Mentoring is a relationship in which an experienced person provides guidance to a less experienced person to help with his or her career development. Brendan Keegan, founder and managing partner of velocityHUB, defines it more specifically as “volunteering to develop individuals to achieve their goals … with nothing expected in return.”

At Ipsen, a biopharmaceutical company that has created a global mentoring program, a mentor is defined “as someone who is willing to share their experience and perspective, guiding their mentee to higher levels of professional awareness and, ultimately, performance,” according to Joanne Mortimer, head of learning and development.

The Benefits of Formal Mentoring Programs

Mortimer says, “Mentoring truly maximizes people’s potential by providing … colleagues with the opportunity to develop through relationship-based learning” while strengthening corporate culture and collaboration. Ipsen recently partnered with Hemsley Fraser to use e-learning for mentoring and found that even online, employees can “feel very connected and well-supported.” It also creates efficiencies in the ability to connect learners around the world.

According to Julie Kantor, CEO of Twomentor, LLC, mentoring programs can reduce turnover and promote growth. They support improved knowledge transfer, meaning employees become more productive in less time. Mentors also support informal, on-the-job learning, reducing the cost and time associated with formal training.

In fact, almost three-fourths of Fortune 500 companies have mentoring programs. Benefits found by some of these companies include improved employee engagement and retention, a more diverse workforce, reduced conflict, improved productivity and alignment with business strategy. Keegan says mentoring makes employees more engaged, which in turn makes them more productive and increases retention. Then, mentees are more willing to become mentors, so “it turns into a cycle.”

Who Makes a Good Mentor?

The best way to select mentors and mentees, Keegan says, is to let people opt in to the program. That way, you know they’re motivated and will be more engaged in the process. Sara Rowe, a senior leadership consultant at Kaplan, agrees. However, assigning mentors and mentees can still result in a successful program – but, Keegan says, you can’t expect that every participant will be engaged or good at mentoring.

There are a few traits that good mentors share, including being high performers, the ability to facilitate knowledge and skills transfer, active listening and communication skills, and the ability to see the “big picture.” Mortimer says Ipsen chose 60 senior managers for its pilot mentoring program. These managers were “experienced leaders who had been nominated from across the business.”

It’s important to note that mentors don’t have to be in the same department or function, and the mentor doesn’t have to be older than the mentee. For example, Rowe says, “A younger person could mentor an older colleague in the development of social media skills or other technology, or a senior executive in one division could mentor a colleague in another division in their career development or political savvy.”


Turning High Performers into Mentors

Keegan “highly, highly” recommends training volunteers on how to be good mentors. He says the training doesn’t have to be very long; a 30-minute to two-hour session is all you need. Rowe says after “one very full day of exploration and practice with feedback,” training managers can then recommend additional training for those who need it.

It’s a good idea to follow up mentor training with a joint session for both mentors and mentees to share expectations as well as some guidance on topics so they can start preparing for their first mentoring conversations, according to Keegan. Rowe says, “What is critical is that everyone knows what is expected, what is at stake and what must be done to make mentoring successful.” She also recommends making it clear that if the chemistry isn’t right between a mentor and a mentee, it’s OK for them to agree the partnership isn’t working.

Ipsen’s mentor training began with a 45-minute “warm-up” session to introduce the functionality of a virtual environment, including white boards, break-out rooms and polls. Then, the mentors participated in six 90-minute online sessions “highlighting what mentoring is (and isn’t); the benefits it provides; the characteristics of good and great mentors, and how to start off on a positive note,” according to the press release. The sessions were recorded and are available online for Ipsen employees. Ipsen also delivered e-learning sessions to HR professionals to help them “embed the new mentoring process” into their business, according to Mortimer.

Mortimer adds that good training for mentors “really focuses on the value they bring to support the development of talent” and helps them learn about themselves as well. At Ipsen, it was important to make sure the new mentors “appreciated their role in contributing to the development of critical skills areas needed to support business strategy.” By making mentors out of managers, Mortimer says, “Ipsen will deepen its culture of manager-led development, supported by relationship-based and social learning.”