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Mentorship fundamentals

WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- I have studied, designed, launched, repaired and been a part of many mentoring programs during my 25-year-plus career in talent management. To be frank, at this point I have some pretty strong biases about how to design and execute mentoring programs because I have seen so many fail. They almost never yield what is hoped for, but there are some exceptions.

My own philosophy about how to construct mentoring programs is rooted in these exceptional successes.

What do you talk about?

Topics worked on in the mentoring relationship typically include areas such as strengths and weaknesses of leadership style, modifying damaging behavioral patterns, addressing gaps in leadership and management skills, or making a leap to the next level of responsibility.

Mentoring can be accomplished with a mentor either internal or external to the organization. An internal mentor, however, can offer significant advantages if well chosen. A senior executive will have a broader view of the internal working of the organization than the mentee, as well as a successful track record of negotiating success in that organization. Mentors should be chosen on several criteria, but one of the most important is their knowledge of how to make important and valuable things happen in that organization.

Mentors can also help with the landmines: where they are and how to avoid them, and how to recover from missteps. Yes, this is about politics, but politics are found in virtually every organization with people. If engaging in politics seems distasteful, then think instead in terms of influence, sensitivity to cultural norms, dealing with difficult people and knowledge of human nature -- because these are elements of politics. Political savvy and emotional intelligence significantly overlap.

Why mentoring fails

Lack of chemistry is the most common reason that mentoring relationships fail. Either the mentor or mentee just can't relate to the other or make a meaningful connection. When this happens, mentees can experience the meetings as too uncomfortable or just not productive, and mentors may consistently dodge their obligations to the mentee by being "too busy." If the pair does not work out, it is vital that changes be made quickly. If negotiated properly with the mentoring program lead, these changes don't have to be uncomfortable or seen as a failure.

What works in mentoring programs

Whether mentors are internal or external, I prefer to have mentorships reside in the framework of a formal program rather than relying on ad hoc arrangements. The successful mentoring programs that I've designed or experienced in industry have incorporated a great deal of structure. The structural components typically include:

1. A specified period of time for the program, say, for example, nine months. This way, both parties feel on point to accomplish their objectives, and there are established start and stop points so the relationship doesn't just fizzle out or uncomfortably fade away at some point.

2. Formal guidelines and training for both mentors and mentees. Expectations and commitments are clarified and both parties have a set of formal and firm guidelines to steer them through the process. This training can be accomplished on one session, but it is important and mentors can't be given a "pass."

3. A provision to quickly address pairs that are not working out or have failed to make a connection as I've mentioned above.

One successful example

One unusual program I participated in as a mentor really changed my outlook about what success looks like. Sponsored and structured by an outside third party, this program used the team approach: two mentors paired with four mentees. The mentees just loved it.

I had quite a different leadership style from the other mentor, and we approached problems very differently. Those differences were a favorite feature of the mentees. Our group sessions were remarkably dynamic, and the mentees reported it helpful to see that different approaches could work equally well. They could choose for themselves which approach in which situation played to their strengths.

The second advantage of this team concept, one I wouldn't have anticipated, was that the mentees felt less awkward calling on us between meetings if they had a problem. Because they could call one or the other of us, they felt the burden they imposed was less onerous.

The mentees spoke with great feeling about how we had helped each one of them through difficult decisions and missteps that year, all with positive outcomes. When a mentoring program does work, it can indeed be powerful.

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