Mentorship programs are one of the most effective tools we have to impact employee engagement, retention and performance. When a mentorship program is designed to align with an organization’s greatest talent need, with long-term sustainability and scalability in mind, the results are beyond the impact of traditional development opportunities. However, to be effective, mentorship programs need more than a great design; they also need mentors who are confident and capable of developing diverse talent.
Mentors are the linchpin of formal mentorship programs, because they are on the front line. Program administrators can use software platforms and reporting to gauge program participation and measure goal progress, but mentors are the people having the conversations and seeing firsthand how mentees are progressing.
Mentors have to be equipped to diagnose developmental needs, collaboratively set appropriate goals, determine assignments or activities to promote learning, handle difficult conversations, and challenge mentees beyond their own perspective. These skills are not always natural to mentors, who have usually been selected for their technical expertise and not necessarily their ability to guide others.
Also important for mentors is the ability to communicate with, work with and develop diverse talent. When mentors are provided with the right tools and training, they are more comfortable mentoring employees who are different from themselves. Just about every organization has a need for mentors who are able to contribute to a more inclusive culture. The only way to make sure we have mentors who are ready for that work is through the development of mentor skills.
How can you make sure mentors are honing the skills needed to be successful? What resources do mentors require to help them in their role? It comes down to targeted development, reinforcement and right-sized resources.
Whether mentors in your program have had experience with the role previously, or they are just stepping into their first mentoring relationship, all mentoring participants need development. I’ve worked with individuals from C-suite executives to individual contributors, and I’ve never encountered a mentor who didn’t appreciate an opportunity to learn new skills or refine his or her current skill set.
Developing mentors the right way means targeting only the essential skills for mentoring and delivering content in an effective way that also respects the immense time constraints most mentors are under. Many mentors have a hard time justifying the time and travel required for classroom programs, but can most easily engage in a series of interactive webinars.
For example, in a recent a three-webinar series for senior executives at a global company, one participant said, “The entire experience was quite enriching and fulfilling as professional. I look forward to opportunities wherein we can apply these learnings in more structured ways.”
Be sure to provide concrete information and tools that the mentors can use in their relationships, communicate why the development program is important for mentors and be clear about the objectives of the program. Mentors will want to know why it’s worth their time to attend and what they are going to gain from the program.
Finally, make sure the development program is interactive and practical. In order for the program to be effective, mentors need the opportunity to apply concepts and practice skills before they use them in their mentoring relationships.
When you’ve determined how you will develop mentors, the next item to consider is which skills you want to reinforce. While the best mentors have a diverse set of skills to draw upon in their mentoring relationships, the most essential mentor skills are:
- Establishing trust
- Diagnosing development needs
- Identifying learning goals
- Setting expectations and boundaries
- Using intentional communication
- Handling difficult conversations
- Giving and inviting feedback
- Assessing learning progress
While mastering each of these skills builds a greater learning journey for mentees, mentors who have these skills also tend to be better leaders in their day-to-day work. They are not just mentoring skills; they’re also important skills to leverage when leading teams.
Be sure that the skills you reinforce are addressed in a way that is practical, interactive and behavioral. It’s not enough to tell participants, “Great mentors build trust!” You also need to show them the behaviors that build trust in mentoring relationships and then help them identify which behaviors they need to refine.
Likewise, mentors may feel that they are already proficient at some of these skills, such as giving feedback. However, once they see behaviors associated with that skill, they may realize that it is not a natural strength.
Finally, it’s essential that you move beyond training programs and also provide the right resources for mentors to use. At different times in their mentoring relationships, mentors need tools and content to help them be effective. Consider providing tools and templates for major milestones in their mentoring relationships, including:
- A mentorship partner agreement
- Goal-setting templates
- Conversation starters
- Sample meeting agendas
- Progress check-in templates
- A relationship closure plan
These tools are a handy way for all participants to incorporate structure and best practices into their mentoring relationships.
It’s also important to provide mentors with readily available content, preferably in the form of microlearning videos or readings, for when they want to brush up on a concept. A library of content that explains and demonstrates mentoring skills and concepts can be accessed whenever a mentor is challenged in his or her mentoring relationship or as a means of preparing for mentoring conversations.
Make sure any content you provide is easily accessible from anywhere the mentor might be and is quick enough to consume that mentors feel they can fit it into their schedule.
If you’re ready to make sure mentors are driving strategic results, such as diversity and inclusion, engagement, and retention, create a plan for development. Include a targeted development program that fits easily into their calendars and is clear about what they will take away from the experience. Focus on the essential skills needed to propel mentoring relationships forward, knowing that they are also skills that will make your mentors better leaders. Finally, develop tools and content libraries to help your mentors master their roles just in time, just the right way.