How to Get the Most Out of Your Mentor Program

How to Get the Most Out of Your Mentor Program

Gaining direct access to the knowledge and skills of others can be a challenge for those who have the desire to grow professionally. But what if employers could build an effective mentor program that granted access to internal and cross-company mentors? What would effect would that have on the growth, development, and engagement of employees? Heidi Holmes, Co-Founder of Mentorloop joins the podcast to discuss how many organizations are uncovering the secret to building the most effective mentor programs to drive employee engagement and retention of top talent.

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MP3 File | Run Time: 26:44
Brandon: Welcome to the HR for Small Business Podcast, this is your host Brandon Laws. Today I am with Heidi Holmes, the co-founder of Mentorloop. They are a cloud-based mentoring program aiming to make mentoring more accessible and more effective for businesses and individuals. Heidi, is it great to have you!

Heidi: Thank you, Brandon!

Brandon: And Heidi, you’re coming from Australia, correct?

Heidi: Yes, down under in Melbourne, Australia.

Brandon: I love it. Mentorloop is a cloud-based platform; can you give listeners some insight as to what the platform is all about?

Heidi: Sure! So basically, as you say, it’s a cloud-based platform designed to help organizations who are currently running a mentor program or looking at starting a mentor program. It’s a platform to help them with that process. It makes mentor programs easier to start, run and participate in.

In addition to removing the admin burden associated with running a mentor program, often for the HR function, we’re also a platform for the mentees and mentors to connect and communicate and essentially manage their mentoring relationship throughout the mentor program.

Brandon: How did you create this business? Are you a software engineer by trade, an HR person…? How did you come up with this idea?

Heidi: I had a business prior to Mentorloop which was actually a job board for mature-aged workers, so it was focused on helping very mature, experienced people back into the workforce. It was actually through that business that I saw that we had this incredible knowledge pool effectively sitting on the sidelines who were not necessarily only interested in financial gain through employment, but also interested just in giving back to the community. They’re wanting to stay engaged, so they were looking at mentoring opportunities but I had nowhere to send them.

So I looked into setting up a mentor program for this mature-aged workforce and it was actually through that process that I saw that a lot of organizations who were running their own mentor programs were using spreadsheets and emails to manage that process and that’s when I thought there had to be a better way.

Brandon: Isn’t that interesting? Because most companies, I think they thought about a mentor program and developing one and, to your point, there’s such a knowledge pool, but they don’t know how to do it effectively. So they launch this program and then it fizzles because they don’t have this platform to go alongside of the program. It sounds like your tool really solved a problem that most organizations were having. How has it filled in the gap?

Heidi: That’s essentially why we built Mentorloop, it was to solve an admin burden for that program coordinator within an organization. We are a B2B platform essentially. But what we found in the HR function is that they’ve got 20 things they’re responsible for and often the mentor program is just something else on their to-do list. And while we found that most people believe in the concept of mentoring, it’s often underinvested in by businesses. It’s something people are willing to get behind, but people often have their own view of what mentoring is and it should be something that is maybe left to the individuals to go and organize. But within a business context, that doesn’t always happen.

We saw that the platform could provide some structure not only to organizations but also the individuals participating.

Brandon: I’m sure you’ve done some research on this, but if you were to guess, how many organizations out there actually have some sort of formal mentor program?

Heidi: Yes. So actually this data from the States says that around 71% of Fortune 500 companies run mentor programs. It is something that is happening within the business community, but it’s done at different levels of complexity and sophistication.

Organizations, particularly at that enterprise level, are actually able to make a larger investment or have resources internally to put that structure and accountability around the program. But what we saw at Mentorloop as well was that in that small-to-medium enterprise level, you often don’t necessarily have access a pool of mentors or the structure, tools or the know-how to effectively set up and manage that program. So there was this light demand for mentoring not being serviced in that SME level.

Brandon: For those small and medium-sized company mentorship programs, are they typically doing just across the company, cross-department type mentorship programs or is there some sort of external piece to the mentor program?

Heidi: How we’re seeing it play out here is that it’s happening through their industry body that they might be affiliated with through the industry they’re in. For example, if you’re in property or construction, there’s a Property Council of Australia which runs a mentor program and that is typically where a smaller business would send their people to participate in a mentor program. But what we’re finding is that that’s actually quite expensive and it’s also sometimes a limited opportunity. So it’s not available for all of the employees within that business, it’s only made available to a select few because of the cost involved.

Brandon: When you talk about the spectrum of development programs and opportunities for employees within an organization, where do mentorship programs fall? Are they a must-have development opportunity?

Heidi: We’re definitely seeing it move up the priority list and I think that’s because organizations have typically made investments around coaching and what they’ve come to realize is coaching is not necessarily scalable or you’re only able to offer it to a select group of people within your employees, again, because of the intensity and costs associated with it. Whereas mentoring is something that is scalable. And I think what we’ve seen particularly in the HR space is more companies embrace sort of software tools, particularly in the online employee engagement survey tools and poll surveys. They’re actually seeing feedback, direct feedback coming back saying that their people are actually wanting to participate in a mentoring relationship, they see it as a key component of their personal and professional learning and development. That’s where I think HR are sort of uncovering this demand for mentoring as well. It’s actually coming from the people. They’re wanting it.

Brandon: That’s a great segue for what I was going to ask you, which was—is this usually a mandatory thing or is it optional? It sounds like people are asking or it and maybe it’s a generational thing where younger people are coming up, Millennials perhaps, and they’re asking – hey, I want to be mentored by somebody with experience, years of experience in something. Is that what you’re seeing?

Heidi: Yes, I think that’s spot-on, Brandon. I think typically mentoring being deployed within organizations has been a top-down approach. It’s something that’s implemented at a strategic level. There’s a certain deficiency in the business, so mentoring is deployed as a way to improve that – such as advancing female leaders within the business.

It’s typically been offered to a select group of people around a particular strategy. But, again, our philosophy is that mentoring is something that should be made accessible to all people. So the best mentoring relationships are often the ones that are driven by the mentees themselves, where it’s actually more of a bottom-up approach, so it’s driven by the people. That’s where we actually see more effective engagement throughout the life of the mentoring relationship because, like I said, the best mentoring relationships are the ones people opt into. They see the value in it, so they’re prepared to make the time and effort to invest in that relationship.

Brandon: I read several of your articles and a couple of them on Medium if I remember right. You talked about this “culture of mentorship” and it really sounds like from what you’ve just described is that it’s very much a bottom-up approach and as long as you get the employees the tools and the resources available. Now, what sort of things are you putting in their hands to make sure that they become so engaged to where that culture sort of manifests itself?

Heidi: I think it’s this approach to mentoring by educating mentees and mentors from the very beginning, particularly for the mentees themselves. We did some early testing. When you actually ask the question to a mentee, someone who thinks they’re a mentee, would you like to be a mentee, a mentor or both? When given the option of being a mentor as well, it’s actually interesting that most people actually stop and have a think and say, Yes. Well, at this point in my career, I’m looking for a mentor to help me with X, Y, Z. But actually, I could be a mentor too, and I’m prepared to give back and maybe help someone who’s a couple of years behind me as well.

What we’re starting to see play out – and this is what we kind of refer to as this culture of mentoring – is that it’s no longer a hierarchical approach. It’s no longer this person that has had 30 years more experience than you that makes the ideal mentor. In fact, peer mentoring relationships can be very effective where you’re connecting with someone who may be at the same level as you but in a completely different business unit or industry.

And being a mentor yourself enables you to continually learn and be exposed to new things whether it be from a different generation or a different industry. We find with the mentors we engage with, when we ask them, why do you want to be a mentor? They say that they see a lot of value in their relationship as well. It’s not only an altruistic activity for them, it’s not just about giving back. They view it as a learning opportunity for them as well. Coming back to the question of what does culture mean, when we see mentoring play out as a mutually beneficial relationship I think that’s when you can start to create a culture of mentoring within your workplace.

Brandon: I think the big question for me is, how do you pair people up? Is there some sort of process behind that? Do you see organizations do it a lot differently? Maybe your tool does that, it just matches people. How does that work?

Heidi: How you sort of saw it play out traditionally in an offline environment is that people would have been using a Word doc or something like that to collect information. Typically what we saw were very long, convoluted sort of application forms for this mentor program where they would then go through a screening process.

Our philosophy is that mentoring is about being matched based on outcomes. What do you want to achieve? Not just from the mentee perspective, but in our matching we also take into consideration what the mentor is looking for as part of the relationship. We use that data to make recommended matches.

This is where a platform can take out some of that bias that might exist within the HR function or even the individuals themselves, how who they might think is the best match for them is not necessarily the best match for them.

Brandon: Could you give some examples of some of the questions that you would ask when figuring out how to match people together?

Heidi: When I talk about outcomes, it’s based around some hard and fast goal setting activities. So what are your short term, medium, and long term goals you want to attract from this? But we also use soft skills analysis. What are some of those things that you’re interested in, negotiation skills, networking skills, as well as taking into account personal interests. We still think there needs to be a little bit of an X-factor in your relationship. If you’re both into sailing or you both enjoy wine or watching cat videos online, I don’t know, something like that, that helps in building rapport. That’s why we also use those sort of personal interest questions, because we think that’s really important in establishing a good mentoring relationship as well.

Brandon: Do you find that people actually like to collaborate through the technology platform? Maybe it’s not exclusively. Maybe they get together in person all the time and they just sort of manage the relationship on the technology. Could you share about the kind of in-person versus technology mentorship communication methods?

Heidi: I think this sometimes just comes down to location. If your mentor sits across the desk from you, then it would make sense that you’re engaging in a face-to-face conversations. But that’s not always happening these days. Technology helps when you are dealing with geographical boundaries and that’s also where we see the value of some mentoring relationships – it’s about connecting people across your network, whether cross-company or even intercompany or across countries.

Technology now plays a part in making people more accessible. People are used to communicating over online tools, whether it’s email or WhatsApp or Slack. So this is already happening, but in a platform such as Mentorloop, the advantage for the mentees and mentors who manage communications through there is that it effectively builds out an online journal of their mentoring relationship and also increases accountability among participants because the organization has insight into how these relationships are progressing, making sure that people are engaged and enjoying their mentor relationship.

Brandon: I’m sure it happens occasionally where a relationship is just not working out. Is it easy to switch? How do you handle all that? Does your platform take care of that?

Heidi: Through the platform obviously mentees and mentors have a direct line of communication, but they also have a line of communication back to their program coordinator. So that’s where they can raise any of those issues. We also see the platform enabling that program coordinator to preempt any issues because they’ve got an insight into the engagement of that relationship.

It’s a way for the program coordinator to get on the front foot and intervene in a relationship before it does maybe go completely off the rails. That’s again the advantage of a platform – it gives you that insight rather than finding out six months later that people haven’t had a good time in their mentoring relationship. Maybe you can intervene earlier at the two months’ mark before it actually goes completely, as I said, off the rails.

Brandon: Let’s say I wanted to jump into a mentorship program and I wanted to develop certain skills. Maybe leadership skills and it’s unrelated to my specific job function. I just want to develop my leadership skills. If you were going to develop a program, would you match me up with somebody not even in my job function, but across the company in a leadership role who has those skills? How does that work? Would you consider placing me with a mentor who’s in my department or opt for somebody who’s not?

Heidi: We’ve recently launched a cross-company mentoring program. We’re actually taking registrations from small, medium-sized businesses that might not necessarily have the internal resources to provide their people with mentors, because they don’t have the pool of mentors within their organization or the networks to facilitate it.

What we’re able to do is actually take that individual’s details from that particular organization and the motivations for a match and then match them up through the platform with a person at a completely different organization that may have specific skills in that area that they’re looking to improve in.

The advantage that we see in a cross-company mentoring space is that there are benefits at both the individual and also the company level. At the individual level, you’re exposing them to new industries, new people, new networks. But coming back to the organization, you’re able to enhance your knowledge within the business and also it’s a way to build up complementary business networks as well where there could be a sales outcome from this as well.

Brandon: Do you find that a lot of your clients and those that are developing mentorship programs are starting to look at this cross-company mentorship program because they have realized that they don’t have enough of a pool of mentors within their own organization?

Heidi: Yes. People talk about the war for talent, but I think for SMEs, it’s a particular challenge to keep your employees engaged and happy and sometimes you don’t necessarily have that full suite of learning and development opportunities that larger enterprise companies are offering. It’s a cost-effective way to offer new learning opportunities to your people as well.

I think the other nice thing here in this cross-company space is it’s something that the larger organizations I think are slower to adopt – I guess they’re a little bit more fearful of something like that where they would think that their people could be exposed to being poached. Whereas I think within the SME level, SMEs are naturally more nimble, innovative and collaborative because you have to be more resourceful. So therefore you have to be open to more innovative opportunities that present themselves and that’s why we’ve seen the appetite for cross-company mentoring has been far more of a demand-driven activity by SMEs rather than larger corporates.

Brandon: Do you have an example of a really effective mentor relationship in the cross-company function format? Just anything that comes off the top of your head where it went really went and any kind of results from that?

Heidi: Yeah. We saw it actually playing out across the construction industry here. We’ve had a construction company with an architecture firm and this is an example of two businesses that have to work together collaboratively for a client engagement of building a house. But through this sort of peer mentoring opportunity, it was a chance for the project manager from the construction company to have a greater understanding from the architect’s perspective, the processes and procedures they go through in managing client expectations and getting that job done and it was a way for both to have a better appreciation of each other’s role within the client engagement.

And also, that’s how jobs come about in that industry, so it started to build a network for that project manager at the construction company. It started to build networks so that he could actually start to bring back business development opportunities to that business as well.

Brandon: I always find that when you want to develop a program, like a mentorship program for example, and you do it without a technology platform, I think measurement of success is probably less important. I think people think it’s the right thing to do and they want to get their employees engaged. But when you add a cloud-based platform into the mix and there’s a cost associated with it, I’m assuming that you’ve done a lot of measurement to get people to justify why they need this platform.

What successes are coming out of mentorship programs, especially when they’re using a platform like yours? What data is coming out of it?

Heidi: Yeah. Look, I think the most powerful one that we’ve uncovered for some of our clients is the internal latent demand for mentoring. The platform has actually enabled organizations to – once they put it out there – for example, an organization with 200 employees. They thought 50 people might sign up. But actually it was oversubscribed and 120 people signed up.

Brandon: Wow.

Heidi: They didn’t know that this was something that the people wanted and once they saw that, for them it was, OK, well, this is worth making an investment in because there is this demand here. I think what they had also uncovered is previously they had this top-down approach to a lot of LND offerings. So you can have this, you can have this, but this person over here wasn’t offered the same opportunity. Whereas with something like mentoring and again for the platform, they were able to say, Well, hang on. Let’s just put it out to the organization. If you want to participate, you can.

That was one. We’ve kind of been able to uncover within certain organizations an 80% oversubscription of people wanting to participate. Then from there, I guess engagement across the course of the program, we are tracking on average a 74 percent engagement, so that’s people connecting at least once a month for an hour in their mentoring relationship.

In terms of what people were generally seeing previously, it wasn’t as high as that. Organizations I think are seeing the value because for the participants, they know there’s a degree of accountability, somebody is able to watch, but also the platform is creating more meaningful connections. That again is giving those individuals a reason to stay engaged in a platform and within their mentoring relationship.

Brandon: If an organization has no mentorship program and then they launch one and let’s say a year later they’ve had a very successful, engaged program, they’re doing some of the cross-company mentoring, they’ve got some internal mentoring. What does that company look and feel like a year later? What sort of effects would a company see?

Heidi: I think they would hopefully see it if they were to run an employee engagement survey or something like that that overall people are happier in their work. We see that mentoring can have a direct influence on retention as well. So hopefully you would like to see that there has been movement there in the right way. Your people are staying longer and are more productive.

I mean we seen mentoring as something that really feeds into those key business drivers around what the HR function is there to achieve, and that is to ensure turnover remains low, people are more productive, and people are happy. I think mentoring is one of those things that is a minimal investment and can have a very large impact on your people’s time at your business.

Brandon: Amazing. I want to give you the last word, Heidi. We kind of went all over the place, but I do want you to mention why organizations need a mentor program. Anything about your platform that you want to add?

Heidi: In our philosophy at Mentorloop and the reason we got into this business of mentoring is that we want to make mentoring more accessible for more people. Previously, it was thought of as a slightly elitist activity. We think that goes against the very grain of what mentoring is.

We would just put out there to challenge people to actually think about it. This is something that doesn’t need to be over-engineered within your business, whether you’ve got 20 people or 2000 people, anyone can implement a mentor program. We’re obviously here to help and that’s why we’ve also set up our own cross-company mentor program, so if anyone is interested in finding out more about that, they can go to our website and read a little bit more about that via our blog and the expression of interest form there. But we’re all about making mentoring accessible and affordable and making it interesting—challenging that traditional concept of what a mentor relationship is and really listening to what the individuals want to get out of the relationship and facilitating that connection through our platform.

Brandon: Excellent. Heidi Holmes, co-founder of Mentorloop, thank you for joining our podcast today! I learned a lot from you. This mentorship program thing is just – it’s hot right now.

Heidi: It is so hot, so hot!

Brandon: It’s so hot! You’ve built a great business and I think it’s really exciting. I’ll need to check in with you soon and see where your business has taken you.

Heidi: Great. We might have an office in Oregon by then, Brandon!

Brandon: I hope so. Well, I don’t know, it’s very rainy right now. I don’t know if you would want to come this way. But we sure hope you expand! Thanks again though.

Heidi: Thanks Brandon!

Brandon Laws

As Director of Marketing, Brandon Laws leads all marketing efforts for Xenium, providing oversight on all marketing campaigns, digital marketing strategy, events, sponsorships and public relations. Brandon brings a positive energy to every aspect of his role at Xenium—from internal initiatives around culture and wellness to industry thought leadership through the Xenium podcast and other social efforts. Active within the HR community, he currently volunteers on the board of the Portland Human Resource Management Association as the Director of Marketing & PR.

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