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Leadership Why highly structured mentorship programs don’t work

Head of marketing & sales, 3M Canada

If 22 years of experience in mentorship roles of one kind or another has taught me anything about being a mentor, it’s this: If you are being asked to mentor, you’re ready to be a mentor. Let me explain.

Prevailing wisdom on mentorship programs tout their success in helping employees be more successful, reducing turnover, increasing loyalty and helping create new opportunities for participants. Certainly, any type of mentorship program has the potential to affect these and other measures of employee engagement.

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The problem, however, is that highly structured programs don’t readily and easily bring mentees and mentors together and can unnecessarily restrict participation. In fact, the most successful mentorship programs are informal ones. Why? Because in my experience they reduce barriers, make participation easier and allow the program to evolve organically to serve individual employee needs better. They empower employees to tap other employees for guidance and encourage a lifetime of mentoring habits. Here are some things to consider personally and organizationally to encourage mentoring behaviours.

The first order of business is to foster less formality.

One of the biggest pitfalls of mentorship programs is excessive structure, which can include matching programs and set time frames that often feel contrived and arbitrary. Further, they elicit a sense of obligation to deliver something of value to someone who often isn’t sure exactly what they need.

The truth is, mentorship can last a moment, a few months or a lifetime – but it should be driven by the mentee, not the program. One-to-many opportunities should also be part of any mentoring initiative and can reach a broader set of employees.

At 3M we encourage group mentoring through opportunities such as Lean in Circles and Straight Talk Breakfasts, which help the less extroverted employees get the input they need to move ahead in their careers in a less structured way. It was at one such talk that, unbeknownst to me at the time, I was able to convince a female employee to apply for a job posting she felt unqualified for; my talk gave her the context and courage to go ahead.

Confidence is another big issue for both the mentor and mentee. A common myth is that mentors need to be senior experts in their field. The reality is that many junior employees can and do have valuable, fresh perspectives and unique skills to share. At 3M, junior high-potential employees routinely mentor new employees regardless of level. This sets them up with the confidence they need to continue as mentors for the rest of their careers.

Mentees, too, need to be confident and empowered to approach anyone in the organization. This means all employees must know to expect requests, feel comfortable taking them and be allowed time to fulfill them. If someone asks you to mentor them, they’ve decided you’re ready – take their lead. I’ve never known anyone to say no to a mentee when approached, including our company president.

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Finally, culture must cultivate the right atmosphere and empower employees to take the first step. Accessibility and leading by example are key – and begin with opening your door and creating space that encourages colleagues or other employees to ask questions and develop a mentoring relationship.

Don’t limit mentoring to a one-way transaction – this is a missed opportunity to draw valuable information from outside your circle. Asking a mentee how they see the organization or how you might improve things can be incredibly insightful and can change the dynamic and improve engagement.

2018 is the Year of the Mentor at 3M – and we are emphasizing our long-standing program of employee-led, open-ended mentoring that has served us so well. We provide guidance and online training for reference, but our employees run with it and it continues to be very successful for us.

Here’s the bottom line: It’s always a good thing anytime employees get together to share wisdom, advice or guidance. The best thing we can do is encourage all employees to be part of a mentorship relationship, lead by example and get out of the way.

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