No doubt: Mentorship is the best way to build new leaders. A system of senior professionals investing in younger ones can also create camaraderie and share skills across the team.
The truth, though, is that not all mentorship programs are created equal: Some build real relationships, while others simply make mentors and mentees go through the motions.
What’s the difference? Some of it comes down to individual relationships, but many dysfunctions are due to the program itself.
Everyone can benefit from sharing wisdom and encouragement. If you want to build a meaningful mentorship program, watch out for the following pitfalls:
1. Forcing mentorship on all new hires
Requiring mentorship for all new hires is one of those ideas that sounds good but doesn’t work well in practice. That’s because when something is forced, people become less willing to partake in it.
Don’t undercut new employees’ autonomy. Realize that mentorship may not be the best way to integrate them into your team.
Onboarding and orientation are short-term, one-size-fits-all processes. Employees don’t need a senior member of the team to show them how to fill out a benefits application.
Mentorship, in contrast, is a long-term endeavor that seeks to support employees’ individual goals and development. It’s more about helping people find fulfillment than getting a company process down pat.
Misunderstanding the purpose of mentorship can cause frustrations down the line. Provide the opportunity to everyone, and emphasize the benefits. After that, let each member of the team engage when they are ready.
2. Making it all about leadership roles
Mentorship is a lot more than management training. To be valuable, mentorship must be holistic and guided by the mentee.
The truth is that leadership means different things to different people. Some people are suited to management positions. Others lead by excelling in their work or being a strong team player.
A solid mentorship program encourages employees to chart their own path. The mentor’s role is to help them become the best version of themselves.
3. Matching the wrong people
The mentor-mentee relationship can thrive or fail simply based on the people involved. Each person needs to feel like they can relate to the other on some level. That could mean that they have a lot in common; it could also mean that they have mutual respect for each other.
One way to begin the matching process is to understand people’s personalities. A personality test like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator can help you identify pairings that might work well together. However, personality tests should only be a starting point.
After getting preliminary data, check the fit. Hold a mentorship mixer for interested mentors and mentees to interact. Use team-building events to determine who works well with who.
4. Having unrealistic expectations
Mentors and mentees should challenge one another, but expecting too much can be detrimental. Neither personal nor professional growth is linear.
Both parties should always be in agreement about the terms of the mentorship. Mentors can overstep their boundaries and overwhelm mentees. And on the other side, a mentee might expect the mentor to put in all the work. In some cases, both parties can feel like the other person is too clingy.
Check in with mentors and mentees periodically. Ask both parties whether they’ve experienced tension with the other. If their answers don’t match, get them in a room together to talk it out.
5. Failing to prioritize
Many mentor-mentee relationships fail due to neglect. Balancing work and life can be difficult in the best of times, and stressors can cause people to shut down or ignore their partner.
Nip this in the bud by structuring your mentorship program. Don’t leave the dynamic completely up to the pair. Help them decide when and how often to meet.
Support both sides by sharing tips about how to prioritize their time. Key steps include:
- Setting achievable work goals
- Deciding what is essential and non-essential
- Keeping a work log
- Tackling your toughest task for the day first
- Minimize interruptions and distractions
6. Structuring the program too rigidly
A mentorship program needs structure in order to be successful, but don’t overdo it. Nobody wants to open a binder of to-dos every time they meet with their partner. There should be some level of informality.
Too much structure can stifle relationships. It can also create a crisis for people who feel like they aren’t reaching the outlined growth outcomes. It’s better to let people develop at their own pace — and that’s true for mentors and mentees alike.
Mentorship can be remarkably rewarding. But if one or both sides aren’t willing to put in the effort, it can also fall apart.
Make sure mentees and mentors are invested, and remember that adjustments may need to be made. As long as you’re flexible and fair in your expectations, your mentorship program will work its magic.