6 Rules of Thumb to Help Your Mentoring Program Succeed

Please pardon the boring stock photo's blatant lack of diversity

Mentoring programs are, in part, appealing because they can offer big returns on a relatively small investment of time and resources. Ostensibly, all you have to do is introduce a mentor to a mentee and step back and watch the magic happen.

But there's a lot that can muddle that mentorship magic. When it comes to cultivating meaningful relationships, it's easy to get in our own way.

Here are six rules of thumb to help you stay out of the way of your constituents and make your institution's mentoring program a success.

1. Mentorship happens on its own terms

There are two schools of thought when it comes to matching mentors and mentees: The first treats the process like a mixer, the second like a birthday party micromanaged by an overbearing helicopter parent. (Okay, we're passing judgement here.)

For the sake of the long-term health of mentoring relationships, it's best to let mentors and mentees find each other and set their own expectations rather than make assignments and impose a timeline.

Harvard Business School's Lindsay McConchie, Associate Director of Student & Young Alumni Engagement, and Kathryn Tripp, Assistant Director of Student & Young Alumni Engagement, say, "Organic connections provide space for both students and alumni to find far more commonalities and points of shared interest than would come with a more contrived grouping. So much can come from these organic, unstructured gatherings without the School imposing an agenda."

Read the full interview about how HBS generates alumni connections.

2. Lower barriers mean higher participation and better ease of use

Nobody wants a student to make a bad impression on an alumna who has been generous enough to offer her time to help. In an effort to avoid this problem, many offices impose barriers to entry on their mentoring programs by requiring students to undergo extensive training or by handpicking a pool of participants. This limits the number of people who can join the program and makes joining more difficult, effectively destroying what makes mentoring programs so appealing: scalability. 

Touro College's Assistant Director of Career Services, Chaim Shapiro, says that in the future, Career Services will direct more of its attention to helping students on their own terms:

"I think a lot of the services are going to move toward a model where you meet students where they are. If you want to meet over Skype, work on your résumé on Google Docs, make a phone call, all those things, as opposed to the standard in-person meting where someone’s sitting in front of you and you’re talking to them. I think it’s about engaging them where they are, making sure they get the services they need."

Meeting students where they are means meeting their standards of convenience. Mentoring programs where students have to undergo lengthy training or be selected by hand to join tend to turn students off. It's far more effective to create a culture of professionalism by modeling behavior rather than by running everyone through an inconvenient vetting process. Otherwise you're just turning potential participants away.

Read the full interview with Chaim Shapiro about the future of career services.

3. Mentorship means something different to everyone

"Mentorship" gets thrown around so much in meetings and at conferences that some people have begun to question whether the word is being used correctly at all. Longwood University's Assistant Vice President of Alumni Relations Ryan Catherwood writes, "Connections are not mentors and the difference matters... Unless the mentor and mentee will work together on a project, a potential mentor is really just a connection. (And there’s nothing wrong with that.)"

Ryan's argument raises a good point: People use the word "mentorship" in different ways. (We won't pick one side or another in this blog post, though Ryan makes a strong case that the word is often misused.)

Each one of your constituents has their own desires and needs. A high-level professional has a different conception of mentorship than a college sophomore. Rather than pigeonhole them, let your constituents match themselves with one another based on their hopes and expectations. Don't attempt to define their relationship for them; one size will never fit all.

4. Start small before your big launch

We all like to dream big. Starting small helps make those big dreams a reality.

Northwestern University launched a new mentoring program last January. Less than a year later, they've facilitated hundreds of student-to-alumni and alumni-to-alumni connections. Executive Director of the Northwestern Alumni Association Laura Wayland says that the program's pilot phase has helped them iron out kinks before they launch it to the entire community:

"Starting small has been key to the program’s success. The pilot phase, which will continue until October, has allowed the Northwestern Alumni Association to be flexible and adaptable. Keeping the program small and manageable has helped to resolve issues and bugs in the system and connect people with small groups in a more personal way, resulting in steady growth since the program’s launch."

The worst possible thing you can do is leave a bad taste in a constituent's mouth. If your mentoring program or platform has issues that disappoint or frustrate them, it will be hard to recover students' and alumni's trust and interest. Starting with a smaller group of participants before onboarding the entirety of your community will give you the time and feedback you need to make the program a success.

Read the post: "How Northwestern's Mentorship Program Goes Beyond Buzzwords"

5. You’ll need to invest staff time

TANSTAAFL—There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. The maxim applies as much to staff time and mentoring programs as it does to actual lunches. Your mentoring program will require some staff time, even once it's up and running. Be honest with yourself about how much time you think your program will take, and how much you are willing to spare to make it work.

If you follow the other rules of thumb, though, it shouldn't take too much staff time. A mentoring program that cultivates organic interactions, has low barriers to entry, starts small, and remains flexible won't entirely run itself, but it will run far more efficiently than a program that's heavily micromanaged.

6. Plans are useless, But planning is indispensable

In our work with our partner schools we see this all the time: Offices want to have every last detail decided, every date chosen, every goal set. We all know the feeling—who doesn't like to keep chaos at bay by making lists? But we also all know it can get so out of hand that we spend more time planning than we do implementing our plan.

Things seldom go according to plan. If you spent hours making an elaborate one and then something changes, all that effort goes out the window. Worse yet is trying to stick to your plan after that change has rendered it irrelevant.

In the tech world, companies use the word "iterate" to describe how they test, launch, and revise their products. Remember all those small changes Facebook has made over the years, gradually changing its platform into something far different from the original? Each of those tweaks was an iteration. By iterating your mentorship program, you can respond to failures and successes by tweaking what doesn't work and investing in what does. We don't recommend flying by the seat of your pants—just being observant and adaptive.

Read the post by Web Developer Anders Ramsay, "Three Reasons to Start Designing Iteratively," to learn more more about iterative design.