using the organization's corporate communications platform and turning laptop cameras on. Also, have a backup plan should a technical issue develop: Do you reschedule? Do you revert to a phone call?

  5. Decide who your mentees will be so as to focus your recruitment. Will participants be new employees with high potential? Employees who have been with your organization a certain number of years? Participants should know the length of the mentorship, how they will meet, how often, goals that will be worked on and the work expectations.

  6. Provide ongoing support. Host a networking event, invite a speaker to a meeting and request regular feedback from mentors and mentees.

  7. Measure the program's progress.
    "I suggest measuring outcomes semi-annually or annually," Hartnett said. "You can also informally poll and interview participants throughout the year. And don't underestimate the little things—small tweaks can lead to significant results!"

    A mentoring program is like any other major project at an organization, Thornton said.

    "[It's] not an ad hoc thing."

Other SHRM resources
Mentoring Prepares Women for Leadership Roles in Cable Industry, SHRM Online, March 2021
Creating a Mentoring Program: Yodas Not Required, SHRM Online, March 2020
The Mentoring Guide: Helping Mentors and Mentees Succeed, SHRMStore


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