By Jim Welp

If you were lucky, when you were starting out in your career, you had someone around to show you the ropes. It may have been an informal relationship with a seasoned employee who helped you navigate your way through new waters. These days, companies are instituting formal mentoring programs in order to increase employee retention and contribute to the bottom line.

In the first part of this series, I examined the benefits of establishing a formal mentoring program in your company. In the second part, I looked at ways to decide if mentoring is right for your organization. In this article, I’ll give you some tips for starting a formal mentoring program in your company or department and explain how our experts measure the success or failure of a formal mentoring program.

No easy formula
Although mentoring has a strong track record, there’s no “plug and play” formula that applies to all mentoring situations. According to Linda Phillips-Jones, vice president of The Mentoring Group, large companies have long used mentoring to complement training and increase employee retention. “Hewlett-Packard for years has had mentoring programs…Others include Microsoft, SBC Communications, and Intel.”

Catch up with the mentoring series

But to look for a boilerplate approach is probably fruitless. Because mentoring constitutes a personal relationship between the mentor and protege, you’ll have to fine-tune your program to meet the needs of the company and the individuals involved. However, there is one element that all programs should insist upon, according to Les McKeown, president and CEO of Deliver The Promise, a Tiburon, CA, consulting firm. “Effective programs always have clear objectives which have been well communicated to the proteges and have the support of senior management.”

IT mentoring
So how do you get started, especially in a hectic IT department? The first step is to set goals for the program. “Help your proteges set very specific development goals,” Phillips-Jones said. “Then, help them identify learning activities and projects to develop their knowledge and skills to reach the goals,” she added. A big believer in checklists and worksheets, Phillips-Jones suggested providing those tools, as well as tips and tricks, online training, and books to help the mentor and protege come up to speed. It’s a good idea to create a program checklist and to check off the skills and other topics as you cover them. Perhaps most important of all is the quality of time spent together. “Be very practical with advice and suggestions,” said Phillips-Jones. “Try to have some face-to-face and phone meetings, even if your proteges prefer e-mail. Give praise (something that doesn’t always come natural for many IT people), ask questions, say you’re thinking of them.”

Some IT professionals can present challenges in this regard, according to McKeown. “Left-brained, linear people usually respond better to coaching (specific skills transfer) rather than the more ‘soft’ approach of mentoring,” he said. Therefore, it’s extremely important to have clear, specific goals for the program instead of a sketchy outline.

What about mentoring managers?
Contrary to what you might think, the approach to mentoring managers isn’t all that different from mentoring anyone else. The key either way, according to Phillips-Jones, is to make sure the mentor has the skills and experience the protege needs to develop. In other words, managers should mentor managers, systems administrators should mentor systems administrators, developers should mentor developers, and so on. “Always focus on the skills, knowledge, and attitudes the proteges need to develop,” she said. “That means they should learn from persons with this expertise. Be sure that managers-in-training have ample opportunities to shadow managers, sit in on key meetings of managers, and read managerial literature.”

Payback for the company
Although both Phillips-Jones and McKeown agreed it isn’t always easy to show a bottom-line, comprehensive return on investment from a formal mentoring program, there are ways to get an understanding of the value. “It’s difficult to attribute gains strictly to mentoring, but it’s possible,” said Phillips-Jones. Employee satisfaction and increased communication aren’t always easy to measure. But other factors, such as turnover and productivity, can be measured. McKeown concurred, advising the establishment of clear metrics from the beginning of the program. Once those metrics are established, “they should then be used to calculate ROI,” he said.

“For example, say you establish a mentoring program to help retain a key group of programmers,” he said. “You should determine the turnover rate before and after the mentoring program to establish the increased percentage of programmers retained. Typically, it costs approximately 150 percent of an employee’s salary to replace that employee. The overall retention savings of the program can then be established with a subsequent ROI calculation.” Similarly, employee productivity can often be measured on an ROI basis.

Make it a pleasant experience
One final way to ensure a successful mentoring program: Make it fun. “Talk to a lot of people who are providing mentoring initiatives,” said Phillips-Jones. “Think small. Start with a pilot program and evaluate each step. Provide a decent budget for whatever you do. And make sure it has an element of fun. Include celebrations so mentoring is seen as a reward and a desirable thing to do!”

What do you think of mentoring?

Have you had experience with a mentoring program? Would you be interested implementing one? Share your thoughts by e-mail or by posting a comment.