Mentor Selection Systems

Information in this entry is taken from my experience since 2001 managing Sun’s SEED Engineering-wide world-wide mentoring program, and also from the Mentoring@Sun general mentoring program and new Vice President program managed by Helen Gracon. This is part of a continuing series on mentoring programs, answering some of the questions I am most frequently asked. Other entries in this series:

Mentor Selection Systems

I have seen four kinds of formal mentor selection systems:

  1. Mentee evaluates potential mentors’ Demonstrated Accomplishments, experience, personality, capabilities, and skills, then creates a prioritized list of preferred mentors (SEED calls this a “Mentor Wish List”). Mentoring program staff approaches mentors on behalf of mentees.
  2. Mentor and mentee each use Self-identified Competency lists to indicate strengths and weaknesses. Mentoring program matches based on list compatibility. Mentees are given two mentors to contact. Mentoring@Sun uses this system.
  3. A combination of the two options above.
  4. Assignment of mentors by management.

This entry will discuss formal systems using Self-identified Competency vesus those using Demonstrated Accomplishment for mentor selection.

Cognitive Bias

I am going to take a small detour to introduce the concept of cognitive bias, specifically the Dunning-Kruger effect humorously described by Justin Kruger and David Dunning, (then both of Cornell University) in their much-cited and entertaining paper “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own. Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.” (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1999, Vol. 77, No.6. 1121-1134). Two findings from that paper which are pertinent to mentor selection are:

  • “the incompetent will tend to grossly overestimate their skills and abilities”
  • “participants in the top quartile tended to underestimate their ability and test performance relative to their peers”

Kruger and Dunning quote Charles Darwin (1871): “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” That is, people are often bad at knowing what they are good at.

I recommend reading this paper not only to understand cognitive bias but also to enjoy passages such as:

  • “…knowledge about the domain does not necessarily translate into competence in the domain, one can become acutely — even painfully — aware of the limits of one’s ability. In golf, for instance, one can know all about the fine points of course management, club selection, and effective ‘swing thoughts,’ but one’s incompetence will become sorely obvious when, after watching one’s more able partner drive the ball 250 yards down the fairway, one proceeds to hit one’s own ball 150 yards down the fairway, 50 yards to the right, and onto the hood of that 1993 Ford Taurus.”
  • “In sum, we present this article as an exploration into why people tend to hold overly optimistic and miscalibrated views about themselves. …Although we feel we have done a competent job in making a strong case for this analysis, studying it empirically, and drawing out relevant implications, our thesis leaves us with one haunting worry that we cannot vanquish. That worry is that this article may contain faulty logic, methodological errors, or poor communication. Let us assure our readers that to the extent this article is imperfect, it is not a sin we have committed knowingly.”

Self-identified Competency Systems

Cognitive bias is important because most mentor selection systems rely on Self-identified Competency lists. In a Self-identified Competency System, mentors and mentees are presented with lists of competencies. Each picks competencies that they think they have. The system then proposes mentor-mentee pairings based on comparing list selections. (What I call a Self-identified Competency selection system, Peg Boyle Single and Carol Muller of MentorNet call “Bi-directional Matching”. See “When Email and Mentoring Unite” in Creating Mentoring and Coaching Programs from the ASTD In Action Series, by Phillips and Stomei, 2001.)

Competency lists vary widely depending on the context and goals of the mentoring program but examples include:

  • Negotiation
  • Customer Focus
  • Building Trust
  • Listening Effectively
  • Strategic Decision Making
  • Selling the Vision
  • Building Successful and Effective Dispersed Teams
  • Technology Impact Assessment
  • Working Across Cultures
  • Network Design and Architecture

Those using a Self-identified Competency Selection System should be aware of cognitive bias as it may get in the way of finding a good match. That is, both the mentee and potential mentor will probably not be objective in assessing strengths and weaknesses (competencies), so the match may be based on a false compatibility evaluation. However, the seemingly-objective way in which the match was made (how can you go wrong picking from a list?) may mask selection errors until they are demonstrated in experience, frustrating both mentor and mentee.

Punched metal mask by Paul Dickinson Goodman photo: copyright 2009 Katy Dickinson An inappropriate mentor selection system may mask errors.

Competency lists can be used to control the scope of learning in a mentoring program. So, if a Vice President wants to direct her organization to learn more about working with virtual or dispersed teams, she could pick a list of competencies which had to do with that skill area, thus encouraging mentor and mentee to discuss the desired topic. This may limit the scope of discussions (which can be good or bad, depending on what the program sponsor and participants are looking for). Controlling competency scope will also limit which mentors are considered (or available). Some mentees and mentors will find the preferred discussion topic too simplistic and may either break off their relationship or ignore the sponsor-preferred topic limitations.

When the competencies are specific to a particular job or profession, a Self-identified Competency Selection system works best when the mentor and mentee share a professional context and interpret the competency lists similarly. For example, if both mentor and mentee are in Information Technology Operations, they will understand the competency “Identity Services” to mean “experience with the design and implementation of a multi-level identity/authorization strategy” but someone in Marketing Communications would probably interpret “Identity Services” very differently. The professional context may also be one of seniority. If the mentor and mentee are both Vice Presidents, they are likely to share an interpretation at a higher organizational level, which is less likely if the mentor is a Vice President and the mentee is a junior Engineer. Shared context is less important when the competencies are soft skills, such as negotiating, public speaking, conflict management, etc.

Demonstrated Accomplishments and SEED

SEED is one example of a mentoring system which relies on Demonstrated Accomplishments for mentor selection. About 70% of SEED mentors are executives. A different mentoring program, run by Helen Gracon out of the Sun Learning Services group for new Sun Vice Presidents, also uses Demonstrated Accomplishments for mentor selection. Both programs are regularly given 90% or higher satisfaction ratings by participants.

The SEED program maintains a list of Potential SEED Mentors (over 450 now). The list includes the name, job title, division, and city/state/country of each potential mentor, plus links to biographical information such as SEED mentoring history and evaluation, personal web pages, blogs, executive profiles, LinkedIn profiles, resumes, etc.

The SEED program has an open list of potential mentors: any senior Sun Engineer or executive is eligible. SEED participants are not limited to the choices on the Potential SEED Mentors list. About a third of the mentors in most terms are new to SEED and were not originally on the Potential SEED Mentors list. The SEED program welcomes Mentors from both the business and technical tracks: Distinguished Engineers, Principal Engineers, Sun Fellows, Senior Staff Engineers, Directors and Vice Presidents of Engineering, and other senior engineers and executives from any area of Sun are all welcome as Mentors. Potential mentors must be at least principal level; the great majority are at executive level (Director or Vice President or equivalent). SEED Mentors have served from all areas of Engineering worldwide, plus Operations, Sales, Service, Legal, Information Technology, Finance, Human Resources, and Marketing. In creating their Mentor Wish List, each SEED participant needs to make two hard decisions:

  1. What they want to learn
  2. Who has already accomplished the kind of things they want to do
    (that is, who is already down the path that they see themselves walking)

The SEED Engineering mentoring program takes a long-term view and does not have a preference for one kind of learning over another. That is, the mentoring partnership learning does not have to have anything to do with the participant’s current job. Some people want to learn to be better technical managers, others want to know how to get their ideas to customers faster. Many want to improve their soft skills: public presentation or speaking, negotiating, conflict management, and coaching. Still others want to improve their work and family balance and still have a great career. It takes time and mature consideration to work through all of this. Creating the Mentor Wish List is probably the hardest part of the SEED program.

Selecting a mentor based on their Demonstrated Accomplishments is more obviously subjective and time consuming than selection based on Self-identified Competencies. However, in my experience with SEED, there are fewer mis-matches and greater diversity in matched pairs using Demonstrated Accomplishments. Diversity in SEED terms includes demographic, geographic, professional variety. That is, if the mentee feels free to discuss a very broad range of topics, and has an open list of mentors from which to select, communication is encouraged across organizational, professional, geographic, and demographic silos.

grain silos Wisconsin photo: copyright 2009 Katy Dickinson Mentoring can effectively create bridges between professional silos.

Demonstrated Accomplishment vs. Self-identified Competency Selection Systems

Given the disadvantages of a Self-identified Competency Selection System, why would a mentoring program use this option? In short, such a system is relatively easy to automate so it is faster and can support a much larger participant group. That is, it scales: the start-up time is shorter and the administrative overhead is less. There will be more mis-matches but that risk is acceptable in some mentoring programs. For example, if the program is being offered to a large group of junior staff whose potential mentors are just one or two seniority levels above them, the consequences of a mis-match are relatively low. Mentoring@Sun has used a Self-identified Competency Selection System for many successful years.

On the other hand, if the mentees are drawn from a smaller group of high potential, highly promotable, high value staff who will mostly be matched with executive mentors (as is the case with SEED), or are solely from the executive ranks (as is the case in Sun’s new Vice President mentoring program), the consequences from a mis-match are much greater. When the great majority of the mentors are executives, mis-matches are too expensive in terms of wasted time and potential damage to staff and program reputation. A Demonstrated Accomplishment system requires a “high touch” approach consistent with the best way to work with most executives whose time is both limited and valuable. Some program aspects can be automated (such as mentee and mentor application, and match tracking) but the development of each mentee’s potential mentor list is research-intensive and most communications are personal.

A Demonstrated Accomplishment system also needs a very senior mentoring program staff member to act as a broker or matchmaker. The broker needs to be a good communicator to help make a great match. It helps if the broker is well known and has a good reputation so that potential mentors will respond promptly and provide an opportunity for the broker to tell them about the mentee who has requested them. Getting an executive to respond to the first email or even pick up the phone can sometimes be the greatest challenge in making a match.

Images Copyright 2009 Katy Dickinson


Filed under Mentoring & Other Business

2 responses to “Mentor Selection Systems

  1. Omaha

    The research is fine. What is the cost is terms of $$ in keeping this program ? What is the return of this program ? It seems like there is a significant cost with no direct return. It is arguable if there is a any measurable long-term return with this program.
    This numbers like, 90% satisfaction, 50% increase in website hits, etc… with zero focus on $$ is the cause of Sun’s downfall.

  2. In reply to "Omaha" –
    Please see the entry called "Internal or External Mentoring Program?" at
    There is a section called "Cost (Startup and Maintenance)" which addresses this topic. Thanks — Katy

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