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7 Steps to Build a Solid and Scalable Mentorship Program

A scalable mentorship program is one of the most valuable additions you can make to your growing small business.

If your small business is like most, you employ knowledgeable, business-savvy leaders and rising high achievers. But are you connecting those two groups in a meaningful way? Dr. Sherry Hartnett says many organizations aren’t—or at least they aren’t doing so in a way that maximizes the wealth of knowledge and experience your most experienced people possess.

“Senior employees are some of your most valuable resources,” says Dr. Hartnett, coauthor along with Bert Thornton of the new book High-Impact Mentoring: A Practical Guide to Creating Value in Other People’s Lives. “They represent a lot of value that you’re leaving on the table if you don’t have a well-designed, well-executed, scalable mentoring program.”

There are numerous proven benefits to such a program, says Dr. Hartnett. A great mentoring program helps you attract and retain talent. It improves employee satisfaction. It drives organizational performance, builds a deep bench, and reduces training budgets.

However—and this is a big however—you’ve got to do it right.

The good news is, building a thriving mentoring program with great ROI is within every company’s reach, regardless of budget or experience. Dr. Hartnett, who is founding director of the University of West Florida’s Executive Mentor Program, has identified seven vital steps to help companies create a robust, successful, and lasting mentoring program:


Step 1: Define your ‘why’

Decide what you want your program to achieve. For instance, do you want to increase the number of minorities in leadership positions, retain valuable employees, or onboard high-potential new hires? When you articulate how mentoring will improve your organization, you can thoughtfully shape a successful program and get buy-in from leaders, mentors, mentees, and other stakeholders.


Step 2: Find the right program champion

The person who heads up your program will have a profound impact on its strategy, execution, and, ultimately, its success. Dr. Hartnett suggests his or her primary focus should be leading your mentoring program, as adding such a large task to an existing workload would cause the champion to struggle on both fronts. She also recommends this person be an opportunity-focused connector who is confident, tenacious, and accountable. “Put a lot of thought into this decision, because it will make or break your program,” she says.


Step 3: Set goals and metrics

Align your mentoring program with your business objectives and identify metrics you can use to measure movement toward those goals. For instance, you might want to increase top-employee retention by 10 percent from last year, or double the number of women in management positions within 18 months.

“Tracking this data will tell you whether your program is succeeding and what you may need to change,” notes Dr. Hartnett. “It will also tangibly illustrate to senior leaders why mentoring should be a continued priority.”


Step 4: Build your program and start small

Dr. Hartnett warns against “diving in.” Before the first mentor-mentee pair meets, you should secure any necessary funding, staff, and supplies. Systems should be in place for selecting mentors and mentees, training and communicating with participants, and evaluating the program. “But remember, the enemy of greatness is perfection,” says Dr. Hartnett. “It’s okay to start with a small pilot program to work out any kinks.”


Step 5: Recruit and connect

It’s essential to attract, screen, and train great mentors (but don’t make it compulsory!). Likewise, decide what your ideal mentee looks like (e.g., people who have been with the organization at least three years or high-potential new hires). Then, thoughtfully match mentor resources to mentee needs, striving for common interests between the two

“Both parties must understand up front what the length of the mentorship will be (I suggest a renewable 12-month period), how often meetings will take place, what the goals are, and that there will be work involved,” says Dr. Hartnett.


Step 6: Nurture your people and your program

Even the best-designed mentoring program won’t function for long on autopilot. It’s crucial to provide plenty of ongoing support. Organizing a keynote speaker at a meeting, setting up a networking event, and publishing a regular newsletter are all great ways to reinforce initial training and nurture the connections being made. Also, find ways to invite regular feedback from each participant and use that information to improve processes.


Step 7: Measure to improve

Whether capturing results and feedback is accomplished through surveys, performance reviews, or other methods, data is vital to the progression and scalability of your program. It allows you to review, revise, and continuously improve your mentoring program.

“I suggest measuring outcomes semi-annually or annually,” says Dr. Hartnett. “You can also informally poll and interview participants throughout the year. And don’t underestimate the little things—small tweaks can lead to significant results!”


“Don’t skip any of these seven steps; all are crucial to successfully achieving your organization’s mentoring goals,” says Dr. Hartnett. “And when you reach the end of the seventh step, circle back to the beginning. Continuing to cycle through these seven steps and always giving critical thought to improving your program will keep it vital, relevant, and results-driven for years to come.”


Bert Thornton is the former president and COO of Waffle House. His fi­rst book, Find an Old Gorilla: Pathways Through the Jungle of Business and Life, is a well-received leadership handbook for rising high achievers and emerging leaders. Dr. Sherry Hartnett is a marketing and leadership professor, consultant, author, and mentor. At the University of West Florida, she founded the pioneering, high-impact experiential learning Executive Mentor Program.


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