December 16

Episode 64: The Ingredients of a Successful Mentoring Program with Lisa Fain


When creating something meaningful, you must have the right ingredients. In this week’s podcast, guest speaker Lisa Fain discusses how trust and inclusion are the most vital ingredients for a successful mentorship program within an organization.

Lisa Fain’s Biography

Lisa Z. Fain is the CEO of the Center for Mentoring Excellence, an expert in mentoring and inclusion, a global speaker, and an executive coach. She works with organizations of all types and sizes to create more inclusive workplaces through mentoring.  A former employment attorney, Lisa was formerly senior director of the diversity and inclusion function at Outerwall Inc. (former parent company to automated retail giants Redbox and Coinstar). She lives in Seattle, WA.

In This Episode, You’ll Learn…

  • What constitutes mentoring and an excellent mentoring relationship
  • The modalities of mentoring
  • What a successful mentoring program looks like in an organization
  • The four phases of a mentoring relationship within an organization
  • The roles inclusion and trust play within a mentoring program
  • The potential benefits of inclusion in the workplace
  • How to measure inclusion within the organization
  • Why trust is so important within an organization
  • Why trust is vital within a mentoring program
  • The four levels of trust needed within a mentoring program


  • “Learning is the purpose, the product, and the process of mentoring.” — Lisa Fain
  • “People can have mentors for a lifetime, but marking the end of a mentoring period doesn’t necessarily mean marking the end of a mentoring relationship.” — Lisa Fain
  • “Inclusion is what you get when you leverage diversity. It’s about creating a place of belonging. It’s about creating a welcoming work environment where people feel seen and heard, and don’t have to spend their time worrying about whether they’re going to be accepted.” — Lisa Fain
  • “Mentoring is a safety net, a sounding board, and a laboratory— and none of that happens without trust.” — Lisa Fain
  • “The antidote to being stuck is creation.” — Lisa Fain

Links & Resources Mentioned…

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Read The Transcript

Episode #64

Mike O'Neill: Welcome back to the Get Unstuck & On Target Podcast. I'm Mike O'Neill with Bench Builders and we specialize in helping leaders solve those tough people problems that are slowing their company's growth. Joining me today from Seattle is Lisa Fain. Lisa leads The Center for Mentoring Excellence to helps organizations create better leaders through mentoring. Lisa's passion for creating inclusive work environments fuel her strong convictions that leveraging differences creates a better workplace, drives, better business results and creates meaningful work relationships that make each day better. Welcome, Lisa.

Lisa Fain: Hi Mike so glad to be here. 

Mike O'Neill: Lisa, I'm looking forward to our conversation on multiple levels. And I introduce you as, the person who runs The Center for Mentoring Excellence. Why don't we just start with this notion of mentoring? We bat that around a lot, but if we were to describe mentoring in an organizational setting, what constitutes a good mentor relationship?

Lisa Fain: Oh, such a great question. So a good first thing to say, Mike is that mentoring is distinguished from most other relationships in the workplace. In that it's really focused on learning. Like to stay learning is the purpose, the product, and the process of mentoring. Unlike a supervisory relationship, which is focused on performance, unlike a coaching relationship, which is kind of a one way relationship focused on the coachee. Mentoring is a reciprocal relationship where both the mentor and the mentee give and get when they partner together to co-create a relationship that's focused on development for the mentees skills, knowledge, or ability. So it can be lots of different things. It can be formal, it can be informal, it can be structured, it can be unstructured. But the key thing is the reciprocity and the accountability and the focus on learning. 

Mike O'Neill: So would you repeat those three things again. The reciprocity. 

Lisa Fain: Yeah, the accountability and the focus on learning. 

Mike O'Neill: And when people hear the word mentoring, they most typically think of someone who is older mentoring someone who is younger, but that's not the only way it works now days is it? 

Lisa Fain: Nope. So that is the most traditional way. And some might say even the most obvious way, but there's peer mentoring that occurs that can be one-on-one that can be group mentoring. There's a term that I like to call complimentary mentoring that many people call reverse mentoring, where somebody who's more junior mentor, somebody who's more senior. I don't love the term reverse mentoring because it sort of implies that despite everything else that more senior person has something to learn and the more junior person has something to offer. Whereas I feel like that's a bit of an assumption complimentary, meaning that both mentor and mentee have something to, to bring. And, there's this kind of, reciprocity in learning and in focusing on skills. So it happens in all of those ways. Some people, form personal boards of advisors with various different kinds of mentors on there as well. So all sorts of different modalities can work really well. 

Mike O'Neill: Oh, you've caught my attention here. Some people form kind of a personal team of advisors. 

Lisa Fain: Yep. 

Mike O'Neill: Did I hear that correctly? 

Lisa Fain: You did. 

Mike O'Neill: And so they would, they would be to tap into different people, maybe for different purposes. Mentoring. Organizations sometimes will say, oh yeah, we've got a mentoring program, but it's, it seems to me that more often than not, it's a name only. If a mentoring program for organization is successful, what does success look like?

Lisa Fain: Yeah, it doesn't look like pair and pray. I call it pair and pray, where they pair people that they just kind of pray it succeeds, right? That's not a successful mentoring program. A successful mentoring program has, integration with learning, talent, and strategy objectives. So thought about the organization's objectives and really linking that into as well as the talent objectives. It has accountability. It has training so capacity building for mentors and mentees, and then ongoing support and reinforcement of learning. Whether that's continuous communication with mentors and mentees, whether it's surveying, how they're doing and, achievement of goals, certainly tracking of goals and goal measurement, tracking of outcomes. And really providing those support and resources along the way. And then accountability, we already talked about accountability in the mentoring relationship, but accountability in the mentoring program is important as well. 

Mike O'Neill: What we will be discussing here in a little bit about is the importance of inclusion and trust in a mentoring effort, but as we continue to unpack, mentoring. You describe what a good mentoring program looks like in an organization. And you mentioned training, therefore it seems to me that are you helping organizations, train people how to be a good mentor and how to be a good mentoree? 

Lisa Fain: Yeah. I mean, there's really three forms of training. One is training mentors on how to be good mentors, training mentees on how to be good mentees, how to ask for what they need. And then making sure that mentoring program administrators and the support team have the resources that they need as well. So lots of different elements of training. I like to think of it more like a kickoff than a training because, It's really our, the way we approach things, Mike is a little bit different than how other people approach it. It's not, parachuting in and, talking to the mentors about how they should be a mentor and talking to the mentors about how they should be a mentee. It's providing a forum for the mentor and the mentee. To start to co-create the relationship together. So we do spend a little time alone with the mentees and a little time alone with the mentors, but most of the time is enabling the mentors and the mentees to co-create the relationship together. So by the time that they walk out of our sessions, they have a playbook for the conversations that they want to be having. At least in the first 90 days of their mentoring relationship, if not beyond. 

Mike O'Neill: Is there somewhat of a ideal, framework? For example, you said that they may have a playbook that would address the first 90 days. Are these relationships intended to go on for long periods of time or do you, do you sometimes give them a chance to sunset, and perhaps find new combinations? 

Lisa Fain: Great questions. So, most organizational mentoring programs have a, set period. But what we know about mentoring relationships about successful mentoring relationships is they follow for predictable phases. There's a preparation phase getting ready, which is where you have some self-awareness you get ready and then awareness of others. There's the negotiating phase where you're establishing agreements and setting up the guardrails. There's the enabling growth phase, which is where your goal setting and goal getting. And then there's this closure phase and the closure phase sometimes is about, okay, Mike, our year is up. It's time for us to move on. We talk about what we've learned. We talked, we appreciate one another. And we decided we're going to move forward or maybe it's, you know, Mike, we've decided that we're actually going to continue the mentoring relationship, but we still need to look back on this period and talk about what we learned. Talk about, you know, what we've appreciated from one another and how we want to define our relationship going forward. Because even though we're still going to be a mentor and mentee, maybe we want to talk about different things. Maybe we want to have more of a complimentary, mentoring relationship. Maybe we want to switch to more of an advisory role. So it's, you know, people can have mentors for lifetime. But marking the end of a mentoring period, doesn't necessarily mean marking the end of a mentoring relationship. So it can be really either of those. 

Mike O'Neill: It's fascinating. I appreciate your clarification. What I did not mention in the introduction is a little bit about your background. I know that you're a double graduate of Northwestern with a BS in social policy, and you got your law degree from there as well, which is really interesting combination. I know that you've practiced in a corporate setting that probably help burnish how you come to this role. How did law school prepare you for leading The Center for Mentoring Excellence? 

Lisa Fain: I love that question. So, it's interesting. My first answer is a glib one, which is, it didn't. And then as I think about it, you know, I, I, Center for Mentoring Excellence is an organization that was actually founded by my mother in 1992. And, I had no, aspirations to get into this business. Not because I didn't, I didn't anything wrong with it. It just wasn't on my radar screen. I was going to be a lawyer. What law taught me. I was a management side, employment lawyer, Mike. So that meant I was counseling, employers on how to deal with issues within the workplace and also litigating cases, where there was, were employee, employer issues. And one of the things that it taught me is that, most of the issues that came to me by the time that they were a problem, read a lawsuit or something, right. Or about to be a lawsuit or a EEO complaint or something where the result of people not having really fully communicated, well proactively, created a relationship and seeing each other in the workplace. And as Pollyanna as that sounds, I believe that so much of what I was reactive to as an attorney, helps me to see how to be more proactive in creating better workplaces. 

Mike O'Neill: Lisa, you may know. I have a background in HR and so regrettably, I had our counsel on speed dial. And, but if I'm calling our attorneys, it's almost too late. What happened has already happened in, in, from a company standpoint, we're in damage control. And I'm hearing you say loud and clear, you saw that time and time again. One of the reasons I want to bring that up is because mentoring comes in many forms and fashions. You give us an idea of what an ideal mentoring program would look like in organization. But you've also pointed out that it has a lot of the ability to kind of tailor it to the circumstance. But mentoring also involves other aspects. And that would be inclusion and trust. And I don't know which order we like to kind of go in, but there is a in organizations, a, a, such a, a renewed emphasis on inclusion. We hear about it. We read about it. But from your perspective, when you knew that we're going to talk about inclusion an trust in the context of mentoring. Can you define, let's start with inclusion. What do you mean by that? 

Lisa Fain: Yeah. So to define inclusion, you have to define the word diversity. Why? Because those two words come together a lot, right? We say diversity and inclusion. So diversity is means different. It answers the question who it's about who is in the workplace. It's true that diversity is, can be a real asset in the workplace. We know that it can increase business performance better, better results in the workplace, better work environments. People feel more engaged. I mean, the data, there's a ton of data about the potential benefits of diversity, but really. All that data is about the potential benefits of inclusion, not the potential benefits of diversity. Diversity is an asset only if you leverage the diversity, if you ignore the difference or suppress the difference, or think the difference is bad, you're not going to get all these benefits of inclusion. So what's inclusion. Inclusion is what you get. When you leverage diversity, it's about creating a place of belonging. It's about creating a welcoming work environment where people feel seen and heard, and they don't have to spend their time worrying about whether they're going to be accepted. It's about, getting those results that we've all heard that diversity can have by creating an environment where people are able to show up authentically. So thats the general definition and nutshell. Andres Tapia, who was written a lot about diversity, equity and inclusion, is a real leader in the space has a great quote that I often use that I think summarizes that so well, he says diversity is the mix and inclusion is making the mix work. 

Mike O'Neill: Oh, that's excellent. So from your vantage point, looking into an organization, if you're trying to help an organization make the mix work, how do you measure that? 

Lisa Fain: How do you measure that? You can measure it through lots of different ways and a lot will depend on what is important to the organization. Right. But, you measure it through engagement scores. You measure it by looking at things from an equity lens. An equity lens is about, meeting people where they are based on the needs that they have. So a lot of people look at it from a quality lens, which to me a quality lens is like peanut butter. Like you're spreading the peanut butter, even over depending. It doesn't matter where, where you need, where, what people's needs are. Equity is about recognizing where there might be systemic injustices, where there may be different needs and making sure that people have an ability to start, you know, a level playing field, so to speak. So, how you can measure inclusion. You measure it through, relationships. You measure it through, culture surveys. You measure it through, retention. You measure it by looking at, okay, what do we have diversity within our workforce and are people, having, equal opportunity for promotion and elevation and contribution in the workplace. So promotion levels can be one. Certainly hiring is important, but hiring is about diversity inclusion is what happens when people come in. So you have to have the people, people in the environment, and then you have to make sure that you have, opportunities for everybody to contribute. So I think I know that's sort of a loosey goosey, answer, but I think there's lots of different ways to measure inclusion in the workforce in the workplace.

Mike O'Neill: I didn't find that loosey goosey at all. I think you gave us a number of examples by which you can look at the effectiveness of your inclusion efforts. And there are a number of ways you can do that. You just made a comment that kind of caught my attention, and that is organizations sometimes stop with the definition of diversity on the employment side. And that's just the first step. 

Lisa Fain: Right. Right. 

Mike O'Neill: I wanna move to trust and probably come back to inclusion just a moment. Idea of trust. We know it's at the root, but how powerful is trust? 

Lisa Fain: Oh, wow. I mean, trust, trust makes such a difference in our working relationships, our mentoring relationships specifically, but our working relationships as a whole. Without trust there's no psychological safety and without psychological safety, there's no true sharing. There's no ability to show up authentically. There's no ability to create belonging. So trust to me is a threshold to all of those things. And trust is so, critical, because, without it we're spending all of this time kind of creating our own boundaries, artificial boundaries. Creating obstacles to sharing, identifying, or finding obstacles to sharing. With trust we really can give people, benefit of the doubt we can, establish deeper relationships. We can encourage people to. Give things their all, because they don't, worry about being judged in the same way. They have a safety net. I like to say that mentoring is a safety, safety net, a sounding board and a laboratory. And none of that happens, Mike, without trust, you have to have trust to have all of those things. 

Mike O'Neill: You know, we've been talking about the notion of trust. It's so foundational, we've kind of touched on diversity and inclusion, and that was kind of in the generic sense. Why don't we talk about trust and inclusion when it comes to a mentoring effort. How do you advise your clients to be assured that the mentoring program they have, or the one they're trying to install has both trust and inclusion as just part of the DNA? 

Lisa Fain: Yeah. So let's start with trust. There's really four levels of trust. When you're thinking about a mentor program or a mentoring culture. And I almost like to think about it like a triangle on the, on the bottom. This foundational level is self-trust. So mentors need to have self-trust. Mentees need to have self-trust. What self-trust self-trust is the trust in yourself, personal trust that you are able to, give what you need to give as a mentor that you will, are able to show up for your own learning as a mentee that you, can give the mentoring relationship, what it needs and what it deserves. And too many people skip over that phase. Mike, and they're sort of building this, trying to build this environment of trust without starting with the self-trust. So the self-trust is the first piece. The next piece is trust in the other person. So that's, you know, trust in you as my mentor or, or your trust in me as your mentee that, I have both the ability to give what you need to the mentor, to the mentoring relationship, the benevolence, to, you know, I have your interests at heart and you have my interest at heart. And the integrity to show up, meet my commitments, be there for you, and honor the mentoring relationship. So those are the three real components of interpersonal trust and a mentor, relationship ability, benevolence and integrity. The work of Roger Mayer that I've adapted to the mentoring context. So self-trust interpersonal cost. The next is, excuse me. Self-trust interpersonal trust. The next is institutional trust and there's really two kinds of institutional trust there's trust in the mentoring program. So this is trust in the mentoring program, by the mentor, by the mentee, by the mentoring program committee. By the leaders that the mentoring program is going to provide the kind of structure and accountability and measurement that's needed to achieve these results. Right? So if you stop at interpersonal trust and you don't have the institutional trust, then you wonder what happened here. Why is this mentoring program not taking off? Why is this not becoming a mentoring culture? Because you haven't started to establish the trust in the mentoring program. And the next level is at the top of the pyramid or the top of the triangle, which is also institutional trust but organizational trust. As a result of having invested in mentoring and having a mentoring program that is supported by the organization and has trust in it, that the organization itself is going to value the development of its people. Right. And when I developed the skills that there's opportunities for elevation, that there's opportunities for growth and learning and contribution. And this is where having an inclusive work environment and inclusive culture in the organization really comes into play. Because if the organization isn't going to value me or investing in my development in an authentic way, and I'm never going to belong, then I'm going to take this great knowledge that I've had mentoring and take it somewhere else. Right. But if I want to stay in the organization, I believe in this organization, then I'm going to start to pay it forward by mentoring other people. Then I'm going to start to feel much more of a sense of loyalty and engagement and enthusiasm for my work. I'm going to become an evangelist for my company and what it's doing. Start recruiting other people, you know, and, and having meaningful relationships in the workplace that keep me engaged and keep others engaged. So those are the four really critical areas of trust when you think about mentoring. I already explained how inclusion makes a difference at the top level. Clearly it makes a difference at the bottom level, as well in terms of valuing who you are and what you have to bring. And in the interpersonal level, in terms of being able to engage in invite conversations about difference into our mentoring relationship. Because so often we talk about diversity and inclusion, but we don't want to have conversations about it because we're afraid we're going to step into a landmine. We're afraid it's going to trigger you know, a complaint or we're going to say something wrong, or somebody is going to be offended that I asked a question. But when you develop that competency to invite differences into your conversation, you really build on and strengthen interpersonal trust.

Mike O'Neill: Lisa, you are drawing on experience as a lawyer, as a leader, as someone who's, been around mentoring for a long time. Can you share an example where perhaps either you or a client got stuck and what did it take to get unstuck? 

Lisa Fain: So I'm going to switch gears a little bit because, when I first heard this question, you know, I can think of lots of different examples, but, I guess there's two that come to mind. So the first is a personal example where, you know, I spent a lot of years, 17 years, in Chicago, which great city and a great place. And it was good to us, but you know, we, and by we, I mean, my husband and myself. Never fully felt a sense of belonging in Chicago. I can't put my finger on why, but we knew we were, we were planning to be there for three years and three years became 17 years. And, we were looking, I think we were stuck. I think, you know, life was good enough. Things were fine and we just, but we didn't have this internal sense of satisfaction. And when I started traveling out here to Seattle for work, I really felt a sense of place for the first time in a long time, you know, the, ability to be outdoors. I might've been a mountain goat in a last life cause I love mountains and hiking. But also this beautiful nature and it just, you know, a bit of a smaller community. And, we played around moving out here for awhile and then, but because things were good enough, we were stuck. I think we were really stuck where we were in Chicago and it was when, ironically it was weather that was the straw that broke the camel's back to move us out there. I was out here in Seattle and it was . February, It was 45 degrees here. And I called my husband who was back at home with the kids in Chicago. And it was negative 45 with windchill there. So we had a polar vortex and he hadn't left the house in three days. And I was, you know, out here I'm walking out and, you know, 45 degrees doesn't sound balmy, but it sure is beautiful compared to negative 45. And we finally realized, what are we doing? We really need to make, we need to take a risk to get unstuck. It was very risky. We had wonderful friends in, Chicago. We had a lovely community and, but we said, we just, we got a rip off the band-aid, so to speak and come out here. And it was a great, great, great decision. So that's the first example that came up. 

Mike O'Neill: Good example, by the way. That's good. If you have another one. 

Lisa Fain: Yeah. I'm going to give you two. I'm going to give you two. The second is a more recent example. I'm much more of a professional example. And, so in January of maybe it was even before January, let's see the pandemic hit in February of 2020, right? So I would say by June of 2020 myself and a lot of my other fellow entrepreneurs who be training organizations. I'm part of a organization which has an association of learning providers. We were feeling, like we needed to figure out what does all this mean in terms of the pandemic? You know, I, it was probably even earlier than that. And March, April, when we were all like, what does this mean for our business? What does it mean for our work life? What does it mean for all of these things. And, spun our wheels for a few weeks until one of my colleagues said, why don't we create a community where we meet every week and we talk about what we're experiencing and how we can challenge ourselves and our business. And, we met weekly for a long time. I would say probably for nine months, then we moved to monthly and now we're on a quarterly. But it was such a great way to jumpstart our, this new reality. And, in connection with other people realize we're not alone. We can get through this crazy crazy time and support one another. So those are my two, the two examples that come to mind when you asked me that question. 

Mike O'Neill: Those are great examples. The last one you just mentioned, I also found myself in community with other business owners trying to figure it out. That kind of was the impetus behind the start of this podcast. And that is let's bring folks like Lisa on learn from Lisa, such that we're all in this together. Let's figure this out. And there is a silver lining. We're recording this podcast, the week before Thanksgiving. So it'll probably won't come up for, air for another several more weeks. But, a lot has happened in that time period. You know, Lisa I've asked you some pretty broad, far ranging questions, but if you were to kind of reflect on what we've discussed, what might be some of your closing thoughts or takeaways?

Lisa Fain: Well, the one that just popped into mind as you, as we were just talking about this question about when your stuck is that. The antidote to being stuck is creation. Creating something new, minor, major, little, big community, but not, and not doing it alone. And when I think about, you know, the title of your podcast, Get Unstuck & On Target really is about this idea of creation and linking that to mentoring. What better way than by creating a mentoring relationship to help you get unstuck. You have the act of creation in creating a mentoring relationship, but also within the relationship itself, creating new possibilities and pathways for oneself. So I love the intersection of those two concepts. 

Mike O'Neill: Oh, I love that as well. Lisa, you've given some great information for our listeners who want to reach out to you. What's the best way for them to connect with.

Lisa Fain: Well check out, our website, which is and feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn. I'm Lisa Zachary Fain on LinkedIn. 

Mike O'Neill: Excellent. We will include both those contacts in the show notes. So if you're driving, don't feel like you've got to write that down. It will be in the show notes that you can reach out. That's how Lisa and I actually came across each other. The first time was via LinkedIn. Lisa. Thank you, 

Lisa Fain: Mike. Thank you. What a great conversation. 

Mike O'Neill: I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today. Every Thursday, we upload the latest episode to all the major platforms. So if you haven't already please subscribe. I've got a question for you. Are people problems keep you up at night? If yes, let's talk. Head to to schedule a quick call. We'll explore ways to help you solve your people problems. So you can again, focus on growing your business. So I'd like to thank you for joining us. And I hope you've picked up on some tips from Lisa that will help you Get Unstuck & On Target. Until next time.

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