Mentoring For Adults:
Mentoring Program Design

After more than 25 years of workplace mentoring programs for adults, I still get excited every time I read a new pile of applications. Why?

Because one person who really cares and shares is still the best way to help someone find a goal and reach toward it.

Because mentoring programs give access to that person, to mentees who just won’t find someone any other way.

Because I know from experience with hundreds of people across the U.S. and elsewhere, that any mentee who is ready to work can be helped by a mentor. Not, as they may expect, because the mentor will wave a magic wand. But because, in the course of a year of close and revealing conversations and questions, the mentor will help the mentee learn what really matters to them and how to go about making it happen.

If you are giving any thought to creating a mentoring program, think again. It’s a lot of work, and it can’t all be contracted out. But, if you do pursue it, you will find that it’s worth every minute. Ask even one mentee whose life is utterly different now that she loves her job – and sometimes it’s the same one.

FAQ's About Mentoring Programs

Here’s some of what I’ve learned in more than twenty years of designing and implementing mentoring programs in Federal agencies, and teaching people in India, Belgium and England about them.

What are the purposes of a mentoring program?
There’s no prescription, but you had better have some good ones, or you’ll be doing motherhood and apple pie. Do you want to pass on institutional knowledge, diversify the new crop of scientists, or help support staff move into a different series? Be specific, and then look at the outcomes.

Can formal programs work?
Formal programs can work (where people are matched one-to-one), but ONLY with a significant amount of support from before the beginning until after the end. Your organization needs to dedicate some significant staff support as well as an outside expert. Half measures don’t work.

Whom should we let in?
Both mentors and mentees need a rigorous application process to test motivation and commitment. Make it in keeping with your goals. Personally, my bias is always toward programs which are inclusive of different occupations rather than “the best and the brightest.” You never know who that’s going to be!

What do people expect of mentoring programs?
Most mentors and mentees enter mentoring programs full of inappropriate fantasies, and success depends on bursting their balloons. Many mentors think they have to be Moses, and many mentees want them to be fairy godmothers.

Can’t we just train them and tell them to find each other?
Training people how to be mentors, or how to look for mentors, works if they are highly motivated. Most people need the structure of matching and followup.

What does it take to run a mentoring program?
One nut who really believes in it and will keep on asking for funding and resources until it happens – and a dedicated committee of volunteers who do publicity, recruitment, matching, and support throughout the year.

How many pairs should we start with?
Keep the numbers small. Pilot with ten or fifteen pairs, and unless your resources are substantial for followup, keep it down to 30 or fewer. No Committee member should monitor more than 4 participants.

How can you match people up?
Matching is best done with a combination of intuition and objective information, and should always be subject to a “chemistry test.”

What if geography is a barrier?
Long distance matches work if the parties have a good, long meeting at the beginning of the program and make a good connection. It can be sustained through e-mail and phone by people who really care about each other.

What guidance do the pairs need?
Expert training is essential for both parties, to rein in expectations and develop specific goals for the mentees, and to ensure that the role is clear to both parties. Mentors need reinforcement in coaching and counseling skills, and to understand appropriate boundaries.

Most pairs get down to business best with some supportive framework – a contract of some kind, and monitoring through the year. Keeping the business focus is especially important in relationships where people are comfortable with each other.

What if people don’t get along?
A no-fault initial chemistry test is a must. After that point, most troubled pairs can be saved with some thoughtful intervention by an empowered outsider (program coordinator or committee member). But the pair will not let you know they’re in trouble unless you call and ask. That’s why monthly monitoring is essential.

What followup do we need?
A good relationship should be established between a Committee Contact and every pair, in person, followed by monthly contact to see how it’s going and provide resources if needed.

Ongoing evaluation of the goals the pair sets is important documentation for the program as well as for the individuals. Thinking about evaluation up-front makes it useful later on.

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© Mary Dingee Fillmore, 2004. Copy with permission from mfillmor@together.net