By Jim Welp

A dynamic relationship between a mentor and a protege can be valuable not only for the participants themselves, but also for the company’s bottom line, thanks to increased production, job satisfaction, employee retention, and communication. In the first article of this series, I discussed some of the benefits of establishing a formal mentoring program in your company or department.

One of the questions we didn’t answer is: What will a mentoring program cost?

Weighing the costs
The cost of a mentoring program depends on the approach you take and the number of participants you include. A formal mentoring program can run the gamut from inexpensive to downright pricey. According to Les McKeown, president and CEO of Tiburon, CA, consulting firm Deliver The Promise, the most expensive element of a mentoring program is the cost of time invested in mentoring for both the mentors and their proteges. Although this cost is not as obvious as an outright purchase, it can be substantial.

Catch up with the mentoring series

Part 1: “How mentoring produces benefits across the board”

Besides the employee time investment, other costs might include the salary or fee for a program coordinator, the purchase of program design materials, mentor and protege training, ongoing administration, and food and beverages for those all-important get-togethers.

Of course, these costs increase with each protege you add to the program. According to Linda Phillips-Jones, vice president of The Mentoring Group, it all “…depends on numbers. If you want to do a formal program for, say, 25 pairs, employ a coordinator at 1/4 time, train everyone, and purchase materials, the true cost will be in the tens of thousands.” For many departments, that expense might be more than the budget will bear.

Mentoring on a shoestring
So, is it possible to establish a no-frills mentoring program if you’re on a limited budget? The experts differ a bit on this question. “I’d hesitate to have a formal program,” said Phillips-Jones. “You might do what we call ‘enhanced informal mentoring.’ Provide some good learning materials, hold one or two orientations [that] people can attend and learn about mentoring, and provide a structured process to follow.” She also advised setting ground rules, covering some mentoring skills, and “talking up mentoring in staff meetings. That makes it acceptable and desirable for mentors to become active.” However, at that point, Phillips-Jones said, you have to “turn people loose to find each other.”

McKeown disagrees. “Yes, it is indeed possible to establish a mentoring program on a modest budget,” he said. “The key element is to design the program effectively up front. An effectively designed program will have little maintenance and cost implications once launched.” He added that “there are many books available on the topic of mentoring. If your budget is very limited, many of these books can be obtained at your local library.” He also advised researching Web sites, newsletters, and discussion groups that cover mentoring issues to get advice on setting up a program, noting that many of these resources are free.

Mentoring helps employees develop
If a mentoring program sounds like a poor use of time, it needn’t be. Often, mentoring can be accomplished during the normal course of work or in an informal setting of just a few minutes. It might consist of an email discussion or an occasional lunch. However, Phillips-Jones warns against giving the mentor-protege relationship short shrift. “Companies need to prepare for the future, get people up to speed, and provide opportunities for learning and growth. New and newly-promoted people need to develop fast, and mentors can help.”

Once you decide to establish a mentoring program, it’s important to give it its proper due. It would be unfair to everybody to establish an initiative and then fail to devote the necessary time to let it work its magic. McKeown said, “It’s important that the objectives of the program are adequately conveyed to the program participants so that they make the time for their mentoring relationships.”

Likewise, it’s the responsibility of the program coordinator to obtain buy-in from senior management. Employees should know that their mentoring relationship should receive the same care and attention as their other responsibilities within the work environment. Phillips-Jones advises mentors and proteges to spend a minimum of one to two hours per month communicating for up to a year.

Mentoring pitfalls to avoid
How can you determine if a formal mentoring program is right for your staff? McKeown said to start by “conducting a needs assessment of the particular performance problem or opportunity in question.” (A needs assessment may also identify other strategies to adopt to support a mentoring program.)

Phillips-Jones advised that you should:

  • Not use mentoring for remedial work or discipline.
  • Establish mentoring programs for individuals who want to grow and develop.
  • Keep mentoring strictly voluntary.
  • Avoid mentoring if your organization is going through difficult times.
  • Talk at length with the potential mentors and proteges to see if they want such a program and have the time to devote to it.

Next: Launching a mentoring program
It’s time to get busy implementing your own formal mentoring program. In the next article in this series, we’ll look at ways to launch a mentoring program, and we’ll ask our experts about measuring your program’s return on investment.

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.