Internal or External Mentoring Program?

I mostly write about the SEED Engineering-wide world-wide mentoring program I have managed and designed since 2001. However, Sun has always offered other mentoring programs, many of them managed by Helen Gracon. Sun has had a strong culture and tradition of mentoring, both inside and outside of Engineering, for most of its 27 years. Helen and I have collaborated for many years revising and extending the training materials we use jointly. In true Sun distributed management style, Helen reports to me for the purposes of providing training for SEED while independently managing the Mentoring at Sun (or Mentoring@Sun) program offered internally by Sun Learning Services (SLS).

This is part of a continuing series on mentoring programs, answering some of the questions I am most frequently asked. For the first entry, see my blog Formal vs. Informal Mentoring. I hope this series will be of interest to those who are starting or currently managing mentoring programs, as well as to mentors and mentees.

SEED was designed in 2000 by a team that included both Engineering and Human Resources (HR) staff. Since 2001, SEED has been sponsored by Chief Technology Officer Greg Papadopoulos and has reported to him. However, since it started in 1992, Mentoring@Sun has moved from SunU (under HR), to the Software product group, to its current home in SLS. Helen has worked with Mentoring@Sun since 1996.

The top business imperatives that led to the creation of SEED in 2000 were:

  1. Identify and enrich the experience of those who can reasonably be expected to rise to the top of Sun Engineering’s individual contributor or management ranks
  2. Engender the value of mentoring systemically across Sun Engineering.
  3. Build the Engineering community by making and strengthening connections between its members and with the rest of Sun. (Getting people outside of their professional and organizational silos…).
  4. Improve the retention of key Engineering staff.
  5. Promote and increase the diversity of Engineering leadership in the areas of demographics, professional area, and geographic location.
street benches at Santana Row, San Jose CA photo: copyright 2009 Katy Dickinson Benchmarking compares and measures processes and performance.

During our time running mentoring programs, Helen and I have learned about many successful ways of mentoring both inside of Sun and more generally. Helen and I are often contacted with questions by other companies with internal programs, companies offering mentoring as a product for sale, non-profit organizations, and academic administrators or faculty. We compare notes and benchmark not only with each other but with external-to-Sun professionals who run mentoring programs.

“Benchmarking” implies comparison and measurement of one system, process, or product and its performance against another. Benchmarking assumes that there is a standard for excellence or set of best practices against which to compare. In mentoring, each program must be tailored to the organization it serves. SEED has been called an industry best practice program but, as we have found each time we have extended SEED into a new area of service, even the best practices must be optimized for particular circumstances.

In addition to collecting information about other mentoring programs, Helen and I also transfer it to others. An example: In 2006, I set up a Grace Hopper Celebration panel called “Mentoring by the Numbers: Research and results drive mentoring programs that last” featuring Carol Muller (founder of MentorNet) and Mary Jean Harrold (who created a technical infrastructure for women faculty at Georgia Tech) in addition to myself. (If you want to know more: the National Center for Women & Information Technology or NCWIT published Practices papers on MentorNet, SEED, and the Georgia Tech mentoring programs.) Also in 2006, Carol Gorski (former Sun HR Director) and I gave a presentation called “5 Years of Mentoring by the Numbers” at the TechLeaders Workshop associated with the Hopper Conference.

Internal or External Mentoring Program?

I am often contacted by companies researching alternatives after they have had a poor experience with an external mentoring company. In short: internal mentoring programs have a longer and costlier startup time but will probably be less expensive and more effective in the long run. External programs have a lower startup time and cost but are likely to be more expensive long term.

Mentoring programs are either internal (developed and managed inside of a company, university, or other institution), external, or a combination of the two. SEED and Mentoring@Sun are examples of internal corporate mentoring programs. Mentor Resources is an example of an external company of good reputation which sells its mentoring process as a service or product. Some organizations combine the two, starting off with an external program as a boost to developing their internal program.

Key areas to compare when deciding on whether to have an internal or external program are: Cost (Startup and Maintenance) and Ownership and Control. Specifically:

Cost (Startup and Maintenance)

  • The cost of any mentoring program must be balanced by its benefits if the program is to continue in use. SEED’s priorities are:1. Increase the value, satisfaction, and retention of program Participants and their Mentors.
    2. Build Sun’s Engineering community by making and strengthening connections between its members and with the rest of Sun.
    3. Work to balance the diversity of Participants in terms of demographics, professional area, and geographic location.

    Since 2001, the SEED program has a proven track record of strong diversity, very high satisfaction, high regard by management, and high retention. SEED participants as a group earn more promotions and higher performance ratings than Sun overall.

  • Internal mentoring programs cost more to start up because the organization has to think through what is wanted, and then develop key program elements: Process, Training and Educational Materials, Management and Web Tools, and Staff. For example: SEED’s development took a design team, a marketing team, a metrics team, and a content team working for a year. After the kick off, many of those original team members continued to participate in the program as mentors or team members. One Distinguished Engineer on the design team went on to be a five-time SEED mentor. That is, SEED’s design process created both the program itself and the personal and organizational buy-in to make it successful. SEED was set up to be a long-term program.
  • Once an internal program is running, there is little ongoing cost other than staffing (and the mentoring pair’s time). Internal program costs can be managed to match company requirements, going up in good times (for example, paying for travel for mentoring pairs working at a distance who may not otherwise meet) or turned way down if company circumstances so require.
  • External mentoring companies offer expertise, plus existing processes and tools – all needed for success and all taking years to develop. Externally provided mentoring programs are cheaper and easier to start. However, costs may be much higher than anticipated and contracted payments may be substantial (and continue as long as the program is used). Bringing in an outside group may also require significant internal marketing for the program to succeed.
  • In costing out any mentoring program, consider what internal support staff are required. Privacy and confidentiality laws and practices will limit information access of an external company so Human Resources support will be required whether the program is internal or external. Also, communications require insider information, so a program manager (possibly plus administrative staff) may have to be assigned whether the program is internal or external.
  • Mentoring@Sun started with an externally provided program but Sun’s experience was so poor that Helen was hired to turn it into a more effective internal mentoring program. A second external company was later tried, with similar negative results.
  • The SEED program was developed by Sun to address Engineering organization needs unmet by Mentoring@Sun. That is, SEED is an internal mentoring and leadership growth program designed to meet the needs of a key professional area, running in parallel with a more general internal program.
  • The cost of any mentoring program may be offset by reduced cost in other areas. For example, the SEED program has improved retention (reducing staff replacement costs) and SEED participants as a group earn more promotions and higher performance ratings than Sun overall (measures of improved productivity). Diversity programs may also benefit from being associated with mentoring. For example, Women and non-US staff have for many years taken advantage of the SEED program at a consistently higher rate than their representation in Engineering.
bird seed photo: copyright 2009 Katy Dickinson SEED is Sun Engineering’s worldwide mentoring and leadership growth program, running in parallel with the more general mentoring program called Mentoring@Sun

Ownership and Control

  • Strength in a mentoring culture develops over time. The program may start off small (SEED had just 32 participants in its first term in 2001) but will grow as mentors, mentees, and managers experience good value. SEED now runs eleven overlapping terms annually with up to fifty pairs per term. Over time, mentoring experience can be written into staff development goals and become part of expectations for leadership growth. SEED was started as a new college hire mentoring program supporting just two Sun divisions. It now offers four kinds of terms (new hires, established staff, PreSEED junior staff, and special pilots) and supports Sun Engineering staff working in Software, Systems, Microelectronics, Storage, Services, Sales, Labs, Operations and all other Engineering professional areas worldwide.
  • Mentoring programs benefit from recommendations by happy mentees, mentors, or managers. Managers and participants may return as mentors. 25% of those on SEED’s potential mentors list were program mentees before they signed up as mentors. Participants develop a feeling of ownership: program completion becomes a matter of pride. I see SEED references on resumes, in blogs, and in promotion justification statements.
  • Another benefit of program ownership is flexibility and the opportunity to tailor mentoring practices to the culture and information of the organization. With an internal program, the company keeps and controls its competency and knowledge of the program. The company can integrate an internal program into its staff development goals and it can make internal/private information (such as annual performance review scores) part of the program.

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One response to “Internal or External Mentoring Program?

  1. Pingback: Mentoring Program Web Tools and Process | KatysBlog

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