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Do Formal Mentoring Programs Work?

07/15/2014 12:47 EDT | Updated 09/14/2014 05:59 EDT
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Mentoring -- it is a hot topic. People are saying that "everyone needs a mentor." And probably we do, but it is finding one that is the challenge.

Government is even getting into the act, with the recent call for proposals from Status of Women, inviting organizations to apply for funding to establish mentoring programs.

But here is the thing: I don't personally think formal mentoring programs work. Sorry but from my own experiences, unless you have a sound matching program in place -- like e-Harmony, or something -- the forced mentoring doesn't always pan out the way it should.

Now I am not saying that mentoring doesn't work. It does but in my experience it works when it is organic, when it happens because two people connect and want to help one another. I say that because both mentor and mentee can gain from the experience, it is not all one-sided.

So how do you make this informal, mentoring happen? It is a good, and a tough question. First I think you have to create a climate within an organization where mentoring is a given; that senior staff see it as their role to foster and encourage the women coming up the ranks.

In a world of "what's in it for me" offering training and leadership opportunities to encourage people to step forward as mentors may be the way to go. Developing a "bank" of mentors and promoting them as such makes sense. Then those wanting to advance within the company can access this bank, as and when they need it.

Expecting one person to deliver the goods may be unrealistic, but if you as the junior employee can access a range of people with different expertise to help you with your career, that may be more effective.

Just bringing junior and senior staff together is a start. Perhaps to hear one of the "trained" mentors talk about a topic within her realm of expertise. That way the mentees get a chance to see the person in action, and determine whether they'd actually want or feel comfortable in seeking her support.

Now I work with many solopreneurs, and so the approach would have to be different, but in many ways similar. Bringing seasoned and newbie entrepreneurs together could again foster the informal mentoring opportunity.

We are all busy people, so like everything else, we need to be respectful of people's time. Both mentor and mentee need to have specific goals in mind, and if after several meetings, the mentee has not taken action, then you'd want to know why. What is holding the person back, and is this a good fit?

Perhaps by lowering the expectations, more people would step forward as mentors, and see it more as befriending a younger employee or less seasoned business owner, and helping them find and navigate their way.

What I do know is when mentoring works, and you see the individual blossom and grow, it is so rewarding, because you know in some small way, you've been a catalyst for that growth.

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