Mentoring programs boost employee engagement, productivity and personal satisfaction, increase retention and create a positive employee experience. They are also proven talent attractors for young in-demand workers. According to a 2019 report from Olivet Nazarene University, 76% of 3,000 employees surveyed consider having a mentor important.

A poor mentoring program, however, can be worse than no mentoring at all. The experience is demoralizing and discouraging, creates disengagement and can decrease productivity. Here are six tips to avoid that outcome and create a successful mentoring program.

Set Clear Objectives for Mentoring

While organizational goals are part of the equation, allowing mentors and mentees to work out their own goals makes a mentoring program much more likely to succeed.

“An effective program should encourage each individual mentoring pair to set their own specific goals," said William Taylor, senior career advisor at VelvetJobs, a Los Angeles-based career transition and outplacement firm. "While some mentoring programs focus on general conversation, I’ve found that setting clear development goals works to keep a partnership on track and produce measurable results.”

A pre-mentoring assessment is a good tool to match mentors with mentees. The assessment identifies strengths and weaknesses of each and sets the pair on a path to success.

“In most best-practice mentoring programs, each partnership begins with mentors and mentees agreeing on a set of learning objectives that they will pursue together," said Tal Shelef, co-founder of Condo Wizard, a Canadian site connecting condo builders and buyers. "Giving participants control over the process helps ensure their buy-in and makes it easier for them to fit mentoring into their schedules.”

Next, set goals that are measurable and realistic, both for the participants as well as the teams looking to benefit from mentoring. The goals of the marketing team will be different from those of the IT team, whose goals will differ from HR. Mentoring can mean different things to different people, said Adam Gordon, co-founder of Miami-based PTO Genius.

“It's important to take the time to set attainable and measurable goals that will guide the program and provide direction for participants and facilitators," he said. "Think SMART goals — specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timely.”

Related Article: How Mentoring Programs Encourage Employee Engagement

Provide Mentoring Training

Employees should not be thrust into a mentorship program without training on how to be effective. Successful organizations set the stage by training mentors and mentees on roles and expectations, effective communication strategies and relationship-building techniques, Shelef said.

"For mentors, training tends to focus on ways to talk to and build trust with mentees," he said. "For mentees, it’s often about how to ask the right questions and learn from their mentors.”

There are practical tools available to facilitate an effective mentoring program and they should be provided in the learning process just as with any learning initiative. Shelef recommended starting from the beginning, with tools and templates to walk participants through the steps, track goals and jump-start conversations.

Pay special attention to power dynamics, as well. The mentor is generally in a position of authority or seniority and should be responsible for making the other employee feel comfortable. Ideally, the mentor should be supportive, encouraging and helpful, and actively listen to a mentee's questions. The goal is to create a bond based on empathy and trust that encourages understanding and learning.

But it's not just about the mentee. The mentorship experience should be a positive experience in which both parties gain a better understanding of each other and the objectives of the business. Mentoring programs "should be engaging, fruitful, light, and well-organized,” Shelef said, and play a role in “helping employees to feel comfortable with their workplace.”

Mentoring Is Not One-Size-Fits-All

In every business, there are employees who naturally gravitate towards one another and those who do not. Not everyone can be an effective mentor and effective ones are not always the right fit for a mentee. Selection is the biggest challenge. “This can be the trickiest aspect and the one we know the least about,” Gordon said.

The key is to pair mentors and mentees based on skill sets, experience and personality. Mentees can take a survey to weigh their interests and potential goals, and potential mentors can interview with managers or department heads to make the initial decision. 

Gordon narrows the mentoring pool down to several potential candidates and then allows the new mentee to choose the best match based on his or her goals. “We found the most success in giving participants input and choice — for example, suggesting two or three possible mentors and then letting the employee choose who's best for them," he said.

Chemistry is key to success, said Wendy Appel, author and founding partner of leadership development company Trilogy Effect. “There should be a good match between mentor and mentee — chemistry and whether the mentee respects and trusts the mentor,” she said.

Mentorship can fail when the relationship is forced, said Laura Handrick, HR consultant at Choosing Therapy, a mental health and wellness education provider. "Don't choose your mentors based on who has the best skills or most company experience," she said. "Choose your mentors based on who has the most compassion, empathy and patience. The goal is for the new hire to feel welcomed, not schooled.”

Related Article: The Benefits and Challenges of Remote Mentorship Programs

Mentoring Should Be a 2-Way Street

The objective of a mentor-mentee relationship is learning on both sides of the equation. Handrick said mentorships work when mentors and the people they're mentoring are both committed to the relationship and what they'll get out of it.

“The mentor gains leadership competence, self-esteem by knowledge sharing, and a trusted new friendship," she said. “The mentee gains a sense of belonging, insights into the organizational culture, insight into unwritten rules and awareness of political landmines to avoid.”

Learning Opportunities

Benefits on both sides are the key to effectiveness, said Dennis Bell, founder and CEO of Byblos Coffee. "As the mentor shares knowledge and experiences, the new employee learns from it," he said. "The latter gets pieces of advice and honest feedback that helps in improving performance. It helps to boost their confidence and morale along the way. Employees feel valued and appreciated.”

Related Article: Improve Your Onboarding for a Better Employee Experience

Adequately Resource Your Mentoring Program

Mentoring is more than just a mechanism to teach employees new skills. “As a CEO, I realized that aside from providing training, mentoring is an effective way to keep employees engaged," Bell said. "It builds better relationships and promotes professional development.”

Bell said a mentoring program should be a priority for businesses as it contributes positively to both leaders and employees. “Mentoring helps in gaining a better understanding and perspective of the organization," he said. "It's an effective way for employees to feel connected and increase engagement, which makes them more productive and efficient for a long time.”

That means it's important for a business to fully invest in their mentoring program as a vital part of the business strategy. Trilogy Effect’s Appel said the business needs to stand firmly behind the decision to implement a mentoring program with people, time and money.

“When you resource the program, you set it up for success,” she said. “You are demonstrating that you consider this important both to the mentor and mentee and the rest of the organization. If a mentor is part of a career mentorship program and suddenly gets drop-shipped into a new team without an understanding of the purpose, role and expectations for them, this could blow up in the face of the mentor and mentee.”

That doesn't mean it should always be a formal program. In fact, Appel said informal mentoring initiatives can also be effective.

Informal mentoring “is a great way to make a new employee feel more at home and connected in their new workplace," she said. "Then there's all the potential benefits of pairing younger with more experienced employees to focus on specific areas of development.“

Use Assessments to Measure Effectiveness

PTO Genius’ Gordon recently completed the latest round of mentoring at his company and said there needs to be a tight feedback loop to find out if the mentoring program has been effective.

“It's difficult to know if your mentoring program is a success if you don't track program metrics and ask for feedback," he said. "Capture feedback through surveys. Ask participants and stakeholders how well the mentoring program met their goals and the goals of the organization. Also, establish a formal process that brings closure to the mentoring experience.”

Actively listening to the feedback of both mentors and mentees at the end of the mentoring program improves the program for the next round.  

“An effective mentoring program is the one that is implemented with specific key performance indicators that can be used to gauge the overall success of the program" said Velvet Jobs' Taylor. "When a program is structured with clear, realistic goals, it will yield better results down the road.”

Key performance indicators, or KPIs, will be different for each department in a business. Marketing may be interested in how many new leads were generated, the response rate or the purchase funnel, while the sales department may be focused on sales per rep, churn rates or conversion times. Specific KPIs are useful for evaluating the success or failure of the mentoring program for each mentee.

In sum, a mentorship program can be an effective way to gain a greater understanding of the skillsets of employees while enabling them to work on weaknesses. Done right, it builds lasting work relationships, facilitates professional development, increases employee engagement and productivity and helps employees feel connected, valued and appreciated. And it improves the employee journey for everyone involved, both mentor and mentee.