Sign up with your email address to be the first to know about new products, VIP offers, blog features & more.

Why mentor programs fail. The play by play breakdown.

mentor program

How long did your mentor program relationship last?

Are mentor programs failing us?

I believe that one of the best things that any of us can do for our careers is to find and work with a mentor. Mentors have been there and done that, and with a mentor by our side, we don’t have to re-invent the wheel. Good mentors will introduce us to people within their network when we want to make new connections. Great mentors can inspire us to consider new approaches when we are trying to solve challenging situations. Mentors can challenge us to grow and I don’t think I would be where I am without the graciousness of the mentorship I have received. I believe in mentors so much, based on personal experience as both a mentor and a mentee, I posted a few tips on why we should seek out a mentor and how to be a gracious mentee here.   

Today’s post is directed towards the leadership that sets up these programs and is divided into two parts.

Part 1: Why formal mentor programs fail.

Part 2: How I would set up the mother of all mentor programs. (next week)

Why mentor programs fail

First, please know I really believe in the benefits of mentors. I have a number of mentors for both my personal and professional life, reach out to them regularly and would be lost without them. Flyfishing etiquette, rowing a drift boat, fly tying, personal careerleadership, and spey casting (to name just a few). I have mentors for all the above, and a few more which I know want to remain underground. The point is I have more than one. I have mentors for everything where I am trying to improve my skills and knowledge.

Mentors can be our Obi-Wan Kenobi in our darkest hours. They are friends when I may need a shoulder to cry on and they are the big stick when I need my ass kicked. The right mentorship relationship can be extremely effective, but the trick is finding THE mentor. As well-intentioned as they are, mentor programs are usually set up for failure from the beginning. Through no fault of their own, most participants never realize the true potential of a mentor relationship. In this week’s post, I share why I think mentor programs fail. Next week, I share my thoughts on how I create the Mother of All Mentor Programs.

We have all seen HR departments set up mentorship programs

It has been my experience that the individual relationships rarely work out long-term. The typical model will assemble a number of mentors and the same amount of mentee’s. Everyone on the list is magically paired up. Unfortunately, not all of these pairs are going to be great matches. Results are like any bell curve. If we start with 10 mentors and 10 mentees, there will be 2 solid connections, 5 – 6 so-so connections and 2 – 3 crappy connections.

The first two solid connections will realize benefit out of the program long-term. The middle 6 will get some connection out of it, but of those 6, I would bet that most of these connections will only last the requisite 1-year (standard commitment of most mentorship program) and then fizzle. This group checked the box and made their yearly development goals. Because of the negative experience, the last 2 – 3 pairs will probably not participate in any future mentorship programs. We just turned 16 out of 20 employees off to future mentorship programs.

The HR department at Acme Publishing says: “Let’s put together a mentorship program”. They take the following standard steps:

  • HR rounds up 10 mentors and 10 mentees 
  • Maybe mentors and mentees apply for the program, maybe you recruit, or maybe you take any warm body that is interested.
  • Provide a 2-hour class to the mentors
  • Provide a 2-hour class to the mentees
  • Ask them to sign a symbolic 1-year commitment agreement
  • Ask for a minimum of monthly meetings
  • Check-in after 6 months with a group meeting
  • Have a party at the end of the year with both mentors and mentees present, share some cake and fill out a short survey for future programs.
  • 16 of the 20 employees go their separate ways with very little on-going contact.

One common trait of mentor programs gone wrong is that mentors apply/join these programs for the wrong reasons. You will have plenty of well-intentioned applicants; there will be a number of folks who apply for the wrong reasons:

  • Mentors want to become a manager. Success or failure aside, the word “mentor” on a bio is a great step towards becoming a manager.
  • The mentor is already a manager and this exercise is a “development helpful” area of improvement for them. The belief is that focusing on mentorship will help someone become a better manager (usually at the sacrifice of the mentee).
  • Ego. Mentor believes they are so good at what they do; they should share their expertise with others. I find that the people who sign up, for this reason, are usually the least qualified.
  • Adding the word “Mentor” as a bullet point on the resume lends credibility and checks the mentorship box. (This is usually only in the mentor’s mind. The $1M dollar question: can we call your mentee as a reference?)

Am I cynical? Absolutely

Call me jaded, but I have seen more frustrated mentor/mentee match-ups as the result of formal programs than I have seen long-lasting relationships. Frustrated pairs include match-ups coming from programs within professional HR associations.

One other reason that mentorship programs can be set up for hard times is that the intended goals are relatively short-term. These programs usually have an end date in mind. A typical program would have us sign a 1-year agreement, similar to a lease on an apartment or a car. Setting the expectation that there is an end date can motivate “end date behavior”.

Participants go into the project with an end date in mind. Ten months into the relationship, participants are thinking one of two things.  1. “Only 2 more meetings with my little rug rat” or 2. “Only 2 more meetings with my egotistical know it all”. They know that if things go badly, they are ONLY committed for one year. I think this attitude should be reconsidered. When was the last time you were easy on a rental car or a short leased apartment? Since we have nothing invested, we generally don’t care as much.   

Well intentioned, and I am a fan of mentorship programs

Again, I am 100% confident that most of the mentor applicants are well-intentioned and in many cases have plenty to offer. They just don’t always have something to offer to any randomly assigned mentee. Most of us work effectively with a specific demographic of mentee or mentor and we work ineffectively with a much larger demographic. I am the almighty and great HR professional, but even I know my style is only effective for a select few. Not everyone practices a “by the book style of HR”. I practice an “employee guideline” style of HR where we have guidelines vs. rules and regs. Because of this, I probably wouldn’t be the best mentor for someone coming from Fortune 100. I would probably gain more value as a mentee with an HR mentor from a fast-moving technology background.  

When filling an open headcount for our departments, the interview and hiring process is usually a rigorous process where the hiring manager is not only looking for a skill set fit, the manager is looking for a culture AND chemistry fit as well. Mentors and mentees should be looking for that great multi-dimensional fit as well. We shouldn’t just look for a potential fit on paper. That would be like hiring candidates based solely on a resume and a job description match without the two sides having a couple of conversations/interviews. But most match-ups are made by the organizer of the program and mentor and mentee have no interaction prior to the first meeting.

Arranged marriage 

I come from a predominantly Asian family and consider myself to be very familiar with the concept of arranged marriages. Two well-intentioned sets of parents compare and contrast notes on their first-born sons and daughters and then strike a dowry deal. They spit into their hands, shake firmly and then the son and daughter destiny is sealed. That might have worked a few hundred years ago, the MadMen-esque style of HR had its heyday, but times are a changing and mentorship programs need to keep with these times.

Yes, there are mentor programs that have the applicants on both ends fill-out informational cards so a match can be found for goals and skill sets. Yes, some mentorship programs will have the organizer’s interview potential participants face-to-face for personality. But when was the last time participants were able to interview their potential match for the all-important chemistry fit? Without a face-to-face meeting, we are really just setting up a blind date with the expectation of marriage on that first date. AKA arranged marriage from the mid-evil times, heavy on the mid-evil.

Different viewpoint

Hopefully, I have shown how the mentorship program process looks from a different point of view. Maybe we think about how differently about how we set these programs up. Next week, HRNasty outlines how he sets up the Mother of All Mentor Programs and brings these well-intentioned programs to the present day.

See you at the after party,


nasty: an unreal maneuver of incredible technique, something that is ridiculously good, tricky and manipulative but with a result that can’t help but be admired, a phrase used to describe someone who is good at something. “He has a nasty forkball”.

If you felt this post was valuable please subscribe here. I promise no spam,

“like” us on Facebook, I read all comments below. Thank you!