What separates successful mentoring programs from those that flop? [Interview with Wendy Axelrod]

Learn what successful mentoring programs do differently. We share expert insights from Dr. Wendy Axelrod.

Ryan Carruthers

Published on 

May 2, 2023

Updated on 

Time to Read

mins read time

Mentoring programs are prevalent in organizations today. And for good reason.

Organizations link higher retention rates, employee engagement, leadership development, and better performance to well-run mentoring programs. 

The emphasis, however, is on well-run mentoring programs. 

When done poorly, mentoring programs can leave employees feeling disillusioned. Nothing is more detrimental to a mentoring program than a mentoring relationship that fizzles out because no one checked in with mentors and mentees or supported them in building a relationship.

But these issues are avoidable if you have the best practices for mentoring programs at your disposal.

To help us learn those best practices, we interviewed Dr. Wendy Axelrod, a well-known mentoring expert and author — whose knowledge and personal experiences helped formulate this article.

Who is Dr. Wendy Axelrod? 

Wendy Axelrod, Ph.D., has amassed years of experience as an executive coach, mentoring professional, former HR executive, and speaker. She has led a Philadelphia-based mentoring program designed for HR specialists since 2002. 

She holds a doctorate in organizational psychology, she has also authored two books — one titled 10 Steps to Successful Mentoring. Her vast understanding of mentoring — particularly the formula for successful ones — makes her a perfect resource to learn the best practices for running a successful mentoring program.

Here are the key takeaways from our conversation with Dr. Axelrod.


Informal mentoring isn't enough 

Many organizations rely on informal mentoring to happen organically in their workplaces. 

Although an informal mentoring relationship sounds ideal—  relationships grow naturally, and you don’t have to awkwardly ask the “will you be my mentor” question— the reality is that very few mentoring relationships develop this way.

Research shows that only a third of employees have ever found a mentor at work. And many of these relationships don’t happen for employees from underrepresented backgrounds. In our interview, Dr. Axelrod asserts, 

The biggest problem is people think it's free and informal, and those [programs] don't last long. When people think, ‘let's do a mentoring program; it will be free, won't be a big budget item, it can be informal. We really don't have to do much. We just bring those mentors in, and they'll take care of [the rest].’ That's a misstep.

Some of these disadvantages include: 

  • Not all employees will find mentors 
  • Potential mentors are limited to people they know 
  • Keeping track of results is harder 
  • Mentoring relationships won't have support from administrators 

To make mentorship more successful and inclusive of all employees, Dr. Axelrod believes formal programs are the answer.

What makes a mentorship program successful? 

In her book, Make Your Mentoring Program Memorable, Dr. Axelrod shares some critical attributes of the long-running Philadelphia HRPS Mentoring Program. The article offers timeless best practices for mentoring program managers. We encourage you to read the whole article, but we’ll highlight two pertinent takeaways we discussed below:

1. Guard the gate: Don’t let everyone in (at least not at the start)

While opening your mentoring program to all employees sounds like a good idea, doing so can dilute its value. You want mentors and mentees who are bought into the program. If anyone can join the program, you’ll have many employees who are registered but unpaired. 

When discussing a mentoring program she championed, Dr. Axelrod shared,

“We recognized that there was a need to screen both mentors and mentees— it can't just be an informal “get to know each other” [session]. People needed to understand what was required in the program so that they would get the most out of it. We wanted to see our mentors [and mentees] come back to us again and again.”

2. Give it a backbone 

Dr. Axelrod further emphasizes the importance of expectation setting, sharing

“The ‘backbone’ part is really about the structure, about people knowing that they are coming into a program; it's going to be nine months, we're going to meet regularly, there are some requirements for you to stay in the program…We tell them, ‘this is what’s in the program, do you agree to this?’”

Giving it a backbone is about setting clear expectations for mentors and mentees.

The critical first steps when starting a mentorship program for the first time 

Before designing a mentoring plan, it pays to understand a few things that'll guarantee the program’s success. Starting a mentoring program takes work, especially the first time. 

Dr. Axelrod shares three valuable tips on what mentorship organizers should do before kicking off their program.

1. Know the purpose 

Dr. Axelrod shares,

“Know what the purpose is and then build the program to that purpose. I like to think about the purpose of a particular mentoring program to be linked to some kind of strategy, whether it be talent development strategy, diversity and inclusion strategy, or a succession model, whatever it is.”

Once you know what that is, the next step is bringing the idea to fruition. For this task, Dr. Axelrod advises, “Make sure you have great support from the organization and people willing to talk it up to participate as a speaker or senior executive.” 

2. Measure the impact 

Aside from ensuring the program is completed, you should closely monitor the participants' performance to see whether the initial goals were met. Dr. Axelrod advises the following:

If the goal is around succession and the senior leaders coached the junior employees, the first thing to do after the final session is to track the objectives and see if they've gained some valuable knowledge.

Missteps to avoid when launching a new mentoring program 

Failed mentoring programs can greatly impact a company's productivity rate via low employee engagement and high turnover. 

Below are 5 missteps to avoid when starting a mentoring program.

1. Lack of clear goals and objectives 

Dr. Axelrod shared in the previous section that mentoring programs must have some goals before being cleared to begin. When you start a program without a purpose, the mentors and mentees will likely improvise, and that hardly works in this setting. Setting goals and objectives guides the participants and raises the chances of getting a positive impact. 

2. Poor program design 

An effective mentoring program demands structure and strategic planning. Limiting entry into the program instead of asking every employee builds interest and raises its value. Companies starting mentoring sessions must know their North Star and strive toward achieving it. Learn how to design a mentoring program.

3. Insufficient mentor and mentee preparation 

Before admitting a mentor or mentee into the program, it is important to provide them with the necessary information, such as the program’s duration and desired outcome. 

Dr. Axelrod explains the importance of mentors and mentees knowing these things: 

"We don't want them to feel surprised that things were not laid out for them. We want them to understand we're going to be checking on their goals, and there are rules and boundaries.” 

4. Lack of communication and support 

Coordinators shouldn't just assign pairs and wait until the program’s end before collecting feedback. Doing this prevents them from tracking the pairs' performance and recommending changes where necessary. 

5. Overlooking diversity and inclusion 

It’s widely known that women and people of color face more barriers to career advancement than their white male counterparts. Mentoring isn’t the silver bullet, but it can help. If you’re interested in starting a diversity-focused mentoring program, check out our comprehensive guide on starting diversity mentoring programs.

How to start an impactful mentorship program 

A mentoring program helps increase mentees' confidence and personal development while mentors can grow their coaching skills. Dr. Axelrod adds that mentors get to practice outside their work environment, enabling them to see “what works in developing another person and what doesn't.” 

Having one of these in the workplace is necessary, so how can you launch one? 

1. Choose a high-level goal

Before starting a mentoring program, outline the goals you hope to accomplish. Doing this helps fine-tune the program's design to suit that goal(s). Your goals and objectives could be around any of the following: 

  • Reducing turnover
  • Promoting diversity, equity and inclusion 
  • Supporting leadership succession 
  • Attracting and retaining talent

 2. Choose a program format 

Another crucial aspect of a mentoring program is choosing a structure that helps you achieve your goals. it could be any of the following: 

  • 1-on-1 mentoring: A mentor gets paired with a mentee for the program’s duration. Mentors can customize sessions to meet the exact needs of mentees. 
  • Group mentoring: A mentor could have multiple mentees at a time or more than one mentor pairs with a mentee. 
  • Peer mentoring: Employees at the same level get pairs to mentor each other. This promotes teamwork and collective support. 
  • Reverse mentoring: Highly experimental, this style involves a junior employee joining a senior executive to coach a senior employee on the latest technology trends. This is ideal for those looking to connect a multi-generation workplace.

Depending on what you’re trying to accomplish, each of these models serves a different purpose. We discussed the 7 mentoring models and where they best work in detail.

3. Invite employees and assign roles in promoting the program 

You don't need everyone in the workplace to join at once. This means you should only open participation to some. Consider adopting the “nomination-based selective program,” which W. Brad Johnson mentions in this article. This means only those that have displayed great promise should join the program.

4. Match mentors and mentees 

Now, it’s time to match mentors and mentees, and for those starting with a small program with only a handful of mentors and mentees, the matches can be done using a spreadsheet or an Excel file. As the program grows, it's best to automate the process using mentor-matching software like the kind we offer at Together. 

5. Evaluate your program 

Building successful mentoring programs is iterative. You’ll make mistakes and learn along the way and that’s okay. The best way to learn is to continually seek feedback on the program. Dr. Axelrod advises, 

Report out at the end of [the program]; what was gained. 'll often ask a program manager, did you reach success? Did you reach the goals of what you hoped the program would do?”

At Together, our reporting tools make it easy to survey mentors and mentees and report on key metrics that determine success. 

Dr. Axelrod advises against measuring vanity metrics like how many people graduated. Instead, focus on more meaningful results.

“The measures will depend on [your goals], but please don't say 25 people graduated. That's very nice, but it's not concrete enough. It's not specific enough to show the financial return, the benefit to the business, and the benefit to the individuals.”

Bottom line

As this article illustrates, many factors play key roles in separating successful mentoring programs from those that fail. If you're ready to launch a successful mentoring program, Together's mentoring software makes it easy.

Our mentor matching algorithm makes it easy to pair up hundreds of participants with the right mentor and mentee. No spreadsheets required. Likewise, our platform gives you clear insight into your mentoring program performance. You’ll see how each relationship is progressing or if any pairs need a check-in.

If you’re ready to start a mentoring program that accelerates employee development at your organization, connect with our team today to get a personalized demo of our platform.

About the Author

close button