June 24, 2018

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Mentor Programs - Starting Right

Getting a mentoring relationship off to a good start

Dear Joan:

Our company has started a new Mentor Program for high potential employees. I have been selected as one of the mentors. (Iím a VP of Marketing.) I think itís great that the company is doing this but Iíve talked to a few other "mentors" and we arenít really sure what we are supposed to be doing. Our HR department has suggested that we meet with our "mentees" (who they paired us with) on a regular basis but havenít given us much guidance regarding what we should talk about and what they expect out of us.

My mentee is from a different department and she was paired up with me supposedly because she wants to work on her interpersonal skills. Weíve met once just to get to know each other.

Any guidance you provide would be helpful and Iíll pass it on to the rest of the group.


Congratulations on being selected as a mentor. It tells me that the organization feels that you have qualities they hope you will teach others.

Mentor programs are relatively new as a formal phenomenon. Of course, mentor/protege relationships have always existed but the formalized version is an attempt to force high potential people to bloom. Much like a flower bulb is given special treatment to force it to bloom in winter; mentor programs create special conditions to speed growth.

When I teach mentoring skills to new mentors, the first thing we work on is setting ground rules and expectations for their new relationships. Following are just a few ideas that should be discussed with your mentee and perhaps even with her boss.

Donít get between your mentee and her manager. Your role should never undercut his or her authority or responsibilities. Letís take some examples. For instance, if she comes to you complaining about something her boss did, donít take sides. Instead, guide her with questions that provoke insight into the situation. Send her back with a strategy that will help her resolve the situation on her own.

Donít be her spokesperson with others. Your relationship is designed to coach and teach her, not to do things for her. For example, if she is having a conflict with a senior manager and peer of yours, and she asks you to intervene on her behalf and "go talk to him for me," donít come to her rescue. Instead, coach her on what to say and how to approach the problem. Then ask her to report back to you on how it went the next time you meet. This way, you can hold her accountable for completing the task as well as put yourself in a position to coach her again if it isnít resolved.

Clarify confidentiality. The goal is to develop trust between you but not if it jeopardizes the organization. For example, if she confides that her boss is engaged in an unethical practice, you may need to report it for further investigation. Or, if she says that someone in her area is sexually harassing her, you would be bound by law to tell HR. However, the boundaries can get grayer. For instance, if she tells you that she is thinking of leaving the organization, that is a private conversation that should not be shared with others. However, you would probably want to find out why and encourage her to take steps that would make her want to stay. On the other hand, it wouldnít be appropriate to help her leave.

Donít do her work for her. Make her think. It may be very simple for you to just tell her what to do, since you are a successful executive. But she wonít learn as much as if you guide her with self-discovery questions. It may be a real growth opportunity for you to take a step back and analyze why certain things work and break it down into teachable steps.

Donít pull any punches on the political realities. Fill her in on what moving up in your organization really involves. So much of an executiveís world is based on informal relationships and knowing how things get done outside of the formal structure, you can be a valuable teacher if you share some tips in this subtle domain.

Be honest. The beauty of being a mentor instead of a boss is that you can tell it to her straight without the worry of damaging the boss/employee relationship. Itís more likely she will embrace your feedback, since she doesnít have to worry about how it will appear on her performance review.

Once the ground rules and expectations have been set, spend time outlining goals she would like to work on throughout the year. Pick a time to meet (every three weeks, perhaps) and determine how youíd like to spend your time together. For instance, you might start with a brief review of how her work is going and a report on any "homework" you have given her and then pick a fresh topic to discuss. Itís a good idea to send her away each time with a brief action plan, even if itís merely a phrase to use or an approach to try.

If all goes well, she will shorten her developmental learning curve and begin to bloom. You may even sprout a few new skills of your own in the process.

-Joan Lloyd
Joan Lloyd has a solid track record of excellent results. Her firm, Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding. This includes executive coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, customized leadership training, conflict resolution between teams or individuals, internal consulting skills training for HR professionals and retreat facilitation. Clients report results such as: behavior change in leaders, improved team performance and a more committed workforce.

Joan Lloyd has earned her C.S.P. (certified speaking professional) designation from the National Speakers Association and speaks to corporate audiences, as well as trade & professional associations across the country. Reach her at (800) 348-1944,, or
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