When it comes to answering the question: How can midsized companies launch powerful mentoring programs, many companies try a range of common steps. Training is an important component of any mature operation. Developing and socializing standard operating procedures is essential. Routine town hall video calls bring together staff from dispersed offices to talk shop and hear directly from leadership. Off-sites build camaraderie and a sense of purpose. All these help, but can any of them replicate the intensity of individual working relationships and the cross-functional projects from when the company was more intimate? As you’ll read, mentoring provides a great option.

Positive Protégés

A structured approach is to set up a comprehensive program of mentorship. Pairing staff together in a systematic way provides tailored and concentrated learning opportunities with a practical and personalized focus. Drawing ideally from enthusiastic partners on both sides, mentors share the benefits of their experience and commitment while mentees — the protégés — gain specific knowledge and insight into the operation and build supportive relationships across the company.

“Trihydro’s mentoring program has expanded with our growth,” said Kurt Tuggle, president and CEO, Trihydro, a national environmental and engineering consulting firm. “We now have more than 125 individuals enrolled, which is about a quarter of our employees.”

Launched in 2015, Trihydro’s program supports learning in both technical and “soft” business skills as well as other aspects of the company. It also plays an important role in company-wide networking and in developing professional growth. Tools are in place for protégés to build a mentoring plan and map out a career path and strategy. Employees are allowed to bill time for participating in the program, including kick-off trainings, developing a mentoring plan, and holding monthly mentor/mentee meetings.

“The program helps staff with their work, makes links between offices, and gives people a boost in advancing their careers with us,” said Tuggle.

Establish an Environment of Shared Learning

Here are some steps to developing a mentoring program at your company:

  1. Select a program lead. This could be someone from HR or another individual with a strong interest in staff training and development. Setting up a committee around them can strengthen a culture of staff engagement so employees can drive the effort outside the organizational structure.
  2. Agree on the scope of the program, develop a plan, and set a budget for time and resources to demonstrate commitment and allow the effort to flourish.
  3. Identify an initial group of high-potential employees eager to grow. It’s tempting to open the program up to everyone from the start, but midsized companies are best off starting small and then expanding once there is proven success with high-potential employees.
  4. Set individual objectives. Protégés should be clear, ideally in writing, about their goals from the mentoring each year. This doesn’t have to be so specific as to be measurable, but it should be identifiable. These could be produced first or in conjunction with their mentors when selected.
  5. Match protégés to mentors. Mentors should be willing, if not enthusiastic. If a culture of knowledge sharing is not in place, this may take some effort to develop. For most midsized firms, seeding a formal mentoring program and ramping it up to a total of 50 participants from both sides will take some effort. Yet, for many emerging midsized companies, having just three to five mentoring pairs would yield excellent results.
  6. The program must be driven by the protégés, and some ground rules can help ensure this. Monthly meetings should be set by the protégés and be guided by their curiosity. They should come with questions and issues and not expect a prepared lesson. This is learning and sharing, not teaching.
  7. Host quarterly check-in meetings between all mentors. Discovering what works and what doesn’t work can be bonding as well and help all parties build skills in sharing knowledge. Similarly, all protégé’s should meet as well for the same reason. The program leader should drill down on any pairings that aren’t progressing well.
  8. Assess and improve the program as it grows. Consider a light training scheme for new mentors to cover best practices. Ditto for protégés. But keep the rules light — the key to success is protégés’ desire to learn. The program is just an avenue.

Companies that have not established an environment of shared learning may not feel ready for a broad-based mentoring program, especially if driven by the mentees. Could it cut across leadership and disrupt line-management? Shouldn’t employees’ immediate bosses be the ones to guide and enable their staffs with the necessary knowledge and tools? Besides worries of this being a significant organizational rigmarole, could this all be a recipe for operational confusion?

These are natural concerns. When done properly, mentoring complements, rather than competes, with line management. It provides a sense of guidance, motivation, and personal support away from the immediate structure. It helps to identify challenges and opportunities and assists in making connections and thinking through career pathways. Above all, it helps the protégés feel they are a part of the company — that their aims are in line with their employer’s and that they are on the right track.

A Successful Mentoring Program has to be led by Staff

Trihydro aims to apply rigorous scientific knowledge to practical solutions to clients’ environmental problems. Trihydro was founded as a small consulting firm in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1984 and has grown to nearly 500 employees with 20 offices nationwide.

Amid this growth, one of the challenges the company has recognized is to ensure it does not lose sight of its particular way of doing business — not just technical and scientific expertise but also service and relations with clients, partners, and employees.

They have addressed this in part through their company-wide mentoring program. The impetus was “very grassroots,” said Tuggle, as leadership picked up a lot of interest from staff in learning more about the company and its operations.

Emily Bauder, a civil engineer in the Sheridan, Wyoming, office, saw there was a gap in transferring knowledge from the more seasoned employees.

“We had a lot of senior management and technical staff who were planning to retire in five to 10 years, and the knowledge was not being transferred,” she said. “We needed to make sure that information was shared.”

At the same time, with so many offices, many staff didn’t have the opportunity to regularly communicate and engage with senior personnel.

“There were a lot of employees, particularly in remote offices, who weren’t getting opportunities to learn and had no idea how to make the connections with other staff they would benefit from knowing,” Bauder said.

Trihydro’s initial idea was to provide mentoring on technical issues within specific business units. But, as they discussed it, they realized the program should be developed for the whole company, sharing corporate culture, building relationships, and engaging employees from all offices and teams.

After developing the idea and discussing it with company leaders, Trihydro hosted brown-bag sessions for staff to learn about the program and held an open enrollment period. The response was very positive, with nearly one-third of the company enrolling in the program.

As part of the enrollment process, program organizers utilized a survey questionnaire to develop mentor/ protégés partnerships based on interest, skills, and professional developmental growth areas. While protégés could request specific mentors, most pairings were selected based on the questionnaire responses.

“Above all, a successful mentoring program has to be led by staff,” said Tuggle. “Employees who are looking for input into their work are responsible for identifying what kind of mentoring they want and what connections they are looking for. They have to push the process along.”

Trihydro put a lot of effort into envisioning the program, developing materials, and then focusing on getting employees engaged and enrolled.

“We knew it wasn’t going to be perfect the first year,” recalled Tuggle. “But, we didn’t want perfection to override rolling out the program. From the beginning, we let everyone know we would improve it over time. This seems to have worked pretty well.”

Increase People’s Ability to Network

After the first year, Trihydro staff put together a feedback committee to assess the results and see how the program could be improved. Most staff gave positive feedback, but others had less success because the mentor pairing didn’t click or they had signed up out of obligation or due to lack of clarity about their aims.

The feedback evaluation helped Trihydro refocus the program. In the next round, in early 2016, enrollment rose to more than 130 employees. Since then, the program has continued, and in 2020, about a quarter of the company’s employees were engaged as either mentors or protégés.

Sometimes, program organizers have had to reach out to recruit more mentors to meet demand. In some situations, mentors have multiple charges, although they try to avoid this. Some mentors have been so enthusiastic that they have continued mentoring even in semi-retirement.

Pairings are not necessarily always done between senior and junior staff.

“We do a lot of similar-level pairing of folks across offices,” said Bauder. “This way, program participants can learn from people in their same position but from a different office about how we do things the Trihydro way.”

Knowledge is shared in both technical and non-technical “soft” skills, like business development. Other mentees want to learn about corporate governance, such as the role of the board of directors and the company’s shareholders program. One of the biggest benefits is the connections made across the company and its geographically dispersed offices.

“One of the goals all along has been to increase people’s ability to network, because some staff in our smaller offices don’t know where to start or whom to call when they have an issue,” said Bauder. “Our mentoring program serves as a framework for building those connections across the country.”

Breaking Down Corporate Silos

Induction and other fast-track training serve a role, but the benefits of mentoring can be deeper and more personalized. The goal is to transfer knowledge, but this doesn’t have to be just about top-down transfers in the direct line of a career path. Mentoring can provide a broader understanding of the organization and extended connections across a sprawling company. It contributes to better, more well-rounded employees and improved decision-making. It can drive innovation, break down silos, and enhance alignment with the company vision.

“If we retain an employee each year because they’ve been empowered, they’ve learned more, or we’ve increased their ability to do their job — that’s basically paid for the program,” said Bauder.

“If we track staff over the years, those who have been involved in the program have tended to grow within the company at an accelerated rate compared to the average employee,” said Tuggle.