Companies with mentoring programs report higher employee satisfaction, increased loyalty and lower turnover. Mentees and mentors perform better, earning more promotions and salary increases over time. Mentoring can also be a key element of a successful leadership development strategy, helping to build a pipeline of high-performing leaders.

Mentoring, even in a professional environment, is a personal experience. A mentoring partnership is by definition a relationship, and it differs from the relationships an employee has with managers or coaches. And for mentoring to achieve its objectives – with high engagement in a “safe space” where both mentee and mentor can learn and grow – a thoughtful and intentional structure is essential.

It’s this formalized structure behind a great mentoring program that allows what could be awkward and uncomfortable to be instead focused, comfortable and impactful.

The Digital Disconnect

It’s worth noting that technology provides powerful tools for connecting professionals and transferring knowledge, particularly for gathering information from a broad network of people. The ease of connecting via social media and other technological avenues allows professionals to vastly expand their networks, granting access to valuable information from individuals with diverse experiences. But access to networks doesn’t replace mentoring any more than social media “likes” replace friendships.

Technology can streamline the process by which potential mentees identify desirable mentors. However, in our years of experience in matching thousands of mentoring partnerships, we have seen that mentees rarely select the best mentors for themselves; they are often too focused on a mentor’s title or network. There’s simply no substitute for engaging real people and actual human contact in the mentoring process if your goal is to leverage mentoring to develop high-potential talent.

The four pillars

Achieving those heralded outcomes from mentoring (retention, promotion and engagement) requires structure and process. High-impact mentoring is built around four specific strategies that provide depth and “stickiness” for long-term growth and achievement.

The first two are often incorporated in programs with varying degrees of rigor. We find that the third and fourth are rarely practiced, yet they are the differentiators that will take your mentoring program to the “high-impact” level.

1: Partnership Matching

Strong mentee-mentor matching is the foundation of a constructive mentoring relationship. The mentor’s career experiences must align with the mentee’s needs and the critical gaps that, if filled, could allow her to progress in her career. Each mentee needs someone who, regardless of title, has conscious competence in how to break through the barriers that are holding her back in her career.

For example, a mentee with strong financial acumen who is interested in a CFO position may be better served by a mentor with deep experience in interpersonal communications than by a CFO, who might have similar strengths and weaknesses. Over the years, we have fine-tuned what we see as the optimal matching process. Here are some highlights:

  • Conduct personal interviews with both mentees and potential mentors to fully understand each person’s experiences, interests, goals, development areas and life situations. Build a picture of each individual and what he or she brings to a potential partnership.
  • Allow the mentee’s needs to drive each match – not the mentor’s position or personality. Chemistry is overrated in the matching process. The goal isn’t to facilitate personal friendships; it’s about aligning specific mentor experiences to the mentee’s developmental needs.
  • Begin with a pool of mentors larger than the pool of mentees. Great mentors will go unmatched, but this process allows for focusing on the best mentor for each mentee.

Mentoring relationships based on rigorous and thoughtful matching drive measurable growth, create unique learning opportunities and maximize participant engagement. Each mentoring partnership is unique, but when partners are well matched, they quickly find common ground and establish trust, promoting a sustainable and dynamic relationship.

2: Mentee, Mentor and Partnership Training

Mentees and mentors are often unclear about their responsibilities, and it’s essential that each understand in detail how the partnership will function: who will schedule meetings, how often and what time of day they will meet, how cancellations will be handled, etc. Structure mitigates the natural discomfort, and training around these key elements is essential, including:

  • A detailed summary of the terms of the partnership, the expectations for frequency and format of connection points, and a definition of each participant’s role
  • Shared expectations for communication, preparedness, scheduling and formality, which clearly defines the mentee’s role in managing the partnership
  • Clear outlines for partnership phases around trust-building, goal-setting, feedback-sharing and ongoing progress
  • The importance of defining goals for the partnership

It’s also essential that the partnership be “kicked off” with some relationship-building exercises that help partners understand communication styles, personalities and behavior norms. Behavioral and personality assessments are often helpful for creating a common language to facilitate this process.

3: Partnership Coaching

Within the first two to three months of a partnership, it’s critical to ensure that the mentee and mentor are establishing positive habits and connecting in a healthy way. You are driving the creation of a relationship, and relationships can encounter some discomfort in their initial stages.

A live conversation with each mentee and mentor can identify challenges and create the opportunity for coaching to facilitate connection. Quite frequently, there are challenges such as uncomfortable communication or a misunderstanding about scheduling. Intervention by a third party opens the door for a frank conversation that can ensure that the partnership remains on track. It is also common for a mentee or mentor to need encouragement and validation that his or her approach is on point.

By engaging in conversation early in the partnership, you can identify both the mentee’s and mentor’s levels of engagement and set the tone that will determine the partnership’s long-term success. You can assess if trust has been established, if the mentee is opening up and taking advantage of all that the mentor can offer, and if the mentor is creating meaningful connection points. By asking insightful questions, you can identify problems or potential issues before they become insurmountable and then work to fix them.

4: Supporting Content

A tremendous number of mentoring partnerships simply “run out” of things to talk about. We find that partners often have one or two action-packed, strategic and powerful conversations, and then the mentee becomes uncertain of how to truly leverage the insights of the mentor.

This problem has one of two causes. Engagement may wane as partners are unsure how to keep the conversation alive. Alternatively, partnerships might shift to topics that are short-term in nature, as mentees discuss current realities or situations instead of the longer-term, strategic topics that could advance their careers.

A sound underpinning of rich content is a critical component in sustaining high-impact mentoring partnerships. Whether through interactive workshops or discussion guides, mentees must be continually exposed to content on far-reaching, career-impacting concepts such as executive presence, organizational culture, corporate politics, career planning and strategic communications.

When mentees are focused on these big ideas, they can comfortably lead their mentoring conversations to explore their mentors’ experiences, opinions and thought processes related to these critical issues. We also find that when equipped with core topics of discussion, partners feel prepared for meaty and deep conversations, remain attuned to the value of the relationship and stay engaged.

The Payoff

Far too many mentoring programs result in creating “polite but ineffective” conversations. Research shows that mentoring has significant benefits for mentees, mentors and organizations, but these results aren’t realized without careful planning. Many organizations enjoy great success with high-impact mentoring programs and reap the benefits of developing full and diverse pipelines of leadership talent.

It is structure, clarity and support that drive this value. Building a mentoring program around these four proven strategies will provide a foundation for real knowledge transfer and individual development that will transform your top talent into leaders who move the organization forward.