Supercharging Leadership Development: Mentoring Circles and Strategic Action Teams

January 10, 2019

Supercharging Leadership Development: Mentoring Circles and Strategic Action Teams

This post is part of an ongoing series that provides lessons and techniques for readers to supercharge their leadership development programs and implement a reliable pipeline for their company’s future leadership. Read the previous posts here and here

When I was five years old, my mother placed a boy with scraggly, dirty-blonde hair in front of me and said, “This is Tommy. He’s going to be your new best friend!” Tommy was her best friend Luann’s son, and though he was a full year older than me, she reasoned we’d hit it off as well as they did. Her intentions were good, but her logic was flawed: not only was he a toy-hog, he held incorrect opinions about the best color (which was, and is, blue) and food (to my five year old self: hot dogs) that were, frankly, incompatible with my worldview. My mother couldn’t have known it, but we were not going to get along.

This interpersonal dynamic holds true regardless of our age. It’s near impossible to predict the relationship between two people before they have the chance to work together. This is what makes mentoring arrangements in most leadership development (LD) programs ineffective, even if well meaning. These arrangements fail more often than not in their intent, which is to develop a true, lasting mentoring relationship that will exist beyond the program end date. In reality, they rarely persist beyond “graduation,” and substantial growth is hard to come by. What it comes down to is that assigning a mentor and a mentee to each other and saying “you two are going to be a perfect fit” is unlikely to work out that way and always feels artificial and forced. The best working relationships develop organically, in a context that people are working together closely and can take a genuine interest in each other’s career and development.

Mentoring Circles
As I said, one-on-one mentoring is out—so let’s open up the group to more people. A setup I’ve come to appreciate and utilize often is the mentoring circle. We call such an environment a circle because it involves larger groups of people facing inward toward a common goal. 

Ideally, each mentoring circle is comprised of about five emerging leader mentees who are participants in the LD program and who have been collectively assigned not a mentor, but a mentor group—usually three senior members of the company who are charged with overseeing the progress of the mentees. 

To add structure to the mentoring relationship, it’s a good idea to provide mentors with a “playbook” for group sessions—a set of structured outlines to spur group conversations, books for the individual participants to read and discuss, and activities that serve as prep for regular workshops with the larger program group as a whole. At a basic level, such a playbook provides reasons for the group to interface and gives them common goals to share and work toward together. This working together is key, as it spurs natural interaction during which mentees will naturally gravitate toward mentors that they resonate with within the circle, and not toward those where there is less of a connection. This is a great thing! The perfect mentorship match will happen more often this way than if you took a guess at which mentor would be best for each participant and then didn’t give them any options. 

Important to note is that the “playbook” you provide shouldn’t hem mentors in; don’t map out and schedule every interaction and activity. The playbook should just be a resource that mentors can pull from for ideas or structure, so they can focus most of their time and energy in the program toward engaging with and leading the participants.

Working Together: Strategic Action Teams
Above I talked about the mentors in the circle overseeing the progress of the mentees. While that could (and does) refer to the progression of each participant’s overall leadership skills during the program, it also highlights the second important aspect of this mentoring environment after the unique structure. Each circle is given a project or opportunity to analyze a challenge the company is facing and work together to come up with a set of recommendations, transforming them into more than just a mentoring circle, but a strategic action team that could have a real impact on the organization. Strategic action teams provide another organic opportunity for mentor/mentee bonding, give emerging leaders a chance to actually lead, and can provide tangible benefits to the organization—providing an immediate return on the overall investment the organization has made in the leadership program.

In addition to the incentives for the project being done, and done well (the company has fresh eyes on a current challenge that might now get solved, and it bodes well for the participant’s future with the company when they can present to the executives their solutions), this is exactly the type of environment you’re looking to create for mentors and mentees. It becomes a working space where participants and their mentors are collaborating on things that matter and are having conversations that touch on key aspects of leadership—in focusing on the project at hand, the participants of the strategic action team will find themselves naturally pairing with a mentor they work best with, and a lasting mentorship relationship is more likely to bloom this way.

The Benefits Are Many
Rather than dividing people into pairs that you yourself divvy up—telling them “X will mentor Y, that will be the best fit”—by putting the small (again, roughly five participants and three mentors) group in front of a problem and leaving them with only hands-off guidance to figure it out themselves, real, lasting mentoring relationships will develop. When newer leaders and more experienced ones work together, there tends to be some natural self-consciousness about always “acting” like your role would dictate, or thinking that there are certain things that you should or should not be doing. But when the focus is on the task at hand, the divisions between mentor and mentee disappear into the background. 

When self-consciousness evaporates with those divisions, teaching and learning happens organically and unconsciously. Maybe my five year-old self was determined not to be told who his new best friend would be; he wanted to find that friend himself, and the artificial arrangement he found himself in sent the barriers up. Perhaps, when put in a larger group of kids, he and I would have naturally gravitated to each other—perhaps not. But letting people connect organically is always better than forcing it.

There are additional benefits to the “circle” mentoring structure as well. One major plus is that multiple mentors are able to offload from one another if schedules conflict or a mentor becomes otherwise unavailable. Most mentors will be leaders who have risen to earn significant responsibilities, and those responsibilities won’t go away during the course of the program—having two other mentors to step in in a pinch is a huge help in balancing work duties with the demands of the program.

Additionally, multiple “mentor” perspectives within a group can be beneficial, reminding participants that there are many different mindsets and approaches in leadership, and there is certainly overlap between when one is appropriate to use and when you should opt for another—being a leader who wears multiple hats is a big advantage, so having different styles within one circle is a good learning experience.

Picking Your Mentors: What Goes Around
I’ll leave you with one more piece of advice for setting up your mentoring circles—make sure to take the time to get the right mentors involved! You might be inclined to use the most successful or most tenured people at your company that you can get, but those aren’t necessarily the best candidates for the mentor side of the program. The individuals you should seek out are those who are behind the goal of developing others, believe in the mission and structure of the LD program, and will be fully dedicated to the duty of being mentors.

A go-to source of mentors that we’ve found reliable is graduates of the very same LD program we’re recruiting for. When the program is successful, you’ll notice that a number of those who are rising up through the company to higher management positions are the same folks who have been through the program. They will be your fiercest advocates and will represent to new participants the potential that the LD program has to offer them. And the relationships that inductees can build with these mentors could be invaluable to them as they grow with the company.

After enough time has passed and you have a deep bench of program graduates on staff, you can make it so that all mentors are alumni of the program. This will keep the alumni engaged and invested, and give all incoming participants an incredible resource to make sure they get the most out of their time in the program.

The Authors: 

Bill Treasurer is the Founder and Chief Encouragement Officer at Giant Leap Consulting and author of The Leadership Killer: Reclaiming Humility in an Age of Arrogance