Mentoring: A Formal or Informal Programme?

The decision whether or not to design and implement a formal mentoring programme is not an academic exercise. It can depend on the culture of the organisation, on the purpose of the programme and the availability of resources needed to support a more formal programme.

Informal mentoring by definition has very little structure. Typically, an organisation establishes a platform for senior managers and/or “experts” who are inspired by the idea of sharing their experience and enjoy stepping into a mentoring relationship. The organisation may want to set up some criteria of eligibility and exercise a minimum of supervision to enforce these criteria and keep track of what is going on. But apart from these elementary rules or procedures the programme is loosely structured, often based upon the chemistry between the two individuals involved in a mentoring relationship. Informal mentoring is based on free choice and voluntary participation, it creates an atmosphere of openness, intimacy and trust and these three elements are a prerequisite for effective sharing and learning during the mentoring relationship.

However, the goals of an individual mentoring relationship in such an informal framework can vary and the expected outcomes of an informal program can remain rather unspecific. Some relationships may last only a short and insufficient period of time, as the mentor takes on other priorities and has to step back. It is also difficult to link informal mentoring to business objectives or goals of organizational change, because mentors frequently lack training and mentees are often not briefed about what to expect and what to commit to when entering in a mentoring relationship. Furthermore, the outcomes of an informal program are largely unknown or even beyond control and the self-selection of mentors and mentees may end up in cloning or even some kind of favouritism.

Is a formal programme the best choice? We believe that a certain degree of formalism and procedural structure is required to provide focus, establish a strategic pairing of mentors and mentees, avoid adverse effects and create a meaningful and measurable outcome.

To find the appropriate scheme for your organisation you should ensure that there is a shared purpose and agreed objectives for the programme and appropriate executive-level commitment and sponsorship. You should consult with your network, take in external expertise to benefit from their experience, and you need to involve stakeholders to check the feasibility of operational and organisational features of the programme and, importantly, ensure acceptance. Finally, you may want to create a pilot to assess what works and what needs to be improved.

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