How to Choose a Mentoring Program that Works for You: A Mentee's Perspective

Over the years, I have participated in numerous group mentoring programs created by organisations promoting women's career development and have always been left with a bitter taste. The intentions were good, the cultural mixture of participants and mentors was diverse, but the programs did not quite deliver.

Despite the fun networking events and connections I made with mentors and fellow mentees, I was left with the impression that there was something unaccomplished and half-done. I then asked myself the question: “why does group mentoring fail in this way and how can other women mentees, like me, avoid common mistakes in choosing group mentoring programs?” 

Sofia PapoutsiIn the past few years, group mentoring has gained a lot of traction due to studies revealing its usefulness and effectiveness for career progression. Amongst other benefits, group mentoring is also proven to create positive effects on mentors´ and mentees´ mental health. Many companies have started developing internal mentoring programs to support and retain young talent, and to take advantage of the insights and experience of their veteran employees.

At the same time, external mentoring from associations and educational institutions has also flourished, with the emergence of numerous programs addressing specific career topics. The overall goal of mentoring has been to support younger employees by facilitating knowledge and insight transfer from the more experienced to the less experienced, in order to pave the way for the next generation of leaders (either within the company or in general).

Even though group mentoring has been widely solicited in a professional setting, many programs often fail as they don’t start by properly articulating their purpose. This disconnect between the purpose of group mentoring and the actual programs that are created can result in those involved discrediting mentoring as a learning and development practice. The disappointment of mentors and mentees taking part, who often feel misunderstood, misguided and helpless becomes palpable.

Some research also indicates that bad mentoring can have worse effects on mentees than the positive effects of good mentoring, potentially leaving a mentee involved in a poor program in a worse position than if they had they not done anything to progress.

The reasons why group mentoring programs fail have been discussed and documented, and include primarily what is called “marginal or mediocre mentoring”, namely the assignment of mentors who are, for multiple reasons, not fit for the role. While this can only be rectified by the organisations that create mentoring programs, mentees themselves can also try to avoid some common pitfalls when choosing one.

Based on my own experience with mentoring, I'd like to share some insights that could help you make the right decision when it comes to choosing a group mentoring program. 

The main purpose of this article is to identify some tools to help you choose a mentoring program according to your interests. Here are five key points that I wish I had been aware of before I embarked on my previous mentoring experiences:

1. Check the topic and the mentor

Check the topic/theme of the mentoring program and assess if it aligns with your needs. If you are looking for a career change and you follow a mentoring group on work-life balance, it may disorient you and distract you from your priorities. An unfortunate choice of group mentoring topic will ultimately prevent you from developing the skill set you need, to reach your personal goal.

In addition to the topic of the program, you need to find out who the mentor is and do your research on them. Check his/her LinkedIn profile to see their experience or training in mentoring and to verify whether you have things in common. References can help as well. Don’t assume that the person is qualified to mentor you just because he/she has professional experience in a field you are interested in.

If you only need information about a field or industry, just ask them out for coffee or request an informational interview; mentoring requires a different skill set and a distinct approach. You could also try to have a call with the mentor beforehand to address your questions and test the waters. Ultimately, you want to check whether there is a good vibe between the two of you, and whether they can support you and guide you in your quest.

2. Check the group

Even though this is not a very common practice, try to find out how many people are participating in the program and who they are. I have been stuck in mentoring sessions with people who monopolise the conversation, bragging about themselves and repeating antiquated cliches. Even though being exposed to such people could be useful training on how to deal with difficult personalities, you do not want this in a mentoring group, where feeling comfortable and accepted is key.

Some programs will offer test sessions, but this is not always the case, so I suggest you try to gather as much information as you can before the start of the program.

3. Be bold about your expectations

Once you have decided to participate in a mentoring program because you like the mentor and the topic, and you find the group inspiring, don’t sit and relax and wait for everything to automatically fall into place. Show up to the first meeting with a clear view of your expectations and communicate them clearly and firmly.

Bear in mind that you are part of a group, so there will be some negotiation as to what can be achieved.

If you do not know why you are there, chances are you will not get anything valuable out of the experience – do the pre-work to give you the best chance of success. Share your thoughts and opinions, communicate expectations, and stick to what has been agreed upon. This will help you benchmark your “before” and “after” mental state and skills set.

4. Do your homework

This is the part I have always ignored, and I now deeply regret it. Yes, we are all busy with work and other activities, but if you have made the commitment to participate in a mentoring program it means you need it, so you have to set time aside for your homework.

The homework exercises (mostly journaling or self-reflective exercises) are meant to solidify the knowledge and skills you have acquired during the sessions. If you don’t make time to do it, you might as well skip the sessions altogether.

If you need help with setting up a new routine for homework and such assignments, you will find great tips in “Atomic habits” – a “must read” if you want to introduce healthy habits and more discipline into your life.

5. Give feedback

Please give feedback during and after the mentoring program. Make sure you are honest but objective with your feedback. Let the mentor know what your impression was, what you think worked well, and what went wrong.

Do not try only to be nice! By sharing your insights, you are giving the mentor the opportunity to improve sessions for the next cohort of mentees. Feedback is an essential part of mentoring, and even if it can sometimes feel painful to share, it is always useful when delivered in a constructive manner.

These tips are, in my experience, some important steps you need to take before you embark on a group mentoring program. 

A mentoring program is not a ‘golden bullet’ for creating your best life – you will always need to do the internal work to get the most out of mentoring. Before your sign up to a program, use the tips above to take a deeper look at yourself and your intentions. Doing this pre-work will help you choose a group mentoring program for the right reasons, and one that will work for you. 

Good luck!


Date: January 2022
Author: Sofia Papoutsi
Editors: Kathryn Nenning, PWN Austria & Rebecca Fountain, Marketing Consultant, PWN Global

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