Why Most Mentoring Programs Are a Waste of Time -- And How to Build the Next Generation of Beta Sponsorship

12/18/2013 11:17 am ET | Updated Feb 17, 2014

When I reflect on my many years working as a corporate anthropologist, I realize that merely identifying and hiring people with the best skills isn't what will set the next generation of great companies apart from the competition. Rather the future will belong to the Betas, to those organizations that rely on collaboration and teamwork, and are adept at finding people who fit well within this type of corporate culture. Unlike Alpha companies that focus just on skills or experience, Beta companies understand how important it is to add talent that not only flourishes within a collaborative environment, but adds to it by participating in a continuous learning flow.

One of the ways to accomplish this is by building significant on-boarding, mentorship, and sponsorship programs that ease new hires into the organization and then gives them the kind of structural support they need to grow within the organization over time. Rather than letting employees sink or swim on their own, Beta companies create support networks that help connect and propel each employee's performance. Every individual has a team of people looking out for his or her best interests. In cultures like these, people are constantly learning and developing with help from one another.

In Alpha companies, employees leave because they get frustrated with all of the road blocks in their way, while also feeling isolated and hung out to dry. Beta companies understand, by contrast, that to retain high performers, they need to keep them plugged into the organization's future by giving them access to people they can confide in and who will also help clear their paths forward.

Maximizing Mentors
It's true that most companies today have some kind of mentoring program in place. But they are mostly still mired in the Alpha mindset. For example, the majority of programs are intended to help new hires learn the ropes of their new employer. That usually means someone who will meet them for a cup of coffee, give them a general rundown of the organization's history, and show them where to sign up for their benefits.

While those are all useful items, they aren't enough. They're still rooted in the Alpha company tradition in which someone higher up on the corporate food chain spends, at best, a few hours every month or two with an underling who gets the opportunity to bask in the glow of the more senior employee. But what is the goal in establishing a relationship like this? Are there any expectations tied to the mentor or even the mentee? I think you could make a fair argument that much of the effort invested in these so-called mentor programs is wasted.

Why? Because there are no clear structures to these programs and no clear expectations. Few Alpha organizations spend the time to train mentors or reward them for excelling in their roles.

Beta companies, on the other hand, use mentoring and the onboarding process to talk about the values, goals and strategies of the organization to help frame how employees might develop their personal plans for what they want to accomplish. A mentor in this case provides the setting for a dialog that will dig into what each individual wants to accomplish. The conversation can evolve to include making sure the new hire gets invited to the right meetings or gets the right introductions to set him or her on the path to success. It can also involve talking through a problem and coming up with some ideas and connections to help solve it.

In fact, individuals within the organization can have multiple mentors that slot into different areas of the company that help enable each person to plug into as many opportunities as he or she is capable of pursuing. A marketing employee, for example, might have mentors in the innovation and production departments as a way to get insight into the company's products of the future. Again, the point is that by having mentors throughout the organization, employees have the opportunity to build a more complete picture of where they are headed as well as how to get there.

Sponsor Support Systems
What Beta companies also have realized is that if they want to retain their best people, they need to truly give them support and access throughout the organization. And the best way to accomplish that is by augmenting a mentor program with a sponsor program that creates a more intimate relationship between a senior and junior employee.

Sponsors are not just random people a new hire asks for help. Rather, they are individuals with seniority, influence, and power whose mission is to go to bat for another individual within the organization. These are the kind of people who can help move battleships when needed.

What makes this kind of program different is that being a sponsor, as opposed to being a mentor, includes obligations to open doors and get the person being sponsored onto the right teams. It means moving their career along while developing their skills within the company. I would argue that a great sponsor program augments, and can even replace, many of the more traditional "employee education" programs that rarely provide a positive ROI.

But the payoff from implementing an effective sponsor program is clear. A recent study by the Center for Talent Innovation shows that sponsorship "makes a measurable difference in career progress" -- for both sexes. One reason for this is that these kinds of relationships are mutually beneficial for both the sponsor and the person being sponsored, because the program creates learning opportunities for both parties. For newer hires, working with a more senior executive is an amazing opportunity to tap that person's experience and to share one's own dreams of what he or she wants to accomplish. Meanwhile, sponsors win by tapping into the energy of newer hires and also by borrowing their eyes to get a different vantage point from within the organization. This is why sponsor programs also grow institutional knowledge.

What sets Beta companies apart is that they develop their sponsorship programs to succeed rather than fail. Sponsors aren't on their own: the organization provides them with the training they need to be effective, such as teaching them how to listen, give feedback, and have fun.

Beta organizations also know that it's not enough to simply put a sponsor program in place and hold people accountable by filling out forms on a regular basis. Instead they understand that recognizing sponsors for a job well done provides an incentive for them to take the job seriously. Whether it's a "Sponsor of the Year" award or events that promote storytelling to reveal how the program has impacted participants, the most sustainable programs are those that become second nature to the culture of the company itself.

In a well-run sponsor program, people are building a sense of community within the company whereby participants from different generations get the opportunity to learn from each other. Rather than an Alpha program that works top-down, a Beta sponsor program enriches both sides of the coin through "reverse sponsorship" whereby senior executives get the chance to reenergize their own skills and outlook.

Great sponsor programs also evolve. In some cases, sponsor teams might, in time, choose to work with other individuals and keep paying their experience forward. That way, they can begin to share their experience with others and build momentum toward weaving the sponsorship program directly in the cultural DNA of the company.

It's that kind of commitment that sets Beta companies apart from their Alpha counterparts now and into the future.