Welcome to our series, “Modern Mentoring,” in which we’ll explore how organizations and academic institutions use mentoring in novel ways to drive business objectives (such as increased employee engagement and retention) and academic objectives (like increased graduation and retention rates). Read on to discover more about group mentoring. 

As with most traditional structures, mentoring has its cornerstone: one-to-one relationships. That’s the tried-and-true way. But mentoring has evolved in pace with the corporate and academic landscapes and continues to prove itself as a uniquely impressive machine for powering success.

Group mentoring is one of several mentoring varieties on the rise and it’s clear why: we humans naturally tend toward groups. Because we love to learn and find support in small groups, identifying and formalizing those groups makes intuitive sense. With group mentoring, you can have one mentor who provides expert information to a group of mentees, and the mentees can also provide knowledge and learning to each other.  Today, let’s explore three burning questions about group mentoring programs.

1. How many people should be in a group mentoring session?

The Dunbar number pinpoints five as the standard size of a close support group. According to research by Wharton management professor Jennifer Mueller, beyond five participants you’ll see fewer individuals contributing and speaking up. But whether that matters depends on the function or task of the group: after all, throughout history, military units have subdivided into sections of 10-15 and most popular team sports fall into the five-to-11 range.

Many group mentoring scenarios operate like support groups, relying on lively discussion, multiple perspectives, and opportunities to contribute. This type of group will need to be careful of size. Regardless of the group’s function, we’ve observed that it’s impractical to coordinate and track individuals’ participation in group activities beyond approximately 10 mentees.

And remember, a mentoring group has an adviser or mentor. This is an extra one to two people in addition to the recommended group size of “five to question mark”.

2. Which topics make sense for group mentoring?

There are some pretty interesting applications for group mentoring out there. You can get creative, specific, structured, or let your mentees propose their own topics. The benefit of the latter is that your oversight involvement can be very lightweight so your manager can stop hiding cleaning supplies under his or her desk “just in case” your head explodes.

Some corporate group mentoring examples:

  • Employee-proposed mentoring circles on diverse topics ranging from “working moms” to “communication skills.”
  • New-manager training, with a few newly promoted employees jointly working through a leadership competency development curriculum, while also pursuing individual goals.
  • Group support for new hires. Onboarding often involves 1:1 support, such as skills-based training or a buddy to show the ropes. Why not put new hires into groups to share the experience together?

Some academic group mentoring examples:

  • A nationwide prep program for applying for MBA programs. This program offers geo-localized peer support groups with monthly meetups to share experiences with local MBA-hopefuls
  • A university that offers peer groups for international students to acclimatize and make contacts. Second-year students lead these groups and ultimately earn a special “lead” certificate that is displayed on their transcript.

3. What to consider when designing a group mentoring program?

Get out your Think Ray (a high-energy ray that imparts an intelligent glow upon the wielder) and aim it at the following aspects:

  • Sponsorship—Do you have one or a few senior leaders in your corner, backing this project?
  • Business (or academic) goals—Figure out which metrics will demonstrate success. It’s becoming more common to see organizations that can get away without KPIs, thanks to a high level of conceptual support for mentoring. But others do need to track organizational outcomes to see the program go the distance.
  • Program metrics—You’ll also want to track program health – how many people sign up, how many groups form, how well they persist over time, and participant satisfaction. If you have mentoring software, measuring this information becomes much simpler.
  • Training—Mentoring is a learned skill. It’s not innate. Mentoring a group is a different learned skill. Though groups tend to form organically in real life (see: every clique ever), it does take a trained leader to ensure their rallying cry is clear and persistent. They should also provide name stickers and possibly free lunch.

So there you have it—group mentoring in the modern world. It allows employees and students to learn from each other in a supportive format, and also drives knowledge transfer and engagement. It’s a new spin on a long-valued learning technique.