The Mentoring of Mentors Role of Program Leaders

Barry Sweeny, 2003


Fifteen Years In-Process: A Practitioner’s Research Into Best Practice

Of all the strategies a program might use to achieve high impact mentoring, I consider the “Mentoring of Mentors” (MoM) strategy to be one of the most powerful. I know this from personal experience during the four years (1988-92) in which I was a mentor program coordinator.

Those earlier experiences have been confirmed and the MoM practice even further refined by the feed back I have received from mentors in dozens of mentoring programs where the MoM strategy was used and in which I have worked as a trainer or consultant since 1992. Although anecdotal in nature, the case studies in which I have participated have clearly clearly demonstrated a surprising level of impact on the effectiveness and frequency of mentoring.

Together, these experiences have prompted and helped me to formulate, test, and refine a set of MoM best practices in many kinds of settings, such that I can today, strongly assert that –

the Mentor of Mentors role is an essential strategy if there are program expectations that mentoring will actually improve employee performance and productivity.

The Coordinator Role as “Mentor of Mentors

As program coordinator, this author led at least two group mentor trainings each year and also facilitated numerous individual mentor training sessions with persons who joined the program between the group trainings. During the training sequence, the mentors developed 1-2 “tentative” growth goals from each of three self-assessments. By the conclusion of the training, mentors had refined these sets of tentative goals into just 1-2 final mentor growth goals and had developed an “implementation plan” to structure remembering and working to attain the final goal(s).

Once the initial mentor training was over, a large part of Barry’s role as Mentor Program Coordinator included supporting, challenging, and “Mentoring the Mentors” (MoM). Basically this was defined as supporting the mentors’ professional growth and continual improvement as employees and as mentors.

The focus of that support and challenge was gently but relentlessly holding mentors accountable to live out the good intentions stated in their 1-2 mentor professional growth goals. However, the ultimate application of the MoM process was facilitating the debriefing of the mentor’s personal experience of RECEIVING effective mentoring from the MoM, and translating the learning and insights from that experience into a plan for what the mentor would do to PROVIDE more effective mentoring to their own protege. Herein lies the power of the Mentoring of Mentors strategy.

Fundamental to all this experience and the collection of data was an inquiry into an hypothesis the author held and wanted to test out. That assumption was that mentors have rarely ever personally experienced the kind of “High Impact” mentoring we were trying to get them to provide. The author has always felt that it is unfair and illogical to ask mentors to “give others a gift they had never received themselves”. How would these mentors know what excellent mentoring is like? By Mentoring the Mentors, this problem is eliminated and mentors know exactly what great mentoring is. Further, because the process is built on a mentor’s personal experience, it is very compelling.


Barry found that for the mentor’s experience in receiving effective mentoring to be transferred to the mentor providing excellent mentoring, the MoM also had to teach mentors how to translate their personal experience as his protégé into practices they could do as mentors with their own proteges. That is why part of the MoM role meant continually modeling for mentors what the desired practices of mentoring looked like and THEN asking mentors questions to get them to reflect on and plan their own application of those practices in their work as mentors and as employees. See below for greater details on the MoM process.

The author feels this is so crucial to an effective mentoring program that it bears repeating, although we will do so in a different format.

To summarize:

  • Many mentors have never had a formal mentor.
  • Even if they have, that is no guarantee that the model of mentoring they experienced is of the quality and IMPACT we know we need today.
  • That is why attending training on effective mentoring skills and applying those skills effectively while mentoring are two vastly different things.
  • The mentor of mentors role is needed both to hold mentors accountable for increased use and mastery of the mentoring skills for which they have been trained and to provide support for that learning and implementation process.
  • A mentor of mentors is needed to ensure that mentors actually experience what effective mentoring is like so that they are able to be effective mentors themselves.
  • Without such accountability and support, implementation of the mentor training content is very likely to be poor and the desired effects on employee performance and productivity are likely to be missing.

Barry found a high correlation between the fact that few mentoring programs have a Mentor of Mentors role assigned and that few mentoring programs achieve their intentions for improved employee performance and productivity.

In addition to the above-mentioned MoM strategy, the author recommends program leaders use several other strategies that can all be categorized under the title…

Required Mentor-To-Program Communication Options

Mentors were given their choice of 2-3 of the following communication options to keep the Mentor Program Coordinator informed of their work and to provide the structure to maintain support for mentor professional growth. Each of these activities were initiated by the mentor, if not already set at a previous meeting between the mentor and the Program Coordinator.

  • Email contact (a range of once a week to about 2-3 times a month)
  • Telephone call (a range of once a month to once a quarter)
  • Personal conference using an “action research” cycle to promote mentor growth (a range of once a quarter to once a year)
  • Dialogue Journal in which the mentor writes about the mentor’s experience on the left hand page and periodically sends the journal to the coordinator. The coordinator writes on the right hand page & returns the journal to the mentor. (A range of once a quarter to three times a year.)
  • Observation of the mentor at work and a conference, such as while the mentor observes and confers with the protégé. This option requires the consent of the protégé too. (A range of twice a year to every quarter.)

The combination of these choices could shift to create a balance suitable to the mentor’s preferences. Examples include:

  • Mentor A – Email every month and a personal conference each semester
  • Mentor B – A phone call each month and the dialog journal each quarter
  • Mentor C – The dialog journal each quarter and an observation and conference every 6 months.

Parallels in the MoM and Mentoring Processes

It is no coincidence that there are very tight parallels between the MoM process and the mentoring process. How else would mentors learn to become an effective mentor unless their own experience was exactly what they needed to use themselves?

Like all other mentors, the Mentor of Mentors must build a trusting relationship with those he/she is mentoring so that a candid discussion of problems is possible and the risk-taking necessary for learning can occur.

Like other mentors, the Mentor of Mentors must remain a positive and supportive force that is focused on the mentor’s own goals for improvement and perceptions of need.

The Mentor of Mentors must also be an effective teacher, able to consistently demonstrate the desired behaviors and model the required attitudes of openness to feed back and learning from others.

Finally, the Mentor of Mentors is a technical coach who provides feed back to mentors about their use of effective mentoring strategies and support as mentors seek to improve their use of those strategies and the impact on their proteges’ performance.

The Mentor of Mentors Structure Used to Promote Mentor Growth

The MoM conversation is essentially a coaching session which is structured by the following steps to promote reflection, goal setting, planning, and accountability for professional development for the mentor:

1. Set some standard for quality mentoring practice.

(Barry did this in his initial mentor training by defining the “ideal” mentoring roles and tasks, mentor-protege relationship, and mentoring process.)

2. Identify the current level of practice of the mentor relative to that standard.

(Barry did this originally in his initial mentor training by giving the mentors a self-assessment for Tasks, Relationship, and “Mentoring Styles”. This info was updated each time there was a conversation with the mentor.)

3. Identify “areas for growth” to improve mentoring practice.

(Barry led mentors to do this originally in his initial mentor training and the info was updated each time there was a conversation with the mentor.)

4.Set 1-2 goals for mentor development.

(Barry did this originally in his initial mentor training and the info was updated each time there was a conversation with the mentor.)

5. Create an action plan to implement activities to attain the goals. This included identifying the ways in which the Mentor Program Coordinator could support the mentor’s growth, as well as possible roles for the protégé, other peers, the protégé’s supervisor, etc. It also included the Communications Options described above.

(Barry did this originally in his initial mentor training and the info was updated each time there was a conversation with the mentor.)

6. Implement the action plan and collect data and artifacts to promote reflection and allow monitoring of activities and growth.

7. Periodic meetings or conversation between the Mentor Program Coordinator and the mentor, using the communication tools described above, to update the info on the goals, reflect on artifacts and the data collected as evidence of growth, modify the action plan as needed to improve progress, etc.

The most critical steps of all were the last two:

8. Debriefing the seven steps just described to promote the mentor’s growth realization of learning from the Mentoring of Mentors experience, and discussion of how the mentor can facilitate the use of those same seven steps to promote the protégé’s growth.

9. Discussion of how the mentor can use any of those same seven steps to promote his/her own growth and improvement in his/her own job.


GUIDE: Orients and supports people in transition to a new assignment or site which is similar to what they have already experienced, such as, an experienced lab technician in a new department, an experienced manager in a new facility, or a new hire but experienced trainer in HR.

MENTOR: Orients, supports, guides, and develops people that are in transition to an assignment with which they have no prior experience, or who are preparing themselves for increased responsibility and achievement, such as, new hires with a year or less experience in their career, a worker who wants to become a supervisor, a manager who wants to become an executive, or a struggling student who wants to go to college.

PROTÉGÉ: The person who works with and learns from a Guide or Mentor.