Mentoring is a great way to develop talent, with benefits for both parties (mentor and mentee) invested in the relationship. It has existed as an informal learning method for many centuries, in work set-ups and beyond, with an experienced senior often taking on the mantle of guiding a newcomer.

The focus on structured mentoring is a more recent development, as organizations try to create effective frameworks to maximize the benefits of this natural human relationship. Also, as organizations scale and become more geographically dispersed, it is important to have a structure for mentoring to allow for connections across the organization.

An important part of structuring mentoring is making it accessible to all employees. A single mentoring relationship is limited in terms of the scope of impact. Hence, to truly harness its power, there should be several mentoring relationships across the organization, with employees empowered to seek access to mentoring as needed. With that goal in mind, here are seven ways to improve the reach of a mentoring program:

1. Clarify Program Outline

The biggest concern people have before signing up for a mentoring program is often the lack of clarity around what they are expected to contribute. Helping them understand the goals of the relationship will assure mentees of the benefits they can expect and help mentors understand how to structure their sessions. Clarifying goals at the start also helps build accountability to ensure that the relationship starts on the right note.

Secondly, both mentors and mentees need to know the time and effort they should commit to the relationship. Creating an action plan can help clarify details like the expected frequency and duration of, and the pre-work required for, sessions. Many mentoring programs share these details during an opening session. It’s also a good idea to include these details when promoting the program, so that everyone knows the expectations ahead of time.

2. Make Mentoring Topical

One of the benefits of mentoring is that it is universal in terms of topic. However, this universality can also be overwhelming, making it seem that mentors need a great deal of experience in a broad range of areas. To address these concerns, it helps to make mentoring topical. Defining a topic outlines the scope of the relationship for aspiring mentors and makes identifying mentors easier. This approach also creates inherent flexibility, as a mentor for one topic can be a mentee for another.

3. Explore Different Formats

Traditional mentoring is one-on-one and in person. However, if mentoring is topical and has clearly defined goals and action plans, it can be easy to extend it to other models, like virtual mentoring or one-to-many group mentoring. When opting for a non-traditional format, be sure to establish and describe the nature of the relationship up front. For instance, a group mentoring program should have guidelines for mentors on how to enable two-way communication without allowing one individual to monopolize a discussion. Making mentoring available in different formats can broaden its appeal, as employees choose the method that works best for them.

4. Allow Self-matching

The most important element that determines the success of a mentoring relationship is matching of the mentor and the mentee. Many organizations use mentoring platforms with algorithms that use personality information to match mentors and mentees. However, not all organizations have access to such software. In such cases, instead of trying to replicate the algorithm’s accuracy, it is a good idea to decentralize the matching process. Share a list of available mentors and their attributes and expertise, along with available mentees and their attributes and needs. In such a mentoring “marketplace,” matches are based on mutual interests and alignment, and the process is more transparent. Giving participants a say in the matching process also increases their ownership of the process and sets the stage for a more fruitful relationship.

5. Build Mentoring Support Systems

One of the biggest mentoring mistakes organizations make is setting up the relationship and expecting it to flourish on its own. Productive mentoring requires ongoing support, including training for mentors on how to build the relationship, how to handle different types of conversations and queries, and how to manage their own biases and expectations.

Good practices include supplementing formal training with bite-sized refreshers and resources and creating peer networks for both mentors and mentees. The mentoring program manager should have regular check-ins to help keep the relationship on track with respect to the goals and, more importantly, to give the mentor and the mentee the space to express their concerns and be heard.

6. Recognize Mentors

Particularly when it comes to encouraging more mentors to join the program, a formal recognition platform goes a long way. For mentees, the benefits of a mentoring relationship are direct, especially if the goals are outlined from the start. For the mentor, however, the benefits can sometimes feel distant, especially when multiple work responsibilities vie for precedence.

While some mentors may be intrinsically motivated, to increase the program’s appeal, it is still a good idea to have a recognition system. It could be as simple as positive feedback from the leadership team for the mentor’s role in developing talent or as elaborate as a “Best Mentor” award. Either way, formal recognition is positive reinforcement for current mentors and encouragement for potential mentors.

7. Encourage Paying It Forward

Finally, we cannot overlook the role of the mentees in improving the program’s reach. In many mentoring programs, after an engagement is over, the mentoring program manager keeps in touch only with the mentors, for future relationships. But it is important to engage the mentees, too. They can help through positive word-of-mouth awareness, active recruitment of mentees, or even by signing up and training to become mentors themselves.

The organizational impact of a mentoring program depends on its reach. Structuring a mentoring program with these strategies is a sure-fire way of increasing access to the program, thereby improving reach — and success — by leaps and bounds.

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