The Common Pitfalls in Mentoring Programs

It’s becoming more popular to run mentoring programs for members or employees as a way to support them to set up a long-term career, tackle common industry or profession pitfalls, create strong leaders or support career transition points like moving to a managerial position.

True, mentoring programs are most effective applied strategically when the audience needs it most, however, don’t rush – mentoring programs can fail unless some common pitfalls are avoided.

Here are a few reasons for program stagnation or failure:

Lack of training for mentors and mentees.

Research by our colleague Professor David Clutterbuck has shown that only 1 in 3 mentoring relationships are successful when no training is supplied for mentors or mentees.

That figure increases to 2 in 3 relationships succeeding when the mentors have professional training in how to be a good mentor.

The most impactful training scenario however is when both the mentor and mentee receive training on how to manage their mentoring relationship, in which case one can expect a 90% success rate.

Our experience also shows us that training isn’t easy because of circumstantial constraints. For example if a mentoring program is virtual and the participants are geographically spread across different states, cities or even countries, gathering all the mentors or mentees to the one place is hard! Some organizations use webinar technology to enable the training but this is fraught with problems because it is hard to gauge their level of engagement. An online learning module allows for the mentor or mentee to take the training at their convenience and gives the administrator the ability to track their progress.

Too much or not enough structure

Just like in college or school, it is important to remember different people require different environments to feel comfortable. Some mentees and mentors will appreciate access to many tools and resources whilst they are beginning their mentoring relationship and others will feel overly pressured if you push to use them.

The trick is finding a way of creating balance so that those who need it can find it easily and those who don’t, can access it if they get stuck, without feeling pressured to stick to a rigid regime.

One of the best ways to create balance is by using regular communications1. Communications can be scheduled to occur once every few weeks for the duration of the relationship, and done manually, or it can be done using an online mentoring platform that can drip-feed the resources.

Poor matching

Poor matching probably seems like an obvious pitfall and it is. What isn’t so obvious is what actually constitutes good matching2.

The first thing to account for is having a defined purpose for the program itself. It is important to define your matching criteria before you open applications to guide people in their decision to join the program. Without a clear purpose, it will be difficult to match for the mentee’s benefit. Some common examples of program purpose are; to support a diversity goal (e.g. to attract and retain more women in this organization or industry); to provide support and guidance for young people entering the profession; to assist mid-career professionals step up into leadership roles.

Before deciding how to match, ask yourself a few questions.

Based on the strategic focus of the mentoring, what criteria are most important to ensure the desired outcomes are reached? What specialisations does your industry or organization have that may affect who is best matched?For some more in-depth questions to gauge your readiness, check out our ‘Mentoring Program Readiness Self Assessment’ tool.

A commonly used matching criterion is personality. However, who’s to say that one personality is better suited for another? In any mentoring relationship there should be a certain level of challenge otherwise it risks being non-impactful – matching personality types that are too similar can lead to a level of ‘cosiness’ in the relationship that limits potential for learning.

That being said, an open-ended question in the application form can encourage elaboration of personal circumstances and that can expose ‘common ground’ such as both the mentor and the mentee both have children, the mentee prefers a female mentor or both like to ride bikes. That isn’t personality matching, that’s common ground matching and that can work well because it helps mentoring pairs build rapport!

Make sure to look out for obvious mismatches. There are many obvious mismatches such as a technical mentor for a mentee whose focus in on leadership skills. It may also be tempting to match a mentor with 30 years experience with a mentee with 2 years experience – for the mentor it may be hard to recall what it was really like starting out – sometimes a better mentor for a newcomer to an organization, industry or profession, is someone just a few years ahead of them.

Ignoring the checkpoints

Clear checkpoints in a mentoring program help the mentor and mentee feel like there is a beginning, middle and an end. Although this may sound basic, according to our research, it is a big factor in satisfaction for many participants in a mentoring program.

For example, not having a clear cut off point and effective closure to a mentoring relationship can leave mentors and mentees dissatisfied afterwards, feeling as though they have done something wrong if they have not received good feedback from their partner. In conjunction with training, an introduction session gives the momentum needed to get the relationship off the ground to begin with.

During the program it is important to have red flags for when a relationship isn’t working. Often a phone call is sufficient but midpoint surveys and review events3 are helpful to find some disappointed or not-so-enthusiastic feedback to intercept failing relationships.

Setting the expectation

One of the last but definitely not least is setting effective expectations for all applicants. Ever had that moment where you enrolled in a program or an event thinking it was one thing and then was disappointed to find out it was something completely different?… same principle for mentoring.

Some basic points:

  • Spell out the time commitment for mentors. They are volunteering their time and should be held to account if they are falling short;
  • Ensure that mentees know how to drive the relationship and that it is their responsibility to do so. They need to know that there will be some work for them to do;
  • Is there potential for confronting situations? For example does your industry or profession have a high incidence of depression? Consider taking steps to educate your mentors in how to respond effectively if a mentee is in need..
  • If there are potential conflicts of interest like poaching or confidentiality (mentee paired with a colleague of their manager for example) take measures to protect the mentee and mentor from these issues with clear mentoring agreements.

Lock in commitment from your mentees for the entire program

This is possibly the hardest of all to manage. Whilst it is important for mentees to feel pressure to engage and use the program effectively it is also counterproductive to force them through the relationship.

If you are an association or membership organization, then mentee participation fees, CPD points and networking events are great ways to encourage and maintain participation.

For an organization running an in-house mentoring program, you will still need to regularly check in with mentees to ensure their continued engagement. We do not recommend making mentoring compulsory – mentees that participate without conviction are unlikely to engage effectively with their mentors, and will just “go through the motions”.


A well-planned and supported mentoring program can last for many years and have impact year in, year out. Once the program has gained momentum a culture of mentoring is instilled and informal mentoring often flourishes alongside your formal programs.

Remember that mentoring programs work well in isolation but can be even more effective as a part of a suite of professional development. If you are an association, mentoring is well coupled with job boards, certification training and other CPD events or courses. We are seeing an increased trend in attaching mentoring to leadership development programs – the mentoring relationship provides an extended platform for embedding learning from leadership training.

The Common Pitfalls in Mentoring Programs