A how-to guide to building mentorship programs (that work)

Mentorship is one of the most misunderstood and misinterpreted concepts in the business world. Often it can turn into instructing or simply venting, instead of what it really should be: guiding someone, using your own experience as a tool to provide advice and offer help from a position of advantage. At Jijali, we have learned a thing or two about how to build successful mentorship programs, so that not only do mentees gain the guidance that they’re looking for, but so that the program benefits all the different people involved. Our learnings have also allowed us to constantly improve our program, and we’re happy to share some of our key learnings:

One size doesn’t fit all

We had initially allocated a set number of mentees to each mentor in the program, approximating what would be the optimal number based on how much time we thought each mentor could dedicate to the program. We soon learned that some mentors had more time than others, and more time than we’d expected, and were eager to use their time to support more mentees than they had been allotted. Conversely, some were a bit too busy to handle the demands of mentoring the number of individuals that had been assigned to them, and recognized that they could not do all of their mentees justice. We therefore adopted a more flexible approach, so that we could adjust the number of mentees according to the time each mentor said that they would have available, and allow them the freedom to choose how many mentees they would work with. Their situations might also change over time, in which case we could adjust accordingly, constantly monitoring the situation and checking in.

Mentor knows best

With the best of intentions, we conducted a survey during our initial mentorship programs, to learn more about the ongoing needs of the young men and women in the program. The survey was intended, amongst other things, to ascertain whether mentees were intrinsically motivated (that is to say they would require less support from a mentor because of their capacity to motivate themselves), or extrinsically motivated (requiring more support from an external party, in this case a mentor). Whilst the findings were interesting, the feedback we got from mentors about their own mentees was much more insightful, and we realized that formal surveys may not have been the best way to go. Simply asking the mentors what they thought their mentees needed could be more useful in adapting the content and intensity of the program to each individual’s needs. The mentors have first-hand experience of the performance and motivation of their mentees, and will always be more objective than the mentees themselves. If in doubt? Ask the mentor.

Even mentors need…mentoring?

The purpose of a mentor is to guide someone less experienced than themselves. Therefore mentors typically have some level of expertise in their field. However, that does not mean that they are expert mentors. For a successful mentorship program, the mentors need detailed and continuous guidance on how to be constructive and useful mentors. An initial onboarding is not enough, especially if it is their first time being a mentor. Our mentors provide feedback to their mentees on work that their mentees produce, and so they need some instruction and guidelines on how to provide meaningful feedback that the mentees can then use to improve their outputs. As a result of this realization we created a guide to assist mentors on how to review their mentees’ work in a meaningful and systematic way. But we’re not stopping there. We now have our sights set on producing a whole series of guides to help mentors in their journey to honing their mentorship skills; a guide on how to facilitate group coaching, for example, and how to troubleshoot some of the problems that their mentees come up against.

Co-create to better create

You don’t have to be an expert in something to have ideas on how to make it better. Our mentors interact with the content we created for the mentorship program on a regular basis, and so who better to give feedback on how to improve it than them? This is not something we had anticipated; though we knew that mentors would have great input on the performance of their mentees, we hadn’t factored in how invaluable they would be in re-shaping and evolving the content of the program itself. We have gone on to formalize these feedback loops so that mentors are actively involved in the process of reviewing and revamping the structure and contents of the mentorship program that they are such a key part of.

It’s never finished

In the spirit of constant self-improvement (which is at the very heart of good mentorship), we’re never done learning. As we continue to grow the Jijali mentorship program we approach every part of it with an open mind, and know that we can always do better. However, we at least know that we’ve now got it to a point where we’re setting hundreds of youth on a path to success, and will continue to do so for a long time to come.

Written by Claire Baker

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