As remote work becomes the norm instead of a perk, companies need to find new ways to keep employees connected to each other. Mentoring programs can open up leadership paths for women and people of color and encourage collaboration among company departments.

GE, PayPal, 3M, and Zynga have mentoring programs designed to fit their company cultures, ranging from formal programs with scheduled meetings to informal approaches that employees can design to fit their personal career goals.

Whether the goal is building future leaders or holding on to good team members, mentor programs and employee resource groups can create a competitive edge to attract and keep talented people. This advice from people who have managed mentor programs can help you design your own program that works for your company.

Setting goals and figuring out logistics

One of the first decisions to make when launching a mentor program is the scope. Starting with one division is a good compromise between opening it up to the entire company or launching a smaller group that may not reach enough people.

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After setting goals and metrics for a mentoring program, figuring out the logistics is the next step. Michelle Del Rosario, a principal software engineer at Zynga and a member of the mentoring group Women At Zynga, recommends answering these questions:

  • Who are the program’s “change agents” or leaders and their supporting committee members?
  • Who are their senior executive sponsors?
  • Who should be on the committee to design and execute the program?

“The committee members will likely be volunteers from within your company, so you’ll want to make sure you have senior executives supporting the program leaders,” she said.

Del Rosario recommends that mentor programs run between three and six months. This allows enough time for participants to develop the relationship, which can continue after the official program ends.

“This timeline also provides the opportunity to recover from the not-so-successful mentorship matches, such as if the mentee or mentor leave the company,” she said.

Another key to success is setting realistic program expectations for both people. These should cover what a mentor can and can’t help with as well as defining who owns what responsibilities, such as setting up meetings.

Finally, schedule check-in sessions for the mentors to set expectations and provide resources.

“Having regularly scheduled check-ins with your mentors will help monitor your mentors’ confidence and your program’s health,” Del Rosario said. “A similar check-in should be applied via survey to your program’s mentees.”

Building an employee resource group

For companies interested in mentoring diverse candidates, it’s crucial for mentors to spend time understanding biases to avoid unintended assumptions and microaggressions, said Tanya Spencer, Accelerated Leadership Program (XLP) global program manager for GE Gas Power and AAF global operating leader. Spencer has been a member of GE’s African American Forum during her career at the company. Mentors also should be willing to give tough, constructive feedback in an authentic and empathetic way.

“For the person being mentored or coached, they need to be comfortable with sharing their strengths and development needs and able to receive tough, constructive feedback,” she said.

Shawn Warren, vice president and general manager of Large Combat and Mobility Engines, Military Systems Operation, GE Aviation/AAF Global Operating Leader, said another key aspect is a thoughtful matching process for mentors with mentees.

“The success of the program will be 100% dependent on how well the two individuals mesh and if they can build trust to allow for a vulnerable and transparent relationship,” he said. “I would also be sure to set your expectations that not every match will work, but don’t let that discourage or slow down the process.”

Using SaaS to power mentoring

To make this matching process work at scale, Together built a software platform that helps companies manage mentor programs and employee resource groups. Human resources professionals can use the software to pair up mentors and mentees and to generate reports on the impact of the program.

“As companies have moved core HR operations into the cloud, it has become easier to have more specialized solutions,” said Matthew Reeves, co-founder of Together.

The platform uses an algorithm to manage pairing and can be customized with rules to specify how people are paired up in terms of seniority or personal goals. He said the second biggest value proposition of the system is reporting. “Without it, companies don’t know if people are even meeting, much less the impact they are having,” he said.

Reeves said he encourages clients to set targets and KPIs for mentoring programs to illustrate the benefit of the program to senior leadership. “I would say in general HR isn’t used to operating that way, and not used to tying these programs to specific business metrics,” he said.

Together’s target client is companies with at least 1,000 employees. Some companies switch to the platform to transform manual processes.

“Any process that wasn’t digital before the pandemic has broken down, and companies need to make those digital,” he said.