As well as being the most commercially successful film director in history, Steven Spielberg has spent his career mentoring many younger directors, including Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future) and Chris Columbus (Home Alone). “The delicate balance of mentoring someone,” Spielberg famously said “is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves.” Indeed, the challenges involved in traditional mentoring arrangements mean that most mentor-mentee duos aren’t as successful as Spielberg and Zemeckis/Columbus.

Most of us know of someone who had a few coffee catch-ups with a mentor before the arrangement fizzled out. That’s because when organisations launch a mentoring program, the participants often aren’t sure what they’re supposed to be doing. Rather than throwing mentors and mentees together and saying “go for it!”, a successful mentoring program helps remove the ‘delicate balance of mentoring’ which Spielberg referred to.

How can your organisation run a successful mentoring program? By ensuring the program has these four pillars:

  1. Make it purposeful.
  2. Matching is key.
  3. Define structure and expectations.
  4. Ensure the conversations are impactful.


1. Make it purposeful


The first step in a running a successful mentoring program is ensuring it has a clear purpose, and a definition of how you’ll measure the program’s success. We suggest a two-step approach:

  • Define an objective: Your organisation’s aim could be to promote a particular group of under-represented employees (for example, women aged 20-25), to support staff moving into a new role in the company, to share knowledge with new starters, or as retention strategy if a particular group of staff (such as Gen Z) are leaving the company in significant numbers.
  • Target a specific group: For example, if your organisation’s aim is to increase connection in a hybrid working environment, you may want to offer your mentoring program to all staff. But if your aim is to enhance the performance of aspiring leaders, you could offer mentoring only to that specific cohort of potential leaders. Another option is to offer mentoring as an ongoing benefit for all staff at your organisation.

Perhaps your organisation wants to offer more than one mentoring program? Online mentoring platform MentorKey lets you offer multiple mentoring programs across your organisation at the same time, targeted at different employee groups, to meet different objectives.

2. Matching is key

Next, you need to ensure a good fit between mentees and mentors. The secret to optimal mentee-mentor matching lies in balancing three dimensions:

  • Mentoring partners should work in separate business lines, have very limited day-to-day working relationships, and no shared reporting lines, but understand each other’s business model. 
  • Ideally, mentoring partners should have something in common (this could be their career path, first job, hobbies, values or beliefs), but are different in their thinking style, current role’s focus, stakeholders or personality.
  • And most importantly, the mentor has gone through similar challenges or developed the skills the mentee now needs to develop their career.

Your organisation’s focus in matching participants is giving mentees who they need, not who they want. To achieve this, we suggest asking mentees to fill out a comprehensive questionnaire to understand their aspirations, challenges, and the areas they want to develop with a mentor. Online mentoring platform MentorKey simplifies this process by generating questionnaires for prospective mentees and mentors to fill in, and then uses a matching algorithm to ensure the best possible mentee-mentor combination.


3.Define structure and expectations

When mentoring relationships break down, it’s usually because of a mismatch between mentee’s and mentor’s expectations. To avoid this mismatch, it’s essential to properly structure your organisation’s mentoring program, and to communicate your expectations to participants.

 Setting the program’s structure

  • A mentoring program should always have a start and a finish date. Six months is enough for the relationship to develop and achieve results. (Interestingly, if you announce your program will last for 12 months, the pairs will meet less often and lose momentum.)
  • Mentees are responsible for scheduling meetings with their mentor, driving the agenda, and coming prepared to each session.
  • Identify who your participants can talk to if they run into unexpected issues. Because of the confidentiality involved (see below), mentees might share information which mentors find hard to handle. Providing mentors with an impartial expert is vital to help them address situations where they may be concerned about their mentee’s wellbeing, or their ability to meet their mentee’s needs.

 Communicating expectations

Organisations need to regularly communicate with participants to advise and remind them that:

  • Keeping up momentum is critical and pairs should meet once every three weeks.
  • Confidentiality is essential and by entering into a mentoring partnership, participants commit to keeping all conversations private.
  • Ideally, mentoring be kept distinct from a mentee’s performance. This allows the mentoring conversation to focus on what the mentee wants to achieve, rather than what your organisation wants to achieve from them. It also helps to provide bias-free support to employees. Mentors should only seek insights from their mentee’s manager if the mentee specifically asks for it, and it will help mentees progress their goals.

Using online mentoring platform MentorKey, organisations can easily communicate their expectations to program participants by creating an ‘about’ page with details of the program (including objectives, benefits and expectations), and a unique URL which can be shared internally.


4. Impactful conversations

The fourth and final pillar of a successful mentoring program is the need for impactful conversations between mentees and mentors. Research shows that people are significantly more likely to take action and learn when they’ve found solutions on their own than they’re told what do. So organisations should support the mentoring relationship by encouraging participants to focus on these factors:

Mentors should ask questions more than giving answers. This can be challenging, especially when mentors are eager to help and believe they know what their mentee needs. But mentors can achieve so much more by asking open-ended questions (those without yes/no answers) and supporting mentees to find their own answers. MentorKey makes this easy by generating questions which mentors can select, based on their mentee’s needs, to prompt compelling discussions during mentoring sessions.

Mentees should prepare for each meeting in advance. This helps mentees focus on what they want to achieve from each meeting, to identify obstacles, and track their progress against their goal(s). MentorKey makes this easy for mentees by providing them with guidance that’s built into MentorKey’s platform. The online guidance asks mentees to answer a series of coaching questions on a topic that’s important to them, such as:

    • how to develop a powerful network in their organisation
    • how to identify their strengths
    • how to explore their leadership impact
    • how to enhance their mental resilience.

Mentees then record their answers (and any other insights) on MentorKey, and can also share that information with their mentor via the platform. This preparation ensures that mentees have identified where they need their mentor’s help before each mentoring meeting. This groundwork focuses the conversation when the pair meet, allowing the mentee to take real steps towards reaching their goals.

Informal mentoring, of the kind Steven Spielberg has directed towards young, up and coming filmmakers, can be gold. But that type of ad-hoc mentoring can just as easily bomb. In contrast, formal mentoring programs allow organisations to offer structured mentoring to large numbers of employees. Yet not all mentoring programs are equal.

The success of your company’s mentoring program depends on the way you position it, match your participants, set expectations, and support conversations between mentees and mentors. And we know the benefits of a successful mentoring relationship. A good mentee-mentor fit can create movie magic – and magic within your organisation – as mentoring propels your people on journeys of immense career and personal growth.