Mix and Match

Group mentoring meets a variety of needs where one-on-one programs fall short.

One time-tested ingredient of success is the colleague who can teach you almost everything you need to know—a mentor. Mentoring usually involves a seasoned employee or manager working one-on-one with a junior employee. But this style of dispensing guidance in the workplace may not be the most effective. Another method—group mentoring—is becoming increasingly popular.

More mentoring programs fail than succeed, says Mindy Zasloff, mentoring practice leader and senior consultant for Strategic Partners Inc. “One-on-one mentoring, particularly hierarchical mentoring, where an older sage person mentors a junior person, is very difficult to make work,” she says, adding that most people don’t learn effectively in that kind of setting. It’s not necessarily productive to focus on what worked for the mentor in the past. New employees and organizations should be forward-looking.

One-on-one arrangements often fail to take into account a mentor’s many roles. Mentors can be educators, career advisers, networking facilitators, sponsors or promoters of their protégés’ talent, and sometimes just really good listeners. In government, where mentors and protégés often are nominated through formal programs, the assumption is one mentor should play all these roles. But, Zasloff says, it is more realistic to recognize that each mentor has different strengths and each of those mentored different needs.

Group mentoring takes a different approach. It could involve five to seven people with one or two mentors leading a discussion about the organization and their roles. Sometimes a facilitator takes the lead so mentors can focus on listening and guiding rather than just lecturing about what they have done and how. Zasloff has seen tremendous success with such programs at federal agencies. “The beauty of group mentoring is you get people together with similar learning goals and they learn from each other,” she says.

Pulling together a group mentoring program takes preparation and follow-through. Maintaining a mentoring calendar can help the group schedule a new activity every month. The first session should focus on getting to know each other and briefly talking about goals and aspirations, Zasloff says, followed by writing goals and developing an action plan. 

Especially in government, where managers are resistant to trying new models of mentoring, she says it is necessary to have someone guide the process from idea to implementation and beyond. “In the government, a lot of people hoard knowledge, thinking that gives them power,” Zasloff says. “But what’s required is that everyone help each other.” 

Even senior leaders who are willing to help junior employees must realize the process is not a just a data dump, she notes. They must be aware of their protégés’ goals and figure out how to assist. On the flip side, before entering any kind of mentoring program, junior employees must outline their goals and keep a laser focus on them. 

Despite the seeming complexity of setting up group mentoring, she says it is significantly easier than establishing a formal one-on-one program, in which people must be nominated and matched based on their organizations and roles. 

But given how often mentoring programs fizzle out, Zasloff warns managers to keep a strategic eye on their effectiveness and how they can be improved. The success of up-and-coming employees, and the organization as a whole, could depend on it.

Elizabeth Newell covered management, human resources and contracting atGovernment Executive for three years.