Below I share the four most important lessons I learnt about unleashing the full potential of the mentoring approach during my work as Executive Director at the Institute of Policy Analysis and Research (IPAR) in Rwanda, and as Executive Secretary of the National Capacity Building Secretariat (NCBS). At IPAR, I took part in an action research for organisational capacity building project, and at NCBS, we are currently implementing the Strategic Capacity Building Initiative (SCBI). Both undertakings have demonstrated that there are key considerations to be addressed in order to yield an effective and sustainable mentoring program.

[Editor’s Note: This is the fifth post in a series on think tanks and organizational capacity building, edited by Katy Stockton and Shannon Sutton. The book, ‘Action Research and Organisational Capacity Building: Journeys of change in southern think tanks’, that this series is based on can be accessed here. This post was written by Antonia Mutoro. Antonia is the Executive Secretary of the National Capacity Building Secretariat, charged with oversight and coordination of capacity building in Rwanda.]

1. Mentoring for What Purpose?

For a mentoring program to be effective, it should have specific goals for both the organisation’s and the individual’s development. This is because organisational capacity development does not solely depend on individual capacity; rather, the individual works within the ecosystem of the organization. It is important to understand how mentoring can contribute to organisational capacity development, and what organisational “enablers” need to be created to support learning. The role of leadership in creating the required environment and building trust cannot be underestimated. The following questions are important to ask and respond to when starting a mentoring program.

  •  What does our organization want to achieve (goals and objectives)?
  • What will success look and feel like in terms of systems, processes, attitudes, values, and behaviors?
  • What skills and competences does each individual at each level need to contribute towards the organizational goals?
  • What is the best way to build these skills and competences?
  • How will we know we have the skills and competences?
  • How do we sustain this increase in capacity (creation, utilization, and retention)?

2. Recruit the Right People

We tend to think that all experts can be mentors, but from my experience, not every highly skilled and experienced expert has the competencies of a mentor. Recruiting the right people with the capacity to help colleagues develop new skills, and a willingness to learn even when they are experts, is critical. This is also true for the individual being mentored. Individuals must want to improve in order to learn.

A rigorous and meticulous interview process may help to identify the right mentors. For instance, a practice mentoring session as part of the interview process (either in person or via skype) can help managers and human resources personnel determine which experts may be the best fit. Also, imposing the extra cost of requiring a candidate to prepare for such a mentoring interview may correctly deter people who would not be a good fit within the program.

3. Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E)

M&E is necessary for gauging the effectiveness of mentoring, accountability, and learning. Thorough baseline measurements should be identified from the beginning of the program and closely monitored as the program progresses. The following points emphasize some of the key components of a successful mentoring program that I identified through the OCB action research process:

 Desire to learn - It is important that the mentee must want to learn and vice versa. It is a purposeful partnership and engagement of two or more actors on the job, with a focus on reflection to improve knowledge and develop new skills. There must be a conducive environment of trust, genuine feedback, a passion to learn, sharing feelings, and a commitment by all actors.

 Monthly reporting - Mentors/mentees should produce monthly reports describing their activities for that particular month and detail what skills they learned. These reports can be linked to pay checks (i.e., salaries are withheld from those who do not submit reports) and used for administrative purposes. They can also be used as a performance management tool to describe strengths and weaknesses of the participants. The reports can give meaningful feedback to mentors and mentees on how they can improve, as well as serving as a tool for creating an actionable “skills transfer plan.” The reports can then serve as a tracking device when evaluating the progress made by participants.

 Feedback loops and communication - There is need to form feedback loops that enable all actors and decision makers to experiment, fail, and try again in a repeated cycle until they find the approach that works best for their specific needs and context. This feedback can then be used to modify and shape the program as it moves forward, thus increasing its effectiveness and that building capacity in a meaningful way. Once feedback loops are in place, regularly communicating key messages and updates is important. Making program, project, and the general institutional information accessible to all interested parties is paramount. A continuous, systematic and structured communications strategy can act as an enabler for the mentoring approach to be owned by the concerned actors.

4. Create an Exit Strategy

There needs to be a clear exit strategy, but also continued connection, between the mentor and the mentee. Lack of a clear exit strategy, i.e. transition point in terms of time and skills threshold when mentees “graduate,” might threaten the sustainability of the program. This should be made clear from the beginning of the program. Creating an alumni group can help to sustain the mentoring relationship.

In sum, and as reinforced through the OCB experience, it is important to thoroughly think through what purpose of mentoring is for the organisation and for the individual mentees. Matching and recruiting the right people is equally important. There must also be ways to monitor and evaluate what works and does not work. Lastly, deliberately planning for the sustainability of the capacities built by creating sustainable and lasting relationships is crucial.