A systemic approach to mentoring program design

Mentoring programs are undoubtedly a cultural glue for organisations seeking to more closely engage and retain their staff.  When implemented well they offer a connective matrix across the organization that can mend bridges and restore enthusiasm and even trust across levels of leadership and functions (Clutterbuck).

But before we get too excited about this exciting adventure lets stop and get clear about our destination.  Are we

  • kicking off a mentoring program or
  • are we orchestrating a move to a mentoring culture or
  • are we moving from one to the next?

So what is the difference?

A mentoring program will focus on a set of participants

To design a mentoring program means creating a program that will last a certain distance and offer a certain set of benefits for a specific group of participants.  This could occur within a business unit or even across a layer of the organization, although the latter poses greater likelihood for overall disruption, which may or may not be necessarily a bad thing.    Examples?

  • linking our new graduate recruits with middle management regarding the living of our values, or
  • deploying a peer mentoring program to form stronger bonds between our services and our sales staff to increase overall customer satisfaction, or
  • reverse mentoring between our new IT graduates and our Executives for digital savvy change management approaches.

The potential to innovate is really endless but it must be linked to fundamental questions of, what solution are we seeking to provide and how will it benefit and disrupt the status quo?

Even a program will disrupt the system…

Designing a mentoring program requires that the aim and scope is specifically cast from the outset, the necessary sponsorship is visible throughout the program and the likely disruption to existing cultural norms is anticipated and managed.  For example how will the non-IT graduates feel when they have not been invited to mentor Executives?  How will Executives feel being mentored by graduates in a traditional hierarchical culture?  The essential and often overlooked question is who may fear the success of this mentoring program and for what legitimate reasons?

A classic consideration that illustrates this is the potential disengagement for the line Manager when a mentor is appointed to their direct report or how will one part of the organization look on and observe the program as bystanders.  While mentoring is a powerful tool to increase a sense of belonging amongst staff it can also create the mirror of exclusion for those who are outside its scope.

In my experience any mentoring program will have predicted and unpredicted cultural impacts.  We tend to start out with vision and purpose which immensely helps, but we can forget to look back and consider what level of change are we introducing to the historical culture and what level of support will we need to integrate this change?

A Mentoring Culture will move the entire system

As the holy grail of organsiational transformation, culture change is to be approached with the utmost respect for the current status quo and why it exists. To design a mentoring culture offers great fuel for any cultural transformation but it is essential to map out the elements we are touching and treat it as a complex journey with many interconnected parts and not a stand-alone program.  It must cast a vision and purpose for change as well as an assessment of risk, both predictable and unpredictable.

The Answer Sits in the System

If we view the organization as a human system with a core ability to self-regulate then we will gain a sense of how this system is likely to respond and how your program can respond with it.  If we view it only in its parts then we will miss the intricacy of this scale of intervention (Kaat, S and de Kroon).

Starting a dialogue with the system

Some key questions when considering a mentoring culture shift are:

  • What other elements can mentoring development be integrated with for momentum and reinforcement eg. leadership development programs, talent programs, coaching programs, even market-facing programs such as customer loyalty and social responsibility initiatives? AND can this matrix form support and not competition on the journey?
    • If you were to map all elements what is the matrix by which they can integrate together as a cohesive change towards an improved culture?
  • If connection increases through our mentoring initiative what benefits of disconnection will we lose (it sounds counter intuitive but stay with it and you may be surprised).

all patterns serve a purpose in a human system

  • What elements in our current culture will be most disrupted by a mentoring culture and what support can we provide to embrace rather than resist this disruption?
  • And finally the question to end all questions: Do we have the appetite from the top to sponsor this level of cultural change and  model mentoring behaviours and how will this be evident through the mentoring program itself?

The good news is you can start with a mentoring program or even a series of mentoring programs that over time can converge into a mentoring culture.  Your chances of success are to hold this vision from the outset and like the best of mentors, question, question question and listen, listen, listen into the system you are disrupting.


Clutterbuck, D, (2004) Everyone Needs a Mentor

Kaat, S and de Kroon, A (2015) Systemic Consulting:  The Organisation as a Living System

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Leading Well Group Mentoring

…a connective matrix across the organization that can mend bridges and restore enthusiasm and even trust, across levels of leadership and functions