Mentoring programs can succeed when they follow a straightforward, constructive framework

Why most mentoring programs fail

Mentoring programs can succeed when they follow a straightforward, constructive framework

Mentoring programs are an integral part of succession planning for many institutions. The impulse is good. Seasoned leaders can impart their wisdom to a new generation of leaders. Leaders strengthen their legacy by investing in the long-term success of an organization. Unfortunately, mentoring programs are often better in theory than in practice. The best of intentions fizzle out in infrequent meetings, stilted interactions, and unauthentic feedback. Most programs deliver little actual long-term value to participants or to the institution as a whole.

Mentoring programs seek to facilitate the kind of organic relationships that spring up among senior leaders and younger team members. Recreating a natural connection is a tall order. Many of the mentor-mentee relationships reflect this challenge. The risk is that they can end up stiff and never progress to a genuine rapport.

Should the entire effort be scrapped? Not at all.

While you can’t manufacture magic, you can provide a straightforward, constructive framework that will allow both mentors and mentees to benefit from a coaching program. 

The lynch pin of an effective mentoring program is clear expectations. By setting expectations at the outset, you give your participants a blueprint for success. There are several facets of a thriving mentoring relationship. 


While some participants will seek out involvement, others can—and should—be invited. Key leaders in your institution ought to participate. Allow both the mentors and the mentees to recommend future participants. Make thoughtful, strategic connections between mentors and mentees for maximum benefit. 


Outlining a meeting schedule is a crucial first step for a long-term mentoring relationship. There are inherent challenges in asking two successful professionals to meet regularly. Busy is a given in their schedules. Suggest a frequency that is attainable and not onerous. Participants should commit to getting together at least monthly. Encourage them to find a rhythm that works for their meetings and for communications between sessions. Mentees may benefit from asking their mentor to review presentations. A shared Google Doc can become a collaborative repository for ideas and issues to discuss. Remind participants to bring creativity and innovation to the way they connect. Consider quarterly lectures for your entire mentorship program. This gives some external structure around which the pairs can build their meeting schedule. 


Participants must set goals together. The mentorship will not be productive if participants have a vague notion of general improvement. An ill-defined task will have ill-defined success. The mentor and mentee should devote their first meeting to getting acquainted and delineating what they aim to accomplish. This should be a joint process, informed by the mentee’s desired areas of growth and the expertise the mentor brings. Remind the participants not to be overly ambitious. Define and then refine your goals. Build in regular junctures to revisit and revise goals as the relationship and individual careers grow.


Facilitate honest dialogue. Mentees will not grow if their mentors are not willing to sincerely point out the strengths and the obstacles they see. Remind all participants at the outset that for the relationship to be beneficial, they must approach it with candor. This requires buy-in from both sides. The mentors must be willing to move beyond platitudes and generalized advice. When mentors bring constructive criticism, they should be explicit that their observations come from a genuine desire to see the individual succeed. Negative feedback should be delivered in the context of a supportive relationship and balanced by helping the mentee identify their assets. Critiques shouldn’t be taken personally; they are necessary input for development and growth. 


Finally, employers can equip participants with resources to facilitate meaningful engagement. An inventory of possible areas of focus can help pairs identify where to direct their efforts. Compile prompts to help participants get to know one another and foster substantive dialogue. Invite mentors and mentees to share their experience with other participants in the program, relating what worked well in their relationships. Check in with mentors and mentees separately to find out what is working well and how you can support them. Allow your mentorship program to evolve as a result of the feedback you receive from participants.

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