Mentoring Programs: My Experience

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On many occasions, organizations have asked me to serve as a mentor. Mostly, these requests come from university programs; occasionally, they come from nonprofits focused on human services.

Universally, I’ve found the experience flawed.

In all cases, the organizations have tossed mentors and protégés together without much consideration as to what the each person can offer the other.

In my most recent experience, a university program matched me with an MBA student who worked for one of the largest multinational corporations on the planet. In our first session, I asked him what he hoped to gain from our scheduled nine months of biweekly meetings.

His response?

He’d like to learn how better to navigate the politics within his corporation and how to transition from engineering to supply-chain management.


I’m an entrepreneur with a professional services firm and a commercial property company. My largest employer had a few hundred employees and they all worked in a single building in Chicago.

How could I help this guy?

When questioned, the organizers admitted lack of much reasoning behind how they paired executives and students. They figured a senior-level professional could help anyone at an early career stage. Certainly, that’s true to an extent: My protégé and I talked about emotional intelligence and I did my best to connect him with people who had direct experience with his concerns.

However, protégés will always gain more from someone with specific experience in his or her area of interest and challenge. The experience will then prove more rewarding to the mentors, too: When you volunteer your time, you want to feel maximally effective.

In my most recent example, I struggled to provide value.

My take:

If an organization asks someone to dedicate the time and focus necessary to serve as a mentor—and offers the program to protégés who must spend time and effort on the experience as well—it should better pair the teams.

Yes, this will require more work. Organizations will need to create questionnaires and surveys to better understand what applicants from both sides seek to gain and give. Organizations may find that they need to wait to find an appropriate mentor for a given protégé—and vice versa.

But throwing people together just doesn’t work.

Have you served as a mentor or protégé? How could the organization have improved the experience?