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The Mentor program that isn’t a mentor program

Mentor program

How do you get this kind of mentorship and long-term engagement?

The mentor program of all mentor programs

Last week I posted on the topic of why I believe most mentor programs fail. I would be remiss and irresponsible if all I did was bitch on any topic and not provide a solution. This week’s post is the coup de gras, or the “blow of mercy to end the suffering of the severely wounded person or animal”. Persons, animals, mentees. Let’s just put them out of their misery.

What do I mean when I use the word fail?

My hunch is that most companies consider a mentorship program successful if they can check the following boxes:

  • Mentor program launched? “Check”
  • 10 pairs of mentors and mentees matched? “Check”
  • The relationships lasted for 1 year? “Check”

On the surface that sounds well-intentioned, but is that really a success?

Are we trying to create long-term relationships where both participants are growing over time or are we just trying to get the relationships to last for the requisite one-year, have folks go their separate ways and check the “mentorship program introduced” box on the list of company goals? I would argue that when it comes to formal programs, most relationships end after 1 year.

Here is HRNasty’s mentor program theory:

The odds are against successful matchups when there is a fixed number of mentors/mentees.

Requisite dating example:

  • Put 10 single boys and 10 single girls in a room with the intention of “setting them up” in a 1-year relationship.
  • Ask everyone to fill out a personality card
  • Interview both parties to weed out potential psychopaths, rapists, and creeps.
  • Assign one boy to one girl till we have our 10 pairs of bliss.

Can we expect all 10 pairs to hit it off on the first date and grow a relationship lasting 1 year? No fricken way. Even with the motivation of sex in the equation, highly doubtful.

Yet we do that with mentor programs all the time (sans the sex part).

If we reviewed the resumes of 100 boys and 100 girls with the expectation we will only pick the best 10 matches we could increase our odds of success. Unfortunately, corporate is going to look at the 180 unhappy bench-warmers and consider the program a failure. “What? You started with 200 participants and only landed up with 10 matches? What happened to the other 180 participants?”

If we were to take the same 100 boys and girls, look at Tinder profiles, I mean resumes, and then allow them to interview in person, we may have a bit more luck. My hunch is that in the long run, our odds would go up only a couple of percentage points. Everyone knows we are not our real selves on the first and second date. We all know that Mr. Jeckle aka “the future ex” shows up eventually.

When it comes to mentor programs, I like to launch the mentor program that is NOT a mentor program. Instead of creating a mentor “program”, I like to create a mentor-enabling environment. Instead of assigning specific pairs of mentors and mentees I like to create a culture of mentorship and allow relationships to form and grow organically.

The Mother of all Mentor Programs would provide encouragement and guidance on how to be a mentor and more specifically, how to be a worthy mentee. A mentee that is easy to get along with, and inspires the mentor to “actually mentor”. I would NOT assign or match pairs. I would leave the matchmaking up to the mentees.

Some companies give time off for doing volunteer work. Some companies give time off for classes and education. Some companies give unlimited vacation time off.

My nirvana would be to give unquestioned time off to develop mentor relationships. Meetings can take place before and after work, but if someone wants to take an hour or two off for mentorship, they can do that. We are still going to be responsible for our day jobs but there may be months where we need more mentorship than others. I realize this is harder when we have shift coverage, but you see the intent.

I would encourage mentorship relationships to grow not just inside the company but outside the company as well. If mentors come from other companies or other backgrounds, that is not only OK, that is “networking”. The goal would be to create a culture that celebrates mentorship, encourages mentorship and looks at mentorship long-term across the enterprise and not just a few chosen few.

Thoughts for the mentee:

  • Nurture the initial relationships: In the same way, we wouldn’t go up to a hot girl and ask “Will you be my girlfriend?” the mentee shouldn’t reach out to a potential mentor and ask, “Will you be my mentor?” Quality relationships don’t just happen. Relationships mature because they are nurtured. EG: the mentee asks the potential mentor to coffee with the expectation that advice will be asked for. After the meeting, we send a thank you and then follow-up with updates which resulted out of these conversations. Based on the chemistry and effectiveness of the advice provided by the mentor, the next time the mentee needs advice, rinse, lather and repeat as necessary. This is only one of many recipes for an organically grown mentor relationship. We don’t scare the potential girlfriend off on the first date by saying “I am looking for a girlfriend” and we don’t scare the potential mentor off by saying “I am looking for a mentor”. TMI too soon.
  • We shouldn’t expect solutions to come from a single meeting. Our mentor may introduce us to someone who can help us more effectively and we should expect to put in some legwork.
  • Relationships should have a cadence but the timing shouldn’t be forced. If you need help you reach out. There may be times where you meet with your mentor and just have coffee and catch up socially.
  • Mentorship does not have to be an exclusive relationship. We can have more than one mentor. We can have different mentors for different areas of our life. Reaching out to different mentors is more effective than relying on a single mentor to handle all of our needs. The guy that mentors me with my fly-fishing is not my same guy that mentors me with my career who is not the same woman who mentors me with HR.
  • A personal connection. Regardless of anything else, you should feel a chemistry that is right for the both of you. Just like dating, this isn’t something that can be forced or faked and remain long-term.


  • Make it easy for your mentor to meet you. Meet them in their neighborhood where it is convenient for them. We shouldn’t ask the mentor to come to us.
  • The mentee should at least offer to buy the coffee/lunch. Yes, the mentor is probably more financially stable and making more money, but an extra 20 bucks a month for lunch or 5.00 for coffee is a small price to exponentially accelerate a career.
  • We set up the meeting, send a reminder a couple of days before the meeting and confirmation the morning of the meeting. Remember, sr. people have busy schedules and we want to make this as easy as possible.
  • Mentee takes notes. This is a show of respect that the time is being considered valuable.
  • Mentee shows up on time. Obvious but still abused.
  • Mentee comes to the table with a specific request or topic of discussion prior to the meeting. Coming to the table with no topic is a waste of the mentors time. Mentors are not driving the mentee’s career, the mentee is driving their individual career. The mentor is just the booster up and the guide.
  • The mentee should send thank you’s and ask the mentor “What can I do for you?” The mentee should be able to help the mentor with something. This is a simple gesture of graciousness and this will never go out of style.
  • The mentee should make goals of each individual meeting clear. For myself, I get the most out of mentor when I am challenged and guided to the answer or solution. I am NOT learning as much if I am told what to do with no thinking required on my end. I show up, I ask a question, I get an answer and I leave. OR, I show up, I discuss the opportunity and potential solutions that I have come up with and we go through the pro’s and con’s till we find a solution. Which one helps me grow?
  • A personal connection. Regardless of anything else, you should feel a chemistry that is right for the both of you. Just like dating, this isn’t something that can be forced or faked and remain long-term.

The relationships that I have enjoyed and lasted long-term were organic in nature. Long-term relationships generally show the most personal and professional growth. They were not a forced pairing. These relationships take work on both sides, but all successful relationships do. If you are thinking about rolling out a mentor program, think about taking a risk and creating a mentor enabling program.

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”.

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