Moving from an informal to a formal mentoring program

Should you step back and let mentorship happen informally? Or should you establish a formal mentorship program for employees? Here's how to decide.

Ryan Carruthers

Published on 

December 29, 2021

Updated on 

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Mentoring has been around for thousands of years. Its roots hailed from the story of Odysseus when he embarked on a journey for the Trojan wars. He left his son Telemachus under Mentor's care. That's how far back humans have relied on mentoring.

Sometimes mentoring falls into place informally, but today more than 70% of Fortune 500 companies have formal mentorship programs. Nine out of ten employees with mentors claimed to be happy with their job. Further, ninety-four percent of workers say they will be happy to stay longer with any organization that offers learning and growth opportunities. 

What is evident is companies are seeing the benefits of mentoring and are ready to transition from an informal mentorship program to a formal mentor program where things are well-coordinated and structured.

Formal vs informal mentoring: What's the difference?

In many organizations, leaders feel that mentorship should happen organically, without a top-done approach. There’s a belief that it’s more authentic when it grows informally. But this thinking limits the number of people who find a mentor—that’s why only 37% of professionals say they have a mentor. It’s hard to find a mentor, so formal programs can democratize these opportunities. 

To make it more concrete, let’s outline several differences between informal and formal mentorship.

Informal mentoring

Informal mentoring is when employees find a leader or peer they learn to rely on and want to share the experience. It can happen intentionally or unintentionally

When this happens unintentionally, an employee may learn that they can get good advice or guidance for personal and professional growth by going to a particular leader. When a leader is open to helping others, this can happen quite easily.

The employee naturally starts going to the leader when they have a question or challenge because they know the leader will help them. In this way, a mentoring relationship develops naturally, and they may never call themselves mentors or mentees.

Formal mentoring 

Formal mentoring is when an organization starts a program where employees and leaders can opt-in as mentors or mentees. The administrators of the program then pair up mentors and mentees

With formal mentoring programs, a schedule is set up for both mentor and mentee to meet up regularly and discuss factors affecting the growth and understanding of the mentee. Formal mentoring is structured such that both mentor and mentee have specific goals and targets that match the organization's goals and culture.

Matching a mentee to a mentor in this type of mentoring can occur either through the organization manager, self-matching by an individual or through software. There are different ways they can organize their mentoring program:

  • It can be a traditional 1-on-1 relationship
  • It can be among peers who coach one another
  • Employees can be organized in groups to be mentored by a senior leader
  • Various leaders mentor employees from Employee Resource Groups
  • Reverse mentoring where the traditional 1-on-1 relationship is flipped

Organizations that don't have formal mentoring programs put the onus on employees for their career development. This doesn't inspire loyalty or give organizations control over the upskilling of employees.

Wendy Axelrod, author of 10 Steps to Successful Mentoring, shares in her interview with Together's CEO why relying on informal mentoring can limit its impact. See her full interview here.

Who benefits from a formal mentoring program?

Formal mentoring is a rewarding experience for all those involved, but many successful mentoring programs focus on specific groups of employees—sort of like a pilot program. As the program generates results, they expand the program to include more employees. 

Let’s look at two specific examples of employees who benefit from mentoring: women and underrepresented groups.


There has never been a time where women needed greater support than now–especially since the start of the pandemic. A McKinsey study during the pandemic found that women are 1.8 times more likely to lose their jobs than their male counterparts. Despite women making up 39 percent of global employment, they accounted for 54% of overall job losses. What's more:

Women are more vulnerable in today's workforce. For this reason. they can benefit from formal mentorship—particularly, women mentoring other women.

There is a big gap in mentorship for women in today's workforce. SHRM surveyed 318 businesswomen from 19 different countries and 30 different industries. They found:

63% of women have never had a formal mentor— yet 67% rate mentorship as highly important in helping them advance and grow their careers. There’s a gap in mentorship for women.

Organizations need formal mentoring programs to support women and encourage a diverse workforce. A McKinsey study shows that 72% of respondents believe a strong connection between a diverse workforce, women, and a company's financial success. 

Female mentoring in the workplace has led to more equitable workplaces and better paychecks for everyone involved.

Underrepresented employees

Formal mentoring works better when empowering and supporting inclusion and diversity in the workplace. Through a well-structured diversity-focused mentorship program, underrepresented employees can develop their skills and boost leadership succession rates while building a strong company culture.

Formal mentorship also increases underrepresented people's visibility for leadership roles. For many diversity mentorship programs, the role of the mentor is to be a sponsor who advocates and prepares their mentee to take on future leadership roles.

All employees and the organization where they work

There are specific benefits to women and underrepresented groups who participate in formal mentoring programs. But company-wide mentoring also leads to several benefits.

Employees stand to gain:

  • Career development advice and guidance: Mentors and mentorship can play a vital role and positively impact an employee's professional growth, career development, and mobility. Through mentorship, employees receive guidance, advice, and support to reach their full potential.
  • Networking opportunities: Introducing their mentee to key people in the mentor's network is one-way mentors can open doors. Employees strengthen networking capabilities through group or peer mentorship. Mentors can also teach their mentees the necessary networking development skills to survive in the workplace.
  • Knowledge-sharing opportunities: A mentee may not know what steps to take or how best to accomplish specific tasks; mentors provide instructions on these matters. For instance, a mentee could approach a mentor assigned a task that he or she has no idea about in the organization, and the mentor will share their knowledge with the mentee.
  • Potential for advancement: Employees with mentors get promoted 5 to 6 times more than their peers. A mentor helps mentees set career goals and establish a roadmap to reach them. All the while they provide valuable feedback and encouragement.

Organizations gain: 

  • Increased retention:  According to the 2021 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, the turnover rate is currently 57.3%. With over 3 million Americans quitting their jobs monthly, it is evident that organizations are struggling to retain their employees. A CNBC/SurveyMonkey Workplace Happiness Survey from 2019 showed that more than 4 in 10 workers who don't have a mentor say they've considered quitting their job in the past three months. However, mentorship has been proven to be an effective solution to reducing the turnover rate. Retention rates were much higher for mentees (72%) and mentors (69%) than for employees who did not participate in the mentoring program (49%). 
  • Productivity: Since mentorship, if done right, helps a mentee to work on their strengths and weaknesses and also boost their confidence and performance, implementing a mentorship program will increase an organization's productivity. Our 2022 State of Coaching and Mentoring Report shows that mentoring leads to a marked increase in productivity.
  • Engagement:  Mentorship is all about employee development. And opportunities for employee development are the second most important factor in determining engagement. Furthermore, according to Brad Johnson, co-author of the classic, "The Elements of Mentoring," more than fifty years of research shows people with great mentors tend to do better and have higher performance ratings than those who try to go it alone. Mentoring is a relationship. Employees need friendships at work to flourish. Those with close relationships with peers are 50% happier. They are also seven times more likely to be engaged in their work. 

A Gallup survey also shows that one of the several ways to retain and engage 94% of millennials at work is through mentorship programs. That’s because millennials value work that has clear value and presents opportunities for personal or professional growth. With mentors, millennial employees have the support system and coaching they need to grow. 

Lebena Varghese, during her doctorate at Northern Illinois University, found out that formal mentoring can serve as an effective solution to employee burnout. Employee burnout in the workplace is real and severe, and employees need to be healthy to function well. Here is our whitepaper on how to reduce employee burnout.

How to transition from an informal to a formal mentoring program with Together

Organizations that want to harness the benefits of mentorship need to formalize mentoring. They can do so by following these steps:

1. Survey employees and ask them what kind of development they want

Surveys might  include questions such as

  • Which specific skills do you want help developing?
  • Do you want to learn about different company parts and break down silos?
  • Is career guidance of value to you?
  • Do you want coaching from leaders or peers?

2. Invite them to register for the pilot mentorship program

Formal mentoring is organized and structured. HR and leaders need to encourage their employees to register for the pilot mentoring program. This way, the organization can collect data and monitor the progress.

3. Use the survey results to craft mentoring session agendas

Organizations should not just pair mentors and mentees. They must understand what each mentee wants to learn that aligns with its goals and vision. You can use the survey results to plan mentoring sessions. Do this by finding specific things people want to learn, like leadership skills. Then make discussion questions and activities around these topics.

The study "Effective Characteristics of Formal Mentoring Relationships" says that mentors are more effective when armed with resources and tips. When they have these resources, mentors can have more confidence and build stronger relationships.

4. Match employees

You must ensure that the right mentor is paired with the right mentee. The pairing could make or mar the essence of the program. At Together, we can help you efficiently match employees with our pairing algorithm. Instead of spending hours sifting through spreadsheets and manual survey responses, you can automate the pairing process. Regardless of how you pair mentors and mentees, make sure you download our white paper on how to do it effectively.

5. Launch the program and monitor results

A hallmark of formal mentoring programs is that it has goals and objectives that tie back to the organization. Whether it's increased engagement or retention, formal mentoring programs can be measured and optimized so they drive maximum impact.

Continuous striving for improvement is the bedrock to success. Tweak things as needed and grow the program as more people show interest. We have an entire article dedicated to measuring your mentoring program worth checking out. It will outline the important metrics to monitor and helpful tips.

Will you run a formal mentoring program or leave it to happen informally?

This article outlined the differences between informal and formal mentoring. Overall, if you’re a leader in an organization, you should be considering how to introduce a formal mentoring program. There are too many benefits to ignore. Conversely, if you leave mentorship up to employees, the majority will struggle to build successful mentoring relationships. Without the proper structures in place, the good intentions will slowly fizzle out as schedules get more cramped. 

At Together, we’ve powered the mentoring programs at some of the world's leading companies. We’ve seen what best practices are and how to build one that scales. If you’re ready to learn more about how to start a mentorship program at your company get in touch with us. We’d love to show you how mentoring software can help.

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