August 22, 2016

Mentoring Programs in Your Small Business

This is the third in a multi-part series about career development in small businesses. This article looks at the valuable insight mentors can provide as well as how to establish a mentoring program that positively contributes to employee development while also having a positive impact on your business.

Small business owners understand the importance of employee development, but daily operations can get in the way of making it a priority or putting a plan in place. Not to mention the idea of creating an extensive career development program can be slightly intimidating. However, as we discussed in the first article of this series, the value of having a learning and career development program extends beyond the obvious benefits to the individual and can have a positive impact on your business.

Before you start feeling overwhelmed by the idea of creating a career development program, let us assure you: your program doesn’t have to be elaborate. In our Creating a Career Development Plan for Small Business Employees article, we mentioned a few ways to provide learning opportunities that require minimal—if any—expense. One cost effective method for delivering career development is via a mentoring program. Mentoring isn’t a new concept, and it’s one that many businesses embrace. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) 2013 Employee Benefits survey found that 20% of organizations surveyed offered a formal mentoring program to their employees.

If you’re considering a career development program, an easy place to start is to make coaching, feedback and mentoring a priority in your company culture by creating a mentoring program. When you have a program, and match the right mentor with the right mentee, it’s likely both employees will experience career and professional development—at very little cost to your bottom line.

What do mentoring programs involve?

In a Harvard Business Review article, Anthony Tjan, author of Heart, Smarts, Guts, and Luck, categorizes mentoring into three types:

  1. Peer Mentoring
  2. Career Mentoring
  3. Life Mentoring

Each of these mentoring types serves a purpose within the workplace, and is somewhat dependent on timing in one’s career or tenure in a particular role. Perhaps the most common type of mentor and the focus of this article is the career mentor.

According to Tjan, a career mentor is a more senior-level employee who provides advice and serves as an “internal advocate” for the mentee. This mentor also helps to reinforce how the mentee’s role contributes to the larger organization.

Basic components of a mentoring program

You’ll want to create a mentoring program that fits your business and your budget, but in general, there are five key elements that you should include in your program:

  1. A declaration of support from business owners. If there’s no indication of high-level support, employees won’t participate in the program.
  2. An understanding that mentoring benefits the mentee, as well as the mentor. It’s important to inform both participants about the personal and professional benefits of participating in the mentoring program.
  3. A willingness from mentees to drive the process. The developmental goals are focused on the mentee. As such mentees need to be responsible for setting the agenda, communicating about the schedule, and working to meet the goals they establish with their mentor.
  4. A commitment to confidentiality. When mentors and mentees meet, they need to be able to ask questions, discuss issues, identify goals, and share ideas without the fear that what they talk about will be discussed with others.
  5. A set duration of time (e.g., six or 12 months) for the mentoring relationship. Mentors and mentees will, ideally, remain connected; however, it’s best to set a timeframe for the “formal” mentoring program to begin and end. A schedule helps keep the sessions productive and focused.

Making a good mentor-mentee match

Finding the appropriate mentor-mentee combination is critical to the individual experience, as well as to the overall success of your mentoring program. A sense of collaboration and connection between partners contributes to the value of the experience.

In the book, Creating a Mentoring Program Mentoring Partnerships Across the Generations, the authors suggest two methods for the mentor “match procedure” including:

  1. Formal process in which someone from HR or the leadership team assigns mentors to their mentee.
  2. Self-selection process based on what mentees state they want to learn, and what mentors indicate they have to offer.

How do mentoring programs benefit the business?

Millennials and Generation X employees are often said to be the people who want to receive professional development from an employer. But we’d argue that growth and development are common desires for most employees, regardless of their age or era. When your company helps employees develop professionally—or personally—it can become a competitive advantage in attracting, developing, and retaining the best talent.

“When people feel that they understand their current role, its impact and where it can take them next in a company, it leads to higher levels of satisfaction and motivation,” writes Tjan, the author of Heart, Smarts, Guts and Luck.

When you offer a mentoring program as part of career development, your small business can benefit in a variety of ways:

  • Engaged junior-level employees who are focused on developing their skills are more likely to perform at a higher level.
  • Senior-level leaders are engaged by the opportunity to learn from their mentee while also passing on what they know.
  • When company knowledge is shared between mentors and mentees, knowledge transfer occurs, and may reduce the loss of institutional knowledge when key employees leave.
  • This method of informal learning requires only a small investment to deliver a big employee benefit.
  • You’re building a strong organizational culture focused on learning and growth which will expand your business potential.
  • The mentor-mentee connections will aid in succession planning discussions, thanks to the wider exposure that mentors have to internal talent within the employee population.

What does a mentoring program look like in small business?

“The goal of our mentorship program is to put employees in control of their development,” says Liza Dettoie, Founding Principal at Dittoe Public Relations.

“Good mentors understand that the goal isn’t to create another version of themselves—it’s to recognize their mentee’s unique interests, strengths and weaknesses to better guide them toward their individual goals. To that end, our mentors are focused on setting an overall direction, but empowering each employee to decide the best way to get where they want to go. People support what they help build, so we wanted to create a mentorship program that put employees’ personal goals at the center. Everyone wins that way.”

Dettoie’s Public Relationship agency, which has 17 employees, began their mentoring program eight months ago. The program pairs entry and mid-level employees with a senior employee who serves as their professional mentor. So far it’s a huge success.

“It’s working very well,” says Ryan Simpson, an Account Executive who participates in the program.

In the mentoring program at Dettoie, the mentor and mentee meet at the beginning of every financial quarter and discuss the mentee’s professional goals. The expectation is that they work together to draft an action plan with steps to reach the goals, and then they meet every two to four weeks to discuss progress towards the goals.

“Our mentor will also connect us with various resources that help us both personally and professionally. For example, I’ve received professional books and podcast suggestions from my mentor,” says Simpson.

Not only has Simpson experienced a personal benefit by participating in the program, but he also sees the impact this career development opportunity has on the business.

“One of our core values as a company is that ‘Businesses don’t grow, people do.’ With this mind, we’re always looking for ways to advance employees in their professional career. Happy, skilled and productive employees can help our agency reach new heights.”


After you put a mentoring program in place, continue to gather feedback from mentors and mentees. Confirm they have the tools and resources they need, and that the experience is meeting their expectations. Also, be sure the program is helping you achieving the goals you set for the organization around career development. If you’re not getting results, look for ways to modify the program to more effectively address employee and business needs.

When organizations provide opportunities for employees to connect with mentors who challenge them and encourage professional growth, the impact extends beyond that mentoring relationship. The overall workplace environment shifts to one focused on creating an organizational culture that supports and encourages career development. That focus does wonders in helping a small businesses recruit, retain, and make the most out of all the talent their workforce has to offer.

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