Starting a Business Mentoring Program

This tool describes the process of starting a business mentoring program. It tells you how to set up a mentoring program, what principles are important, how to establish the ground rules for mentors and protégés, and provides useful insights into what works – and what doesn’t.


Though the terms are often used interchangeably, there is a distinct difference between coaching and mentoring. Coaching is aimed at improving performance. Your coach is typically your manager, the person who’s responsible for helping you assess and improve your performance. There are external coaches as well, typically a consultant brought in to help you assess your strengths and develop your competencies and skills.

Mentoring, on the other hand, is designed to give you a safe place to ask questions and find out how the organization works. In a typical mentoring relationship, protégés are “taken under the wing” of a more experienced mentor. Mentors provide a trusted place to ask for help, can answer questions, and may offer guidance in solving problems. Mentors can also help protégés think through possible career paths and find ways to acquire the experience they seek.

Sometimes the mentoring relationship is informal, initiated by either the mentor or protégé. In other cases, there’s a formal mentoring program, aimed at achieving a particular organizational goal. In either case, there’s a clear and fast rule: Your mentor is not your boss.

Getting Started:

To get started with a business mentoring program, the desired outcomes need to be defined. For example, Intel’s mentoring program is designed to ensure that all new employees learn how to succeed within the Intel culture. It began within a single team of software engineers and has now expanded to include virtually every campus. Another outcome might be to retain second and third-year employees. In that case, the program would be targeted to that group.

So the first step in planning a business mentoring program is defining outcomes, since that will determine who will be eligible. The plan should lay out the ground rules and the training required. It should ensure that the criteria for participating in the program are clear. Part of the program is monitoring and tracking results. So someone should be charged with reporting its successes – and areas for improvement.

Before a formal mentoring program is rolled out, every mentor should receiving training. Here are some important training principles to cover:

Principles and Ground Rules:

Everyone who takes part in mentoring needs to be trained in principles and ground rules such as these:

1. No direct supervisory relationship: Supervisors should not serve as mentors to the people they supervise. A mentor is intended to be a safe, trusted resource to whom the employee can turn when he or she is at a loss or needs help. This is not to imply that the supervisory relationship cannot be one that is safe and trustworthy. But the relationship is invariably changed when one person manages the other.

2. Confidentiality: A mentor is a safe and trustworthy person to whom the protégé can turn for help. Therefore, what gets discussed in between a mentor and protégé must be completely confidential. The mentor cannot repeat or share anything that the protégé says – and vice versa. By extension, no one should ask a mentor what is specifically discussed with a given protégé. To do so would undercut the program’s credibility.

3. Voluntary vs. mandatory: Except for the first meeting, a mentoring program should not be mandatory. It should be clear that it is the protégé’s choice, not the mentor’s, to continue the mentoring – or suspend it.

4. Changing mentors: Since a given mentoring relationship may not work out, the protégé should feel free to ask for a new mentor, no questions asked. It is the responsibility of the program coordinator to facilitate this change.

5. Responsibility to take action: When a specific issue comes up, it is the protégé’s responsibility, not the mentor’s, to take action. For example, if the protégé complains about his supervisor’s style, the mentor can suggest ways to deal with the issue – but the protégé should be the one to handle it. In general, the mentor can offer guidance, but the protégé should assume responsibility for getting their issue resolved. Only when there are direct and serious allegations of misconduct is it the mentor’s responsibility to communicate them (and only in keeping with company policy).

6. Succession planning: When evaluating the talent in an organization, the primary evaluators should be the people who have directly managed the individuals concerned. But mentors can play a role in the discussion. A candidate’s mentor can advocate for that individual if he or she feels it’s warranted. At the same time, mentors should say nothing that could potentially damage a candidate’s chances – because doing so will undermine the credibility of the mentoring program.

Other elements of successful mentoring programs:

Matching mentors and protégés: Some programs try to pair protégés with mentors based on common interests or background. But this tends to get complicated. We recommend keeping it simple: Focus on balancing the number of protégés per mentor and eliminating any supervisory relationship. The program manager should be given full responsibility to make the pairings based on those criteria.

Initiating the contact: It should be the responsibility of the mentor to assure that meetings take place – particularly the first meeting. Thereafter, it should be the mentor who sends out a meeting reminder. Meetings should be face to face, at least to start. The typical frequency is quarterly; the typical length is one hour. The mentor should report when meetings occur to the mentoring program manager.

Mentoring questions: Mentors should have a set of questions they regularly ask, such as: “What’s going well?” “What’s not going so well?” “What do you feel you need to be more successful?” The mentor should ask a wide range of questions – and also tell stories about his or her own career.

Communication between meetings: A protégé should feel free to contact his or her mentor between meetings.

Tracking success: One of the most important keys to a successful mentoring program is tracking participation and ensuring that meetings are taking place. Regular reports should be provided to the mentors as well as to senior management.

Mentor roundtables: On a regular basis (at least twice a year) the mentors should get together and talk about how the program is faring and suggest ideas for improvement. Without breaching confidentiality, they should identify any themes they’re hearing and decide whether to push for an organizational initiative to address them. For example, one of the consistent themes heard at one corporation was the need for better orientation for new employees. After a group of mentors made the case, the orientation program was retooled.


When a business mentoring program adheres to these principles, it can improve employee retention, accelerate learning, and build “bench strength.” It can also be a deeply satisfying experience for both mentors and protégés. In many instances, it strengthens relationships across the organization, leading to better teamwork and inter-departmental collaboration.

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