Horizontal Mentoring™ — Connection, Community & Institutional Knowledge

As is well recognized, changes in the way that a company does business, needed to ensure that it remains competitive in the marketplace and that it grows, can mean that the people on whom the business depends have a hard time adjusting to changes in the corporate culture.  More often than not, such changes are not only felt to be negative but can be systemic.

This can be exacerbated if these changes occur in conjunction with other alterations including, but not limited to, rapid growth or reduction of staff as well as leadership and management issues. Typically, people no longer feel that they know what is going on. Perhaps even more important, when an organization has increased or decreased in size, has management issues or is responding to changes in the market, it is perceived to be difficult, if not impossible, to disseminate the knowledge gained by experience throughout the organization. This, in turn, results in poorer service to/products for clients.

Mentoring — The Classical Vertical Approach

In general, mentoring occurs vertically, that is, a person who does not have experience in an area and/or with a company is advised by a person with experience who is in the same field and/or division, department or unit. The idea is to create a secure environment in which the person being mentored can learn and can also discuss other work related issues. [1]

Vertical mentoring while effective, is narrow in that it applies to one unit — be this a division, group or team — but does not extend across units. Because of this, beginning in the late 1990’s, some efforts were made to extend the concept to the expansion of corporate knowledge across managerial boundaries; among the objectives were the creation of greater connection and wider dissemination of knowledge. [2] Nevertheless, classical vertical mentoring which is confined to one unit remains the approach most commonly used.

The Horizontal Mentoring Model

Horizontal Mentoring uses people whose life and industry experience combined with their people skills, allows them to reach across unit lines at any appropriate level to teach, listen and help provide lasting solutions for client/customer issues. In other words, regardless of age or formal background, mentors fit into a construct which can be paraphrased as follows: “I’ve been in this industry for a while and I’ve seen these issues even when they aren’t in my own area of expertise.” [3]

The mentoring is horizontal because mentors and mentees must come from different parts of the organization, that is, they must cross organizational lines.

  • Because of this, mentors work with people who do different things than they do; it is their experience in problem solving as well as a different perspective that is crucial to the effort.
  • In contrast, classical vertical mentoring does not cross lines. This means that while a mentee may be junior to his/her mentor, both will likely work on the same or similar things; the wisdom will be shared but the broader perspective does not exist.

We’re All Mentees

For the program to be effective, everyone must be a mentee.  Indeed, reality suggests that everyone at every level of any organization can benefit from having a mechanism which allows experimentation, venting and obtaining work-related advice without any judgments being made.  Thus, Horizontal Mentoring programs provide that everyone — from Board members on down — has a mentor.  Whether a company grows or contracts, mentoring takes place across division, unit and team lines.

Mentors — People Skills & Life Experience

A number of mentor qualities are essential if a Horizontal Mentoring program is to succeed.

  • Mentors must come from a different part of the organization than mentees.
  • Mentors must have characteristics that will make them good mentors most notably, people skills as well as life and professional experience.
  • While they should not be junior personnel, mentors need not be senior management. Indeed, depending on the individuals, it is entirely possible that a middle management person in one part of the organization could be a valuable mentor to those senior to her/him in another part of the organization.
  • Moreover, to make sure that a mentee gets the broadest exposure possible, the mentor should have people skills and life experience and should occupy a completely different position. Thus a Vice President in one division should not mentor a Vice President in another division.

This cross pollination has a number of useful effects for all parties.  It: (1) provides both mentor and mentee with perspective on the organization; (2) establishes contacts across unit lines; (3) reduces isolation; and (4) breaks down the cliques that often form and can result in hard feelings and poor production/service delivery.

Choosing A Mentor — The Process

Mentors should be chosen by a neutral group.  Depending on the state of the organization, the group may consist of people from the Human Resources Department, from other parts of the organization or be a combination.  Regardless of how the group is formulated, its members must be trusted and must know people throughout the organization well enough to be able to select people who would be good mentors.

Possible mentors must be consulted and agree to serve in the role; no one should be forced to undertake the job.  Mentors will work with a number of mentees on an individual basis.  While the number of mentees may vary, no mentor should be assigned more than five mentees.

Boards of Directors

In many cases, members of the Board of Directors mentor each other informally.  In that sense, Boards can be viewed as having their own system despite the fact that this does not extend to the entire company.  This raises the question of whether or not Board members should participate in the company-wide program.

Quite apart from Board-only mentoring, at least initially, staff may feel that having Board members as mentors is somewhat overwhelming.

  • If that is not the case, then Board members should be encouraged to participate in the company-wide program as mentors or mentees providing those who serve as mentors have the requisite skills.
  • If the staff would be overwhelmed, finding one or two cases where a Board member could be paired with a staff member would make it clear over time that it is “safe” to be mentored by a Board member.

Program Start-Up

When a Horizontal Mentoring program begins, staff members at all levels may feel that they do not have sufficient time available to take part.  However, even if this is the case, the problem occurs only when the program is in its inception.  Once it is functioning properly, Horizontal Mentoring can be expected to save enough time so that people are able to participate without feeling pressed.  Moreover, because internal corporate communications will be improved, client service/product delivery will be improved thus saving more time and improving the bottom line.

That said, if Horizontal Mentoring is to succeed, it is essential that it have Board and senior management support.  Moreover, Board and senior management members must make sure that people know that they will not be penalized for participating particularly during the program’s inception when the benefits will not yet be apparent.


Once Horizontal Mentoring has been set up, mentors will be expected to devote about an hour a month to each individual with whom they work.  As noted above, barring exceptional circumstances, no more than five mentees should be assigned to a mentor; in fact, depending on the organization, it may be possible to reduce that number.  People being mentored will be guaranteed that anything that they say will be confidential.

It is very important that neither mentors nor mentees feel that Horizontal Mentoring must be done on their own time or as any kind of overtime.  Mentoring should take place away from the office and expenses, such as the cost of lunches or dinners, should be borne by the company.

While Horizontal Mentoring is always a company-wide program in that everyone must be a mentee, it is essential to announce and launch so as to avoid rumors sweeping through the organization.  Much will depend on the ability of the neutral group to select mentors who not only meet the requirements but can be expected to accept the assignment.  In rapid order the neutral group will then: (1) discuss the program and obtain the consent of the prospective mentors; (2) assign mentors and mentees; and (3) announce the program ensuring that everyone knows about it, knows it is universal, can see its benefits and knows when it will go into operation.

Finally …

Horizontal Mentoring is different and setting it up properly takes a little time.  The pay-off in better communication throughout the organization, in more effective delivery of service/products and in happier and more effective staff members makes it more than worthwhile.  Perhaps most important, because there is a safe way to exchange information across company lines, organizational change can be integrated quickly as opposed to merely being accepted on the surface.

[1] Discussions of vertical mentoring systems are common in the literature. Journals which discuss this and/or put information on the web include, but are not limited to, Business Horizons, Institute of Personnel And Development Web Site Library, Journal of Management, Journal of Vocational Behavior, Leadership and Organizational Development Journal, Sloan Management Review.
[2] Eliezer Geisler, Harnessing The Value of Experience In The Knowledge Driven Firm, Business Horizons, May-June, 1999.
[3] Data obtained from in-depth interviews as well as from well-designed surveys conducted at numerous organizations by Judith Feinleib.

© LFIC Intelligent Consulting, 2021