It’s Time to Shake Up Mentoring – Here’s How We’re Going to Do It

I recently went to a walk-in clinic while traveling – it was called Doctors-on-Call. I had never been to this type of clinic before and I didn’t know what to expect. All I knew is that being sick away from home was miserable, and I wanted to feel better.
It turned out to be a great experience. They were friendly, provided excellent service and all I had to do was walk in off the street.
So this got me thinking. What other relationships could benefit from a setup like this?
That’s when it hit me: mentoring. January was National Mentoring Month, so it’s been on my mind a lot recently. And those of you who have taken my classes know that I’m an advocate for creating lots of relationships.
Most executives see mentoring as an important development tool and many feel it made a difference in their careers. Also, when organizations set up formal mentoring systems, a number of good things happen:

People get permission and freedom to ask for help.
Managers and senior employees are provided a clear path for contributing more broadly.
Expertise that improves productivity and employee success is shared.
Unintended obstacles created by the organizational structure are bridged with new relationships.

These outcomes are important. Yet I also believe that the current thinking on mentorship can be too limiting. Certain assumptions about formal mentoring programs need to be revisited, such as:

It’s long term. Most relationships are expected to last six months or longer.
Career guidance is the main focus.
It’s the manager’s job to design and lead the conversations.

If we changed this to a more “Mentors-on-Call” type system, we could change certain aspects, like:

Instead of thinking about a person’s overall career, looking at how can we help them be successful in his or her current position.
The typical duration could be one to three conversations.
The employee comes to each meeting with two to three specific questions.
After the initial experience, both sides could agree to ongoing availability if a need arises.

This would free up managers and veteran employees with expertise to help large numbers of people. The relationships would have built-in sunset clauses that keep the mentoring relationship from drifting into exchanging pleasantries.
I realize that one of the gifts of longer-term relationships is gaining the trust that allows almost anything to be discussed. That’s a valid point, but I expect that when people reach out to a broader network, they’ll find a couple of people they “just hit it off with,” and will still be able to use that person as a confidante.
The philosophy of mentoring is one you want to add to your culture, both as an activity and as something that leadership speaks about. For managers, this might be a check-in with your team about mentoring. Start with this setup:
I’d like to take 20 minutes and hear where everyone is on mentoring. Are you using it? If so, how? If not, what is in your way? I’m interested in taking advantage of the notion of mentoring and thought we’d just start by seeing what you think.
Then after mostly listening for 20 minutes, add your thinking and go from there. Adding these few elements to your mentoring program can produce dramatic results:

Ask managers and seasoned employees to make themselves available to people outside of their area so that employees have more options and sometimes more safety in their conversations.
Encourage new employees to build relationships broadly and pursue at least 10 different connections in the first six months. Tell them to simply start asking people to meet with them or suggest who they might ask.
Let all employees know that seeking the expertise of others is not only acceptable but recommended.
Expand your mentoring program beyond new hires. There are many situations where a mentor would be helpful. For example, when someone becomes a supervisor for the first time. Or starting a new job in a new discipline. Or working overseas.

Try these changes and see what happens. The most important thing is to get the conversation started within your organization.
This piece originally appeared on LinkedIn.