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When it comes to grooming future leaders, organizations already have a tremendous resource in the form of their existing leaders. By encouraging these leaders to become mentors, they can not only pass along their experience and institutional knowledge, but also help to create a sense of continuity for employees throughout the organization. A succession situation can be far less stressful when everyone has some familiarity with the potential candidates and trusts that they’ve been well-prepared for the role.

The importance of a mentor is difficult to overstate. Implementing a mentorship strategy as part of succession planning shouldn’t be done haphazardly, however. Here are a few tips for how to use a mentor in successful succession planning:

Pick the Right Mentor

One of the biggest challenges of a successful mentoring program is matching candidates with the right mentor. This person not only needs to possess the skills, knowledge, and experience that the candidate could benefit from, but also has to be committed to putting in the work associated with mentorship. Being a mentor is distinct from training or coaching, but they should not be an entirely informal role model. The candidate isn’t there to hear stories about the early days of the mentor’s career, they want to learn how to apply the skills and strategies that will make them more effective leaders.

Successful mentors have a number of characteristics that make them effective. First and foremost, they’re willing to share what they know and take the time to explain the principles behind their success. They should be prepared to put in the work of being a mentor, which will be an additional obligation atop their current responsibilities. Perhaps most importantly, they should have a reputation for honesty and empathy. This will make it easier for them to form trusting relationships with candidates hoping to learn from their experiences.

In terms of succession planning and talent management, the mentor will often occupy a position comparable to the one the candidate will eventually fill. Depending upon the size and complexity of the organization, this could be any number of positions, but they should have a similar success profile and entail many of the same responsibilities. A mentor will be able to provide the sort of information about the position that may not be evident from a mere job description. The importance of picking a good mentor is critical.

Identify Goals

While candidates can gain a great deal of general knowledge from interacting with a mentor on a regular basis, the relationship should not be one left up to chance. Mentors should work with candidates to identify specific, measurable goals that they want to achieve together. This gives the relationship direction and purpose, making it possible for the mentor to understand how they can provide leadership coaching and facilitate candidate development.

Mentoring goals could be highly specific or more generalized, but they should be clearly defined from the beginning. Candidates need to have a good idea of what skills and knowledge their mentor can help them to develop, just as mentors must know what they’re trying to accomplish by lending their expertise. The flexibility of this relationship is one of its greatest benefits because it allows both parties to set the terms of success.

For succession planning situations, the mentor may well be grooming their eventual replacement. In such cases, the goals will often entail getting to know the department and the people working there. If the candidate is not intended to replace their mentor, their goals will likely have a broader focus, honing in on what it takes to be successful in a comparable position.

Develop an Action Plan

Once goals have been defined, mentors and candidates can work together to determine how those objectives are best achieved. The mentor may assign specific tasks or have the candidate set the agenda by bringing questions or concerns to their meeting sessions. Regardless of their approach, they need to develop a clear action plan to guide development and dictate what steps need to be taken next.

For instance, if a candidate is working with a mentor to learn how to become a better influencer, they may keep a record of situations where they used or could have used influencing strategies and then discuss each one with their mentor to understand why some approaches worked and others didn’t. Based on their conversation, the mentor could then task them with trying a different strategy in the next situation or recommend some form of outside research that might prove useful in the future.

From a succession planning and talent management standpoint, the action plan should have an eye toward the future position the candidate might eventually be filling. If the candidate is going to replace their mentor eventually, the plan will likely involve exposing them to the people they’ll be working with to ensure that the future transition goes as smoothly as possible. In other cases, the action plan will be more concerned with exposing the candidate to the responsibilities of a leadership position and helping them develop the skills they will need to eventually step into a comparable role.

Review and Assess Progress

After an action plan is implemented, the mentor and the candidate should take a step back to evaluate their progress from time to time. Referring back to the action plan, they can review what they’ve accomplished so far and determine if they’re still on pace to achieve their overall goals. This evaluation will most likely be shared with the organization to demonstrate that the mentorship is still delivering value toward the candidate’s development. For succession planning and talent management, this review period could well assess whether or not the mentor believes the candidate is prepared to step into a certain role.

Strong mentoring programs are an effective tool for succession planning, allowing a new generation of high-potential candidates to learn directly from experienced leaders. While these relationships will not always result in a mentor directly overseeing their replacements, it does provide them with the opportunity to pass on their institutional knowledge to employees who will be taking on more responsibilities in the future. Mentorship helps to foster a sense of continuity that is essential to successful succession planning and provides significant learning opportunities for both mentors and aspiring candidates.