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. Where (and how often) should the group meet?

For one-on-one mentoring programs, participants are typically asked to engage in mentoring for approximately six months to a year. However, it is recommended that, for group mentoring, about three months yields better, longer-lasting results.

Group mentoring sessions can be held in-person at the employees’ workplace or at a neutral location like the library. Many groups are taking their mentoring sessions virtually these days, as it provides more accessibility and flexibility for members, facilitators, and leaders. For a successful group mentoring program, groups should be meeting at least once a month, if not twice.

3. Consider personality types within the group

There are many different personality types that exist, and sometimes it takes a little more effort or finesse to make sure all personalities work well together in a group setting. It’s wise to anticipate the possibility that some personalities will be bigger or more participatory than others. The mentor needs to be aware of this, and prepared to share the spotlight across the group, so that everyone participating feels heard and has the opportunity to speak up. Extroverts might come in with guns blazing, and wallflowers may try to sink into the background at first. Some people might show up early, while others show up after the session has started. Mentors need to set a precedent for attendance and participation of mentees, in order to make the sessions productive.

4. 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.

5. Understand group dynamics

Bruce Tuckman of Princeton University developed the Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing method of group development.

  • Forming – At this early stage, participants rely heavily on the leaders for direction and guidance. The main focus tends to be establishing introductions and determining objectives.
  • Storming – Cliques commonly form in this stage, and the leaders of the group are usually tested by the participants, resulting in a power struggle.
  • Norming – This is the stage where an agreement is met, and responsibilities are well-defined. Cohesion and effectiveness describe this stage.
  • Performing – The beautiful stage where group unity is achieved in shared objectives and goals, and the group is united in achieving them.

When starting a group mentoring program, it’s important that mentors and mentees are aware of these principles in order to develop good dynamics moving forward.

6. Use technology to expand benefits

Small, in-person mentoring meetings are useful, but virtual mentoring sessions also offer many benefits. Bringing your meeting to a virtual arena can allow more accessibility for group members who maybe cannot make it to a physical meeting location for any number of reasons.

Having a virtual meeting (either through Zoom, Skype or in-platform video conferencing) still allows participants to communicate visually, have a centralized location to communicate between sessions, and enables program administrators to measure group activity easily. The ability to record meetings also allows members who can’t make a session to keep engaged and remain up to speed. Going virtual with collaboration platforms doesn’t have to be an either/or. Some groups opt to be completely virtual, while others opt for hybrid models with some sessions in-person and some virtually.

7. 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.

8. Measure your results

The results of a mentoring program can be measured through qualitative and quantitative surveys. A group’s success can be measured by comparing the group members’ growth, performance rates, retention rates, and promotion rates to those employees not participating in a group mentoring program.

Impactful outcomes have been documented as a result of group mentoring, including but not limited to:

  • Networking opportunities that continue beyond the scope of the program
  • A deeper understanding of the organization and it’s institutional knowledge
  • Refined skills
  • Significant increases in group members’ confidence
  • Breaking down barriers or silos between departments or functions
  • A stronger connectedness and commitment to the organization

Conclusion

Group mentoring is increasing in frequency. Organizations are turning to the format as a way to combat a lack of mentors, or as a way to scale certain mentors skills and knowledge across a larger number of mentees, without overwhelming a mentor with numerous one-to-one mentoring relationships.

With the help of virtual tools, group mentoring is able to serve those with different learning styles and mentoring availability. Group mentoring allows for the stretching of organizational resources along with greater accessibility and flexibility for group members. With group mentoring programs helping to optimize skill-building, knowledge transfer, and talent development, an organization can grow stronger and more resilient.