Strengthen your workforce through mentoring

Hang on to the hard-won knowledge of veteran employees while invigorating your next generation of staff — that’s the magic of mentoring.


Filed to: Labor

Mentoring golf course management
Mentors are advisers, connectors and sounding boards whose support can facilitate an employee’s on-the-job success. Photo by Montana Pritchard

If you’re like most golf course employers, you spend lots of time training people in skills such as equipment use, chemical applications and customer service skills. And why not? A talented staff leads to outstanding course conditions and can ultimately fatten the bottom line. Sooner or later, though, even your best employees walk out the door — carrying with them all of their expertise.

But hold on: You can stem that loss. Keep your valuable intellectual assets in house through a mentoring program that transfers skills from senior employees to junior ones.

“Capturing knowledge in the workplace is especially critical today, given the nation’s demographic shift,” says Linda Phillips-Jones, principal consultant at the Mentoring Group in Grass Valley, Calif. “Thousands of baby boomers are about to retire. By having mentoring in place, your more skilled people can pass on their knowledge in a structured way.”

Mentoring is essentially the pairing of two individuals, one of whom needs to acquire the expertise possessed by the other. While the process is similar to coaching, mentoring usually targets more subtle skills necessary to the enhancement of career potential. Examples include dealing with customers in productive and sensitive ways that encourage loyalty; cultivating a creative mindset that produces profitable ideas for the course; and applying oneself in ways that go beyond the job description into the area of power performance.

Both sides win

Smart mentoring does more than lock in profitable talent: It also motivates participants. Mentors enjoy ego boosts when they make a difference in another’s life. After all, everyone appreciates recognition for hard-won talents. Mentees, for their part, enjoy greater control over the reins of their careers, and, according to Phillips-Jones, mentoring can also be a valuable recruitment tool: “Employers are saying, ‘If you join us, we will match you up with a mentor.’ And students are starting to ask potential employers what mentoring programs they have in place.”

Given all of these benefits, it’s no wonder mentoring is growing by leaps and bounds. “It’s amazing how fast interest is increasing,” says Phillips-Jones. “Today, most companies have some sort of mentoring going on.”

Starting a mentoring program

So how about you? Got your own mentoring program? Here’s some advice on how to start one that really works, from pros who know:

Tip #1: Start small
Avoid getting in over your head with a large, formal mentoring program. Getting too ambitious may backfire if bungled efforts disappoint employees. “Start with just a few people who are enthusiastic about the idea,” says Phillips-Jones. “Then the program will be easier to sell to others.”

Phillips-Jones suggests launching the effort with several brown-bag lunches during which you talk about mentoring and how it helps both parties and you encourage individuals to volunteer.

Tip #2: Lead the way
Employees tend to take their cues from top management. That truism applies no less to mentoring than to daily work habits.

“If top leadership sets an example, it will have a tendency to filter down,” says Thomas W. Morris III, president of the Washington, D.C.,-based consulting firm Morris Associates. “So if you want to get a successful mentoring program going, find your own mentoring teammate and start doing by example. If you do it, others will see it.”

The worst way to launch a mentoring initiative, says Morris, is to dictate its formation in your workplace and then bow out. Employees will not invest in a program that has received only lip service from the organization’s leadership. On the contrary, they will view mentoring as a gimmick and its requisite meetings and reporting mechanisms as irritating chores.

After you’ve established a successful mentoring relationship, you will be able to communicate your enthusiasm to your employees. Start jawboning about how mentoring has helped your own career, then put your resources behind it. Let everyone know that you will provide guidance on best practices and will modify job descriptions to coordinate the activity.

Tip #3: Pick great mentors
Not everyone makes a good mentor. Throughout your organization’s mentoring adventure — but especially in its early stages — you need to identify mentors who will energize the program with enthusiasm and drive.

Ask whether each prospective mentor has the expertise needed by the mentee, the time required for a successful relationship, and the ability to help others succeed — and an interest in doing so.

“The unbreakable criterion for a mentor is profound listening skills,” says Michael Shenkman, an Albuquerque, N.M.-based mentoring consultant. “What I mean by that is not just listening for what a person says but also for what the person doesn’t say.” Good mentors, says Shenkman, understand the subtleties present in what people say and the way they say it. “Picking up all the subtleties is the stock-in-trade of a mentor.”

Too, says Shenkman, mentors should have a certain worldliness. “I look for people who have been out in the world and have traveled,” he says. “And they should be widely read beyond what is required in their fields. I look for people who have an ability to pursue their own internally driven interests.”

Underlying all of these criteria, says Shenkman, should be enthusiasm for the mission at hand: “Mentors have to really care about whether there are leaders in the world. It has to matter to them intensely.”

Build to last

The mentoring movement is one element of a larger environment in which people are leaving their comfort zones and reaching out to others. When a program clicks the right way, people enjoy participating. “Mentors give glowing testimonials about how they are thrilled to help others,” says Phillips-Jones. “And mentees learn new skills more quickly than they could from formal training.”

It all sounds like a win-win situation, not only for the individuals involved, but also for their employer. “When effective mentoring is in place, people feel more valued, and that builds employee loyalty,” says Phillips-Jones.

How to be a successful mentee

Individuals being mentored need to invest in the process. Very often, that means mentees design their own programs. As a mentee, begin by answering questions like these:

  • What skills should I develop to get ahead and help my employer?
  • What personal characteristics should I cultivate to heighten my value to my employer?
  • How can I get things done in this company on a limited budget? Who are the “people to know”? How should I approach them? What are their quirks?
  • What are the “unwritten rules” that I need to know about here?
  • How can I work more productively with my fellow employees?
  • What career paths should I consider?

Phillip M. Perry is a New York City-based freelance writer.