Lessons from a Corporate Mentoring Program

“Sun Mentoring: 1996-2009” is a Sun Microsystems Labs Technical Report by Katy Dickinson, Tanya Jankot and Helen Gracon, available for free. (It is also available for purchase from the ACM Digital Library.) Katy Dickinson and Tanya Jankot both work for MentorCloud now. The report provides a summary of mentoring information, best practices, metrics, and recommendations developed during 1996-2009. Individuals or companies wishing to develop mentoring relationships or programs are wise to consider findings from other mentoring experiences.

At Sun Microsystems, about 7,300 mentoring pairs participated in a formal mentoring program between 1996 and 2009. Corporate culture valued and promoted mentoring, finding mentoring a good way to establish a network of communication across organizational silos, promote a wide variety of talents, and broaden the diversity of ideas and innovation available to the company. Sun’s leadership understood that mentoring increases effectiveness and efficiency to achieve business results by doing “real work, real time.” The following lessons are summarized from “Sun Mentoring: 1996-2009” –

1) Strong and visible long-term executive sponsorship and funding are needed for mentoring to thrive and become part of an organizational culture as the community develops. Continuity builds program strength over time. Knowing that a program will continue to be available allows mentees, mentors, and managers to include mentoring in their formal and informal development plans.

2) Mentoring returns good value for the time and money it takes. The return on investment (ROI) on mentoring can be 1,000% or better and grows as the program matures.

3) Mentoring can be used for larger corporate purposes in addition to improving the performance of individuals. Mentoring has been used to bring in new or acquired individuals and groups, to improve the network between existing groups in different organizations, and to reduce isolation of those geographically distant from headquarters.

4) Mentoring and being mentored is professional work that can be done as a part of a day job, during business hours, not only during personal time. It is real work, real time.

5) It is important to collect and analyze data routinely on both subjective (satisfaction) and objective (promotion, retention, compensation) success metrics. Make program decisions based on those data. Maintain participant data long-term to see bigger patterns.

6) A diversity of participants improves mentoring programs. Key mentoring program elements (Process, Training and Educational Materials, Management and Web Tools, and Staff) should be designed to attract and support a wide diversity of participants from many cultures.

7) Mentoring programs should be run for the convenience of the Mentors. Set up the program to make it as comfortable as possible for senior staff and executives to participate. If the program is set up to save the Mentor time and avoid mismatches, mentoring will be more valuable and enjoyable for the Mentors. The program should make clear the value of mentoring to the Mentors, the Mentees and the company.

8) A formal mentoring program should offer training that launches the relationship with clear goals and success measures so that Mentors and Mentees feel comfortable from the start and work well together for the entire term.

9) A balance must be achieved between automated tools and individualization. Automated web tools to manage a large mentoring program are essential to success, but individualization is also key. The size and seniority of the group involved should determine the appropriate balance.

10) The structure of the mentoring system must fit the current target group and also be designed for flexibility so that it can be modified for future groups.

11) Don’t expect or promise miracles. The goal is not perfection but improvement.

This summary was also published as part of the 2011 TechWomen “Mentor Guide”. TechWomen is an initiative of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA).

SEED Image Copyright 2008 by Katy Dickinson



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