If you have ever had a mentor, you know that they can have a profound impact. Mentors show us the ropes, provide us with guidance, and help us navigate the professional landscape and overcome challenges in order to grow personally and professionally. An age-old institution, mentoring has stood the test of time. Plato mentored Aristotle, and Thomas Edison mentored Henry Ford.

It’s no surprise, then, that many organizations are instituting formal mentoring programs. On the surface, at least, mentoring can seem like a simple tool to implement. However, its familiarity and seeming simplicity can lead them to underestimate the challenges that come with creating successful mentoring programs.

While mentoring programs come in many different shapes and sizes, successfully launching and maintaining an effective mentoring program requires (at least) two main ingredients: a detailed adoption strategy and, often, an overhaul of organizational culture.

Before You Start

The first step to creating a mentoring program is asking yourself what your goals are and whether mentoring is the right solution to achieve those specific goals. For instance, if your organization has any of these goals, a mentoring program may be a good approach:

  • Building strong relationships among a multigenerational workforce
  • Driving career growth
  • Developing leaders
  • Bolstering diversity and inclusion efforts
  • Facilitating change
  • Enabling knowledge transfer
  • Reducing conflict
  • Improving communication
  • Increasing employee engagement
  • Reducing turnover

If your goal is to help junior staff improve on the-job performance or acclimate entry-level employees to your company, on the other hand, mentoring is not your best bet. The tangential effects of strong mentoring can include better onboarding and job performance, but actual onboarding and training initiatives will provide a much higher payoff in these instances. Whenever performance or onboarding lurks as the motivator of a mentoring initiative, you are likely confusing mentoring with training or coaching.

Mentoring is not about process or productivity. It is about relationships. For individuals, successful mentoring establishes a relationship that guides them both personally and professionally. For teams and the organization, successful mentoring acts as a network intervention that creates a supportive community.

Getting It Off the Ground

While no two mentoring programs will (or should) look identical, an issue at the center of almost every mentoring program is adoption. As with many people development initiatives, gaining buy-in and maintaining involvement are often challenges. Nobody wants a mentoring program (or any new initiative, for that matter) shoved down his or her throat. Instead, you’ll need to win over mentors and mentees in order for them to invest their time and energy in the program.

Internal champions can serve as powerful catalysts. To be most effective, these champions should be high-status, high-title individuals whom other employees look up to. These champions will help you market the program throughout the organization by announcing and participating in it. They will serve as living, breathing examples of how to mentor effectively.

While internal champions ignite the program, success stories should serve as the ongoing fuel. Unlike performance statistics, stories capture the imagination and provide salient, actionable glimpses into how mentoring can benefit employees. Sharing success stories on how mentoring has positively impacted the internal champions and other participants will sustain the motivation of mentors and mentees.

Keeping It Running in the Long Term

It’s no coincidence that people-centric cultures experience superior results when implementing and sustaining mentoring programs. In fact, the more transaction-focused a culture is, the greater the chance that a mentoring program will fail. For your mentoring program to have a powerful and sustainable impact, you’ll have to create a people-centered culture to support it.

Of course, change is hard, and changing culture is even harder. The first step to shifting your organizational culture toward a more relationship-focused one is to involve people in a conversation about the benefits of the proposed change. For instance, ask employees and managers to share challenges that could be solved by stronger interpersonal cohesion. Allow people to independently realize that better relationships among employees (and, eventually, mentoring) will drive the organization forward. This group problem-solving creates empowerment and ownership over the change. If done right, it will also motivate people to embrace and champion the change.

Next, look at your company through the eyes of an archeologist. If everyone left the building, what would you see, and what would it tell you about the types of people who worked there? Would you see many common spaces where relationships could prosper, or a cubicle farm that isolated employees? Would you see postings for social events that provided opportunities for relationship-building? Or did you only see mandatory OSHA posters and deadline reminders?

Now, think like an anthropologist. This time, focus on the day-to-day interactions of the people in your organization. Do you see streams of employees walking the halls, or do they remain hidden for most of the day? How do managers communicate with their teams? Do they just send emails, or do they sometimes walk down the halls to speak person-to-person? Are employees having lunch together, or do they eat alone?

Think of ways to make these environments and interactions (or lack thereof) work for you by enabling people to organically forge relationships. Think about how you can harness them to increase both the quantity and quality of daily interactions. Having a people- and relationship-focused culture gives rise to grassroots efforts for employees to engage in activities together. These activities then make it easier for you to encourage mentors and mentees to engage in extracurricular activities, because the gap between what is normal and what you are asking for is smaller. For example, if it’s an established norm to eat lunch with other team members, it provides a natural opportunity for mentors to have lunch with their mentees.

Shifting your company culture toward becoming more people- and relationship-centered may not be easy, but such changes will render mentoring programs more successful and sustainable. After all, the signature of the most powerful mentoring programs is the transition of mentoring relationships from forced mentor-mentee pairings to long-term relationships that arise organically from an already supportive, people-centered culture.

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