How to Help an Existing Program Succeed

How Can We Help Our Existing Mentoring Program Succeed?

Barry Sweeny, © 2010


Answering this question is a bit complex!

The diverse possible structures of the existing programs IMA members might want to improve must serve as the foundation. The element that rests on that foundation is a “best practice” model against which any program can assess itself. The result of that assessment would be conclusions about missing program elements, and finally, a plan to implement these missing pieces. Hence, there are four essentials for the process of improving an existing program.

1. The foundation – The structure of the existing program
2. The Model – The best practice model
3. The Self-Assessment – The comparison of the two and conclusions about what the existing program lacks
4. A Plan – The steps needed to put in place at a best practice level of function, the missing parts of the program, and a timeline for the activities.

The Four Problems

Describing specifically, what any one program should do to improve, therefore, becomes problematic.

1. Problem #1 –

What are the characteristics of the existing program. Only YOU can answer that. Of course, a simple, perhaps newer program will require more work to attain a “best practice” level of function and all its program goals than might a more established and comprehensive program which has learned a great deal through years of functioning and refinement.

2. Problem #2

What is the best practice model “best” for? A given program can only be deemed “effective” if the program
accomplishes what it was designed to do. Usually, programs are designed to meet specific personnel and organizational needs which are viewed as obstacles to attaining the larger organization’s purposes. This means that different needs will lead to different program goals, which will require different programs

The best practice model I offer in this article is suggested for programs which have the dual goals of improved participant performance, and increased desired results.

  • If these are your program’s ultimate goals, then the model I offer should be the one against which you compare your existing program.
  • If these are not your ultimate program goals, do not use the best practice model for self- assessment. It is designed to address needs which are different from those which your program addresses.

3. Problem #3 –

What’s the structure for the self-assessment? There is a format offered later in the article to facilitate your comparison of your program to the best practice model.

4. Problem #4 –

What is the ideal improvement plan? – Sorry, this cannot be specifically provided, due to the diversity of the starting “foundation” – your existing structure. The improvement plan must be “home grown” – developed by you and a team of your colleagues. Only you know the existing program structure, the needs to be addressed, and your program’s goals. Plus, only if you develop your own plan will you also have developed the understanding and commitment needed to make it a reality.

The Answer to problem #2 – The Best Practice Development Program Structure

I call the model I suggest for program design and improvement “The Best Practice Development Program Structure”. In fact, I feel this model is universal and therefore, applicable to mentoring programs of all types and in all settings. BUT – it is much more comprehensive than mentoring alone can be and this is very important.  This approach is not only the most effective way to attain your goals, it is the best way to ensure that your mentoring program is viewed by key decision makers as essential to the organization’s success.

As you review this model you will quickly see that mentoring is ONE program strategy. Although the mentoring element of this “development program” is quite central, even critical to this comprehensive
program’s success. Ultimately, what makes this work so effective is three things:

1. All the right components are there which are needed to address development of people in settings where the goals are increasing individual performance and delivering desired results.

2. Each component is designed to function at a best practice level. Some of the information about how to function that well is provided in the text below. However, a full description of these best practices is more complex than this article can provide. The reader is advised to seek that information elsewhere on the IMA web site, especially under the “Processes” drop down menu and then under the topic “Developing a New Program”.

3. Synergy among the program components creates a multiplying effect on the program’s impact.

Let’s “walk through” the elements in this model. These info “bits’ are a good start, but greater details are needed and provided elsewhere on this web site. For your information, a graphic representation of this model is provided near the end of this paper.

Whether the subject person is a new student, a current employee, or a high performing manager, each has a series of needs related to their work and what is expected of them in their role: If an organization expects that person to learn quickly, build appropriate skills, improve their performance, and contribute to achieving the desired results, then it is both to the benefit of the individual and the organization to ensure that the following program components are provided.

The Best Practice Development Program Components

A. Initial Communication and Matching
B. Assessment of Needs
C. Plan an Individualized Program
D. Initial and Ongoing Orientation
E. Training for Skills Development
F. Mentoring
G. Peer Support Activities
H. Connection With and Observation of Expert Peers
I. Self-Assessment, Goal Setting, and Action Planning
J. Partnerships with External Stake Holders
K. Build Synergy Among Program Components

A Dual Use of the Model

A review of the above steps will probably lead the reader to presume that the model is intended for development of the protégés in your program. That is certainly the most obvious application.

However, ALL the needs these program components address are ALSO experienced by new, inexperienced MENTORS! This means that I strongly assert that you really need a dual level program which has carefully integrated levels – a Protégé Development and Support Level and a Mentor Development and Support Level. Look for more about this at the self-assessment stage of this paper.

A. Initial Communication and Matching

The initial communication with the person is usually designed to “recruit” them, and is also often about the program and mentor’s role in their support for learning and growth. The matching is about aligning the learner’s needs and the support roles, the needed relationship between the mentor and the person, and the processes used for matching and dealing with any potential mismatch.

B. Assessment of Needs

Before any program plans are implemented or mentoring support provided, the needs of the individual versus the expectations for that person are assessed. Needs are the obstacles that exist to the individual’s growth, so knowing (and next, meeting) those needs is essential to realizing the program and organization’s intentions.

C. Plan an Individualized Program

This step ensures that all subsequent decisions will honor and build on the existing knowledge, skills and strengths of the person, and it ensures that this person will view the support and guidance provided as helpful to them individually. Finally, it ensures the maximum learning and speed in growth for this person
will actually happen.

D. Initial and Ongoing Orientation

Initial orientation to the new expectations of the person’s work, relationships with peers, and activities within the program and organization are all placed at the beginning, before these are begun. This ensures the greatest possible success the first time these are experienced. Care is taken not to provide anything
more than what is needed in the next month or so, so as to avoid overwhelming the individual with too much information.

Ongoing orientation is provided later on, but prior to any subsequent first time the person will experience something else new. If the specific first time activity will be experienced one person at a time and their needs for preparation are unique in timing and content, the mentor provides that orientation. If a group of persons will go through the same experience at the same time, then the program provides the orientation for them as a group.

E. Training for Skills Development

A training component is usually the best and most cost effective way for people to build the ability to do what’s required.  The major issue here is that what is often called a “training” may not really be one. In
fact, the term “training” and labels for other similar events, are often used interchangeably, and incorrectly. Hence we need some definitions.

  • Training – Instruction in HOW, when, and why to do something, then demonstration of the SKILL, practice by participants, with corrective feed back from the trainer, then planning how, when, and why the participant will incorporate the skill learned into their existing routines.
  • Workshop – May include some training, but is essentially making something to be used, or doing something collaborative to produce a result.
  • Presentation – Providing awareness aof and information about a specific topic.

F. Mentoring

However, even a very effective training component cannot ensure that the new skills will be implemented in the person’s daily work. Support for implementation in the work of the person’s learning is where an experienced mentor component works best, so the mentor’s roles and tasks must be defined to include
this work and they must be trained in how to do it. The mentor is placed in the center of the model to show mentoring’s function of helping the protégé to integrate and make sense of the other program level support activities. The arrows pointing in toward the mentor reflect this role and relationship to other
program components.

G. Peer Support Activities

The research is very clear – Peer Support activities contribute a great deal to professional ghrowth, performance improvement, and program impact. Especially these days, young people often rely most on their equally inexperienced peers for support and direction. This factor suggests that a carefully planned and facilitated peer support activity would be important. This allows use of peer support (which will happen anyway) but directs that support to ensure it is really helpful to the individual and the program’s goals. Peer support activities can be planned as separate from other events, or can be integrated into other activities.

H. Observation of Expert Work

Part of clarifying expectations is defining a standard of excellence. This need may be best met by allowing the person to observe what the performance at an excellent level looks like.  A “picture IS worth a thousand
words”. This must be done carefully and defined as a long-term process, with support, and as a goal toward which to work. Without such clarity, learning is less purposeful, and progress is slower Without defining it as a longer, supported process, persons can conclude that the desired level of performance is out of their reach, effort and motivation can be stifled, and the then overwhelmed people may not be retained.

I. Self-Assessment, Goal Setting, and Action Planning

Another factor is the increasing prevalence of standards or competencies for performance and the need to demonstrate mastery of these standards. When this is a factor for our new person, the program parts we have just described can help somewhat, but it’s also likely that the person needs:

  • to be guided through a process of comparing their existing strengths and weaknesses against the competencies desired for their work, and in reaching conclusions about areas requiring further learning and growth;
  • to set growth goals to grow in those competencies where they are weak;
  • to design a growth plan of activities and a timeline to achieve those growth goals.

Since these steps and products are pretty individual, the person’s mentor should facilitate the goal setting and planning process.

J. Partnerships with External Stake Holders

It is extremely desirable for the program to establish and utilize partnerships with those outside of the program who have an interest in the goals of the program and the success of the people in it. This element has value for several reasons:

  • The external stake holders will gain an appreciation for the program and its role in supporting organizational strategic initiatives. This will lead to their support for the program.
  • External stake holders will have perspectives and ideas that will strengthen and promote the program.
  • Persons in the program must interact with people and in activities that go beyond the development program. The program’s inclusion of these external elements can ensure that these elements make sense with and are integrated with the development process. In this way, program and program participant interactions with these other elements can help to build and sustain a seamless support system for program participants.

THE PROGRAM ELEMENT THAT INCREASES IMPACTthe best practice program structure

K. Synergy – Each program component should be designed and function to build
on work done in previous program elements, and to prepare participants for increased success in future program components. For example, participation in training or observation of expert practitioners can naturally serve as segways into self
assessment, goals setting, etc. Also, that goals setting, and action planning
should relate to and utilize program – provided support such as training activities.


The logic of each need discussed above, and resulting program component that address each need, provides us with a program model. The needs imply a model like that shown below, although it certainly could be formatted in other ways.  I call it, “The Best Practice Development Program Structure”. Ideally, the design of the model, as much as possible, should express the sequence of a person moving through the components, and the synergistic interactions among those components.


The reader will recall that, early in this paper, I presented the concept that the protégé and the mentor each need a development and support program. That means that, at this self-assessment stage, you should make two copies of the following matrix, label one for the Protégés and one for Mentors.

The first step in the analysis is to compare your existing program structure to the Best Practice Model provided below. Given that program goals may vary from program to program, the best way to do this analysis is to use the following matrix and mark the appropriate column to reflect your team’s conclusions
after the comparison.

Assessment for:   Protégés or   Mentors?   (Mark one)

Need to Do

Not Appropriate,
Need Met is Not Ours

Best Practice Development Program Components    /
A. Initial Communication & Matching
B. Assessment of Needs
C. Plan an Individualized Program
D. Initial and Ongoing Orientation
E. Training for Skills Development
F. Mentoring
G. Peer Support Activities
H. Connection With & Observation of Expert Peers
I. Self-Assessment, Goal Setting & Action Planning
J. Partnerships with External Stake Holders
K. Build Synergy Among Program Components

The result of this will be a prioritized listing which you can then use to develop a step-by-step plan and timeline for development and implementation. Anyone who has done strategic planning, professional development plans, or any form of program planning should know how to proceed from that point.