Prioritizing the right people strategies is pivotal. Organizations now more than ever have finite time and resources to invest in employee engagement, knowing how vital it is to grow. When I work with organizations on people strategies, we often brainstorm key strategies collectively as a team, and then prioritize those strategies based on key criteria such as ease of implementation (time, money, etc.), and ROI (impact on employee engagement, retention, etc.). What has been so intriguing lately is a common theme I am discovering – mentoring – is rising to the top of that people strategy list time and time again. In fact, according to a Corporate Executive Board survey, 25 percent of U.S. companies now host peer mentoring programs, up from 4-5% in 2007.
Why? Mentoring is increasing in popularity for a few reasons. First, generational differences are clearly a driving force here. Millennials value relationships and purpose in their work. Mentoring provides that close relationship with someone they trust in the organization, as well as a sense of being valued and important because someone else is partnering in their success. The generation where “helicopter parenting” reigned has impacted what millennials expect from their employers. Yes, they got a lot of attention from their baby boomer parents, and in turn, expect high touch from those they work with. Meanwhile, generation “X”, often the forgotten generation, wants to help others. What better way to engage both generations simultaneously, than by partnering them together through mentoring. Secondly, the work environment itself has evolved. Workplaces are increasingly siloed by functional area, product, or service line, or have many divisions or branches separated by physical distances from mergers and acquisitions. More and more, are often also virtual. Teams decreasingly interact face-to-face. Aligning mentors across these siloes or divisions, is an effective way to remove communication barriers and gain perspective. It helps employees individually develop, while helping the organization improve communication and teamwork. That’s a 2x impact on engagement.
In 2010, Catalyst published findings from their study on mentoring. They have continued to support mentoring as a necessity to engaging and retaining women. The challenge historically has been that mentors are senior executives, which is dominated by men. Women have typically been matched with women, so either it is a senior executive woman that is overloaded with mentees, or with a man that may not want to mentor women. I am a fan of matching mentees to mentors based on a variety of selection criteria, not just gender. We have to look at it holistically – previous experience, skills, areas of developmental opportunity, personality, communication style, learning style, etc. – and let the mentee and mentor weigh in on the fit. A mentor is someone that has done what the mentee desires to do. In other words, someone that’s been there, done that. By design, the mentee has experiences that the mentor has likely experienced to some degree, and can provide direction and support when the mentee needs it. A mentor’s job is a combination of asking, listening, and providing insight and advice as needed. The Catalyst study further outlines some key ingredients to success, and useful checklists to assess your organization’s mentoring capabilities based on these know success factors. They include: matching based on skills, formal goals, minimum time commitments, formal process, accountability standards, and links to the overall business/people strategy. It’s a great starter’s guide for the other 75% of organizations without mentoring programs.
To illustrate what good looks like, I reflected on organizations I have worked for or consulted with. Let’s start with my first employer, still to this day my favorite employer, Caterpillar. With a true devotion to employee engagement, I was paired with a mentor my very first day on the job. My first mentor, Paige, had been through the same rotational leadership program, had been promoted three times already in her first five years with the company, and had similar professional and personal interests to mine. Paige and I met every other week to discuss my successes, my challenges, and she offered words of encouragement, and sound advice for the situations I was facing. When it came time for me to have tough conversations with my manager, or to ask for more challenging projects, Paige offered tips and tricks to get the experiences I needed to be successful. I remember one such conversation at lunch where she challenged me to get more involved in the local community. I was young, and a little bored personally in a new area, and she knew I needed more than just a job to be successful and happy. She was right. I got involved with our local Junior League, made new friends, and made more of an effort to engage in after work activities. It helped me find more purpose in my life overall, and, in turn be happier at work.
Paige was just the first of many mentors I found there. A project leader I worked with introduced me to a senior level woman leader who also had Buckeye ties. I instantly connected with Sarah, and asked to meet with her monthly as my mentor. She gladly accepted, and over the next year, we built a strong relationship. I remember one of our calls, where she asked if she could give me some feedback. She proceeded to kindly mention that I said “um” and “like” a lot. She said that she used to do the same thing without noticing it, and that she had made a conscious effort to avoid saying those words, and she noticed improved credibility with her peers and others. She thought it might help me too. Although it initially stung, I knew she was right, and to this day, I monitor my audible pauses with her voice in mind. Another mentor while at Cat, was Thoma. She was an executive level leader that had met with our team for a learning event, and I thanked her afterwards. She offered to be a mentor on the spot. I gladly took her up on it, and met with her quarterly to share updates and to gain her perspective. While she was incredibly supportive, and connected me with key opportunities and people for the duration of my career there, she was a strong judge of character. I remember one time meeting in her office, sharing my updates, and she interrupted with – what do I want from this relationship? The question came from a good place, and I learned then to be very clear with agendas and expected outcomes in our relationship. I began sending her a monthly email with bullet points of my accomplishments and challenges. Because her time was valuable, I was concise and specific in my time with her.
I had a number of other mentors, men and women, throughout my career there, ones I remain in touch with today. The organizational culture supported these relationships fully. It was either assigned as in the case with Paige, or facilitated like with Sarah, or proposed by leaders themselves as with Thoma. It was a cultural norm to have relationships with others that had done what you wanted to do, and find ways to leverage their experience and skills to make you better. Mentoring does not just happen – organizations have to believe in the value it provides and encourage employees to mentor and seek mentors.
Later in my career, in my consulting days, I led a team that did not have a mentoring program, coupled with a weak leadership culture that did not emphasize the importance of mentoring or people development. We were experiencing high turnover, and wanted to engage our team more. I recommended to the leadership team that we create an internal project dedicated to our mentoring program. It was easy to sell because of its low cost and expected return on increasing engagement and helping with our turnover problem. Being a newer leader to the team, I enlisted the support of a top performer on my team to co-lead the project. With his credibility, and my unbiased point of view and experience, we were a great team. First, we collected input from the team on what they wanted from a mentoring program, what they believed would work well for our team, and what expectations would be for the mentee and mentor. We conducted a survey with a series of these questions, as well as met individually with team members to gather and further interpret the data.
Second, we documented the mentoring program in a handbook. We outlined the role of the mentee, the role of the mentor, and the mentoring process. Mentees were expected to drive the relationship, schedule meetings, proactively send communications, and solicit input from the mentor as needed. Mentors were expected to be available 1-2 hours a week for the mentee for either meetings, questions, or communication to advise and support the mentee. Mentors were also expected the check-in with the mentee if communications quieted, and to check-in with the manager of the mentee at least once a month. Confidentiality was critical for the success of the program. Our handbook ensured confidentiality between the mentor and mentee. If the mentee developed a performance issue, it was expected that the manager would intervene. The mentor was merely there to help provide a safe place for the mentee, and to help advise them. Next, we outlined the ideal process for a new employee. We decided to implement the program with our new hires. Each new employee would have a mentor assigned to them prior to their start date, selected by the management team. The mentor would communicate via email with the new employee to introduce him or herself prior to he or she starting. The mentor took the employee out to lunch the first week on the job to get to know one another personally. In the first 30 days, the mentee set up weekly meetings with their mentor for their first 90 days, then at least monthly post 90 days. After 90 days, the mentee was clearly responsible for driving the relationship fully. The mentor agreed to be available for the duration of their first year of employment, and the expected commitment was an hour a month to ensure success. As a result, the team really rallied around the mentoring program. We chose our high performers to be mentors initially, and matched them with new employees with similar backgrounds and experiences, and they thrived in sharing their expertise with new, excited employees. It elevated the mood in the office, encouraging relationship building across the team, and fostered open communication between individuals and parts of our previously disjointed team. It was a pleasure to watch the positivity spread. While we lost new employees before implementing the mentoring program within one year, we retained all of the new employees with the new program for over two years. It worked.
Present day, reflecting on my own business, and what has helped me to be successful in my first year and half, I must say finding a mentor has been incredibly impactful. Because of our similar backgrounds and business interests, Dana and I were introduced through a mutual colleague last fall. We met for coffee. We instantly clicked, sharing our business ideas and connections with one another. Over the next few months, we built trust through being vulnerable with one another about our business challenges, and helping each other celebrate our successes together. When I have a good thing happen with a client, Dana is one of the first people I think of to celebrate with. When I had a difficult situation with a client distracting other participants in one of my sessions, I talked to Dana too. She listened, asked questions, gave me some ideas, and made me feel safe. Being an entrepreneur can be lonely at times, and having a sounding board that has been there, done that, means the world to me. I know that just having her in my corner has increased my confidence and my business’ success.
Considering these stories, and thinking about your own team and how they prefer to be engaged, there are options to implement an effective mentoring program at your organization. Based on your current organizational culture, size, and complexity, implementation will look different. In the spirit of keeping it simple, here are some options to consider with your team:
- Outsource it: If you have a large team and/or more than one geography to cover, hiring a consultant or organization to help you craft the right solution may be best. There are turnkey programs offered from organizations like Diverse Talent Strategies that you can plug and play. A friend and colleague of mine, Alison Martin-Books and team, has developed a proven set of solutions that can be customized to fit your organization’s needs.
- In-house it: Develop an internal initiative around implementing a program, find a strong leader to drive it, and dedicate the time and resources to make it happen. In my experience, I have found that defining roles and expectations up front is pivotal. Make it clear what the mentee wants from the relationship, put some definition around confidentiality, and define the process for assigning roles and time requirements. Some organizations have an agreement between the mentor and mentee on what they want and expect from one another to hold each other accountable. Depending on your culture, this level of formality may be helpful or can simply be a part of initial discussions between the mentor and mentee. The important thing is that both parties understand what good looks like.
- Create a mentor friendly culture: Remembering my Caterpillar story, while my initial mentor was assigned to me, the mentors I found along my career were facilitated or offered because mentoring was engrained in the culture. If this is not a cultural norm for your organization, how do encourage it? Employees respond to what we expect, and what we choose to reward. If we recognize mentors for their extra efforts, or encourage mentors on developmental plans, employees will respond. Leaders being open about their own mentoring experiences provides a positive storytelling framework to encourage others to model. If you have organizational values, reflect on what behaviors you expect to demonstrate those values – chances are mentoring can be a behavior that flows from an existing value. I recommend starting with your top talent for mentors, motivate them to want to be mentors, then align talent that can benefit most from that top talent. Then, find ways to share their success stories around the organization to encourage others to do the same. It will spread like wild fire.
Call to Action
If you are one of the few organizations that has a mentoring program, perhaps it could use a refresh. Or, if you do not have a culture that currently supports mentoring, consider the benefits. Organizations I have worked with or for experienced positive effects on their teams as a result of engaging mentees and mentors. It’s usually one of the least expensive people strategies with one of the highest payoffs.
What will mentoring do for your organization?
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