Black Belt Mentors
Whether done informally or formally, certifying people to lead mentoring programs is an important component for success.
When the U.S. Government Accountability Office decided to develop a mentoring program in 2016, organizational leaders knew they wanted to integrate it seamlessly into their learning environment. But to be successful, they also knew it couldn’t just be the learning department’s job to carry out.
“GAO is a learning organization,” said Gus Crosetto, chief learning officer at GAO. “However, the Learning Center is not the center for all learning at GAO. It is a shared responsibility.”
The GAO Mentoring Program, as the program they developed became known, aims to create a collaborative learning environment, improve employee morale and provide opportunities for employee development, Crosetto said. It’s also designed to create a shared culture of learning dispersed throughout the organization.
To carry out this aim, GAO recruited volunteers outside the learning center — they call them “mentoring focal points” — to serve as the face of the program to their colleagues and champion the initiative at the local team and unit level.
“For a mentoring program to be successful, it is important that mentoring is viewed as a vital component of a learning organization and has the support of both upper and middle management as well as participation and buy-in from all levels of employees throughout the agency,” said Crosetto.
As mentoring has grown in popularity over the past couple of decades, so has the complexity of running a mentoring program. Creating an iterative experience for people who will lead mentoring programs — or certification for mentors themselves — allows organizations to bring purpose and structure to the practice as well as build a culture of mentoring.
Some organizations may have multiple mentoring programs being run at the same time through different departments, locations or initiatives. Others may, like GAO, have a single, broad program spanning the organization but require localized support to manage the program, recruit participants and promote the program to employees in their area. Whether done informally or formally, certifying people to lead mentoring programs is an important component for success.
Going the Informal Route at GAO
GAO opted not to formally certify mentors but did put in place an orientation program to give mentors information about the program and the software they use to implement it. That’s in addition to training and technical assistance to support mentor leaders in their new role. “In addition, we meet with our mentoring focal points on a quarterly basis to update them on key developments and provide ongoing support and training with input and assistance from our mentoring system vendor,” said Crosetto.
The program started with a GAO implementation team that solicited volunteers from units across the organization, a process similar to one they used for the adjunct faculty program. These volunteers would serve as mentoring leaders as well as internal champions and ambassadors for the organizationwide mentoring program. A program manager in the GAO’s Learning Center oversees the overall program.
“Each GAO mission team or operations unit has at least two mentoring focal points,” said Crosetto. “We worked with the management for each mission team and operations unit to solicit volunteers that demonstrated enthusiasm for mentoring.”
Volunteers participated in the pilot phase of the program, provided input into the overall design, advised on strategies for implementing and increasing participation and provided an overview of the program to their team members via staff meetings. They also promoted enrollment in their respective units, served as liaisons between the GAO Learning Center and their respective offices and units, communicated updates and program activities and provided ongoing feedback and support for the program.
The mentoring program, along with GAO’s social learning, coaching, collaborative learning and other methods of interaction with peers, helps to facilitate the 20 percent of learning that employees learn from others, Crosetto said.
“As a shared responsibility, learning must be supported at all levels of the organization,” Crosetto said. “A successful mentoring program supports this organizational effort. With our mentoring program as a critical component of our learning ecosystem, all GAO employees including executives, midlevel managers as well as entry-level employees have a role in facilitating learning.”
Going the Formal Route
Some organizations may want to pursue a more formal certification process or even create a certification option for mentors and people who will lead mentoring groups. This type of formality helps organizations create a consistent level of quality among mentoring leaders, which can be critical to the success of individual relationships, as well as to the program as a whole.
Not everyone who becomes a mentor or group leader will know what to do to help people develop new skills or learn new concepts. They may be subject matter experts who are talented in their specialized areas but not well-versed on how to start small group conversations, set goals with a mentee, provide feedback to individuals or any of the other duties that come with being a mentor.
Establishing a way for mentors and mentoring leaders to be trained and certified ensures that those who will be responsible for leading mentoring will be able to do so successfully. It also provides a level of quality and a sense of comfort to mentees because they know that no matter who they get as a mentor that person has been trained and certified to do the job.
For a more formal approach to certification, organizations can follow a three-level certification process.
Level 1: Complete a workshop. At this first level of certification, participants attend an in-person or online workshop to learn the basics of being a mentor or leading a mentoring group. This helps develop awareness and educates participants on the process, allowing them to complete a course of instruction and do mock activities. Topics could include the roles and responsibilities of mentees and mentors, how to set development goals, how to provide feedback and how to create trust among participants. Participants should complete at least six hours of training and workshops in order to receive Level 1 certification.
Level 2: Engage under observation. To complete the second level of certification, participants should complete two tasks. First, take part as mentees in a learning group that is focused on being a mentor or group leader, and which is under the direct tutelage of a Level 3 certified mentoring group leader. Next, successfully launch their own one-to-one mentoring relationship or lead their own mentoring group.
By completing these two tasks, the people seeking Level 2 certification will put the concepts from the Level 1 workshop into action and do so under direct supervision of a Level 3 mentoring group leader, who will give them guidance and advice as they set goals, design learning activities and give feedback. Those seeking certification should have their activities assessed against a set of pre-established measures in order to receive their Level 2 certification. Measures could include items such as: Did the individual produce at least five learning activities for their mentees or mentoring groups? Did the individual keep people motivated and engaged in the relationship? Did the individual provide effective feedback to the mentee or group?
Level 3: Lead the leaders. The final component of mentoring certification consists of becoming a mentor to Level 1 and Level 2 leaders and guiding them through the certification process. People seeking this level of certification should actively recruit and successfully manage these future leaders in order to receive Level 3 certification. It is important to note that not everyone will want to ascend to Level 3 certification, meaning there may be fewer Level 3 participants compared to Level 1 and 2. A successful certification process can be run with just a handful of Level 3 mentors. The quality of these participants should be the most critical factor as opposed to quantity.
A culture of mentoring means organizations need to have a consistent message, approach and mindset about why they should use mentoring in their organization and how to leverage the practice of mentoring. Offering a certification process for mentoring leaders — both broad program leaders and more narrowly focused mentors and mentoring group leaders — is a great way to start down this path and bring about a cohesive framework that can spread to all areas of the organization.
Randy Emelo is author of the book “Modern Mentoring” and chief strategist at River, a mentoring software company. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.