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Starting small, learning and improving are key factors in building a successful mentoring programme

John Cull
John Cull    

I think it was around 2013 when we delivered our first mentoring pilot project for Youth Business Spain (YBS). Since then, we have used the same approach in around 30 mentoring projects worldwide. Our approach is to start small, learn, make improvements and hopefully scale. If we take the example of YBS, the programme started with 25 mentoring pairs in Barcelona and 25 in Madrid. Fast-forward to 2018 and YBS will have scaled to 20 regions and 1,200 mentoring relationship per year. That's impressive! More recently, we have been completing pilots in France, South Africa and we have ongoing pilots in Mexico and Colombia. In this article I want to compare and contrast two of our members mentoring projects (Positive Planet in France and Technoserve in South Africa), showing what are the common features and where the differences are.

The structure of the pilot project

The format we use in the YBI network for all start-up programmes is to conduct a three-day discovery and planning visit at the onset of the project where the emphasis is on sharing and learning. This is followed by monthly remote calls and concludes with a final three day visit prior to formulating a plan to scale the programme, in line with the goals of the member organisation we are working with.

First visit

The aim of the first visit is to understand what our new member wants to achieve by implementing a mentoring programme. We then share our knowledge of mentoring and look at ways we can best offer support. At the end of the first visit, there should be a clear understanding of the steps needed to build a formal, structured mentoring programme together with specific ‘first steps’ to get the project underway. The features of a ‘first visit’ are:

  • Knowledge exchange and the transfer of tools and methodologies — what is the level of understanding, what are the gaps, how can YBI add value
  • Showcase the mentoring training workshop — the opportunity for stakeholders to attend and experience what we ask of mentors and provide wider support;
  • Building a high-level action plan to get started — establishing the key goals, forming the team and agreeing follow up.

A key feature of the first visit is to share our tried and tested approach in a collaborative way that provides the member with choices and ownership. By studying what is possible, the mentoring project team is able to develop their knowledge and gain confidence in leading what is, in effect, a major change initiative. Follow up visit The second visit is defined by the member, usually after certain activities have been trialed. The member selects and trains mentors and mentees, creates mentoring pairs and gets started in their mentoring relationships. The first visit follows a well-established process, but the second visit is much more flexible. Prior to the visit, remote calls will have identified where the programme is strong and where it needs further support. A menu of choices is discussed with the project team and an agenda agreed. Options include:

  • Mentor club events — how to motivate and recognise the good work of volunteer mentors
  • Train the trainer — select and train a core training team that can support scaling up by taking the mentoring workshops to a wider audience
  • Sharing new techniques to support mentor development — going beyond the tools introduced at induction, showing different ways to increase skills and keep volunteers interested
  • One to one support for the programme lead — the mentoring coordinator is vital for the programme's success and by providing a listening ear, we can help overcome challenges and shape future plans.

After evaluating what has worked/not worked and responding to the needs of the member, a second visit does not finish until there is an outline plan for scaling up. This is facilitated by the YBI mentoring consultant and provides the basis for follow up, remote calls. 

Pilot start-ups at Positive Planet and Technoserve SA

Both Positive Planet and Technoserve South Africa (TSA) had similar experiences and agendas during their first visits. Neither programme had a ready-made pool of mentors and both needed to start from a baseline position. Positive Planet decided to pilot in one area, Paris, while TSA started their programme in three locations. However, both programmes had a ready-made group of potential entrepreneurs; they soon discovered that it was necessary not only to select and train mentors but also to do the same for mentees.

The numbers of mentoring relationships were similar; 25 mentors and mentees in France compared with 41 mentees supported by 12 mentors in South Africa. The reason for this difference is because Positive Planet operates a one-to-one mentoring model while TSA combines both individual one-to-one mentoring and a group mentoring approach. Both programmes had dedicated project teams, although they all combined their mentoring role with other activities. However, as the programme grows, the need for a permanent mentoring coordinator is not just a nice to have, it is a necessity!

At the second visit, both programmes were able to show where they had made progress; for Positive Planet it was included a real-time mentor induction workshop, presentation of mentoring to a group of young female entrepreneurs and an inaugural club event for mentors. In South Africa, it involved a Masterclass for prospective new mentors, feedback (focus group sessions) with practising mentors and mentees and a presentation of the YBI mentoring approach to Accenture consultants who are working with TSA. Both programmes were able to focus on what they had learned during the pilot, what was working/not working from their experiences and how they were going to move forward. They were then able to measure progress, via a conference call with a YBI member from the same region who had ‘been there, done that’ and could offer valuable insights and tips prior to planning the next steps.   


The value of a pilot has shown that it gives an opportunity to test out a process that may not have been previously understood. It helps new members undertaking mentoring to understand how the YBI mentoring methodology works and how it will fit within their existing core activities. Furthermore, the transfer of ownership and working with a committed project team led by a dedicated national coordinator provides a solid base for scaling beyond the pilot. As Youth Business Spain has demonstrated, from small beginnings, great things can happen!

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