Mentoring programs can help you capitalize on the skills and knowledge of your best performers and transfer that to others on staff, helping to strengthen your overall maintenance team. Photos by Montana Pritchard
You’ve spent good money attracting, hiring and training great employees. But what happens when your skilled workers retire or move on to other pursuits? Does all your investment go down the drain?
Maybe not. You can capture the skills and knowledge critical to your bottom line by having your top performers pass along their expertise to other members of your staff. You can do that through mentoring.
On the move
Securing your training investment is especially critical today, given the mobility of the nation’s workforce. Because people are more likely than ever to work for multiple employers over the course of their careers, your own staff is always
subject to unexpected change.
“You could lose one of your top people tomorrow,” says Randy Goruk, president of The Randall Wade Group, a leadership development firm in Scottsdale, Ariz. “You need to have someone ready to step up to the plate.”
In addition to keeping valuable expertise from going out the door, mentoring can help your business in other ways.
First, it is likely to increase your overall retention rate. People will be more loyal to your organization when they see you take an interest in their professional development.
Second, as employees become more skilled, you will more likely promote from within. That’s one more contributor to loyalty.
Third, mentoring can help when new faces come aboard. “Mentoring by seasoned employees can help new hires avoid making costly mistakes and more quickly acquire technical and nontechnical skills needed to become valuable players,” says
Lois P. Frankel, the president of Corporate Coaching International based in Pasadena, Calif.
Finally, mentoring can result in a more productive work environment. “Businesses with a mentoring program often end up with more solid succession plans, as well as better procedures for workplace problem-solving and conflict resolution,”
says Lauran Star, a business consultant based in Bedford, N.H.
Two workplace trends are making mentoring programs more critical.
The first is the retirement of baby boomers. When older people leave your workforce, they will take along their considerable expertise unless you have taken steps to capture it.
Second, more job applicants are becoming aware of their need to improve their skills to maintain a competitive edge. As a result, they are looking to join organizations that will help them do just that. And they will want to make sure you are on the
same page before they agree to work for you.
“Today’s applicants are telling prospective employers they want personal development in their work life,” says Richard Avdoian, an employee development consultant in St. Louis. “It’s all part of a changing business environment.
As people move more rapidly between employers, they are looking ahead to their next stop.”
This trend is visible as early as the job interview. “Gone are the days when interviewers would ask more questions than candidates,” Avdoian says. “Now applicants are leading the way by asking for key information such as, ‘What
does your business do to enhance and develop employees’ skills? Does it offer additional education? Training?’”
Two trends are making mentoring programs more critical — the retirement of baby boomers and current job applicants’ desire for work experiences that improve their overall skills.
Does mentoring sound a lot like coaching? It’s true that both initiatives attempt to improve employee performance. But they differ in their details. Confusing the two can be costly.
“Coaching is much more proactive than mentoring,” explains Alan Weiss, president of Summit Consulting Group in East Greenwich, R.I. “Very often a coach will reach out to an individual exhibiting a specific workplace development need.”
Once that skill is improved, the coaching initiative is over.
Mentoring, in contrast, is a longer-term effort intended to help individuals engage more successfully with their workplace environment. It often serves to assist a mentee’s climb of the career ladder. As such, it tends to promote a spirit of
loyalty in the business organization.
Coaching and mentoring make different demands on the person being trained. “A coach will ask questions such as, ‘What do you think your next step is?’” Star says. “The idea is to empower the coached individuals to come
up with their own solutions. A mentor, on the other hand, might make a more direct statement, such as, ‘This is what you need to do.’”
Select the right candidates for each initiative. “If you try to mentor someone who needs coaching, they will not learn,” Star says. And the opposite holds true. “If you try to coach someone who needs mentoring, their needs will not
be met, and they will feel frustrated,” Star says. “Their job satisfaction will deteriorate, and they won’t stick around.”
So, what specific skills should your mentoring program teach? Start with the vagaries of company culture.
“Businesses are like playing fields,” Frankel says. “There are rules, boundaries and strategies that have to be employed if players — in this case employees — want to be successful. Most often, these are not things that
are written down, but rather things that people learn from observing and working closely with colleagues.”
Not knowing the rules of the game can be dangerous. New employees — and even some seasoned ones — might not realize they are going out of bounds until their careers or reputations have been damaged.
Weiss offers an example: “A mentee might ask, ‘Is it appropriate for me to bring up a certain topic at the next employee meeting?’” Getting the right guidance on such a matter is important, says Weiss: “If you fail
to speak up about a critical matter at the meeting, you might be regarded as unobservant. But if you make the wrong statement, or the right statement at the wrong time, people may feel you lack sensitivity to the work environment.”
Here are some other common mentoring topics:
- How should a newly promoted individual deal with old friends who have suddenly become subordinates? “While new supervisors cannot hang out with their former peers, sometimes it is not clear what interactions they should have,”
Weiss says. “A mentor can help the newly promoted individual sidestep the old familiarities without being rude.”
- Who are the influential players in each department? What is the best way to approach each, given their personal management styles?
- How are decisions made in the organization? Is there a common process by which new ideas are vetted? What is the best way to introduce a new idea without ruffling feathers?
- How, and with whom, should a mentee network to get ahead? What players have the ears of the top people?
- What steps should a person take to improve his or her professional stance? Earn a higher degree? Teach workshops? Solve a workplace problem? Maybe mentor others?
Teaching successful tactics to mentees might include sharing who are the top decision-makers in each department, guidelines on how the organization goes about making decisions and steps they can take to improve their standing within the organization.
Share your expertise
What makes a great mentor? Before anything else, the individual must have expertise worth sharing. “Great mentors have something to offer because they have achieved success in their careers,” Goruk says. “They are willing to
share their bad as well as their good work-life experiences, pointing out the mistakes that they and others have made.”
Such openness requires self-confidence. “A mentor must be able to trust people,” Star says. “Not everyone has that capability. Some people feel threatened by the act of sharing their talent, because they feel they might be replaced.
And a mentor may also be afraid of losing their edge if the mentee should communicate the shared information with others.”
Great mentors avoid grinding a personal philosophical ax that might warp the learning process. “A good mentor is completely objective about the company and is not trying to push a personal agenda,” Weiss says. “He or she looks
out for the best interests of the mentee, in a way that is consistent with the company’s strategy.”
Finally, great mentors not only are willing to perform the required work, but also have the time to do so.
And they must have a genuine interest in a mentee’s success.
Are mentors born or made? “Both,” Weiss says. “While you may be able to easily find some people with native mentoring skills, there’s nothing wrong with providing some training — even just a half day’s discussion
covering the ground rules.”
Bonus tip: A good mentor need not be in the mentee’s chain of command. “Although a boss can be a mentor, it’s often more effective when someone who is not in a position to judge performance or make decisions about continued employment
provides feedback and guidance,” Frankel says.
Now, for the other side of the selection coin: Who makes a great mentee? Frankel says the best candidates possess at least three of these five characteristics:
An innate desire to learn for the sake of learning, not just because it’s required for the job.
The willingness to take risks and do things differently than they’ve always done them.
Openness to feedback and the ability to internalize it without over-personalizing it.
Insight into why they act as they do and the ability to see themselves as others see them.
Humility or the knowledge that there’s always room to grow.
The most successful mentees lack sensitive egos that can get in the way of processing constructive criticism. And the best ones realize the dynamics of mentoring are a two-way street. “The mentee should not only be willing to learn from
people who have been there before, but they should also be willing to share their own skills or talents to benefit the mentor,” Avdoian says. “I have mentored many people, and I always learn from them.”
Perhaps the most important characteristic is a positive mental attitude. “The great mentoring candidate wants to grow professionally and perform at a higher level,” Goruk says. “The individual must listen well and be willing
Also, assess a mentoring candidate’s potential in the light of their previous response to guidance. “An individual who has been open to coaching will likely be a good mentee,” Star says.
Successful mentoring programs center on the individual’s perceived needs, but specific goals for progress aren’t always necessary.
Ensuring great mentoring
Some mentoring relationships thrive; others wither on the vine. How can your own efforts find a home in the first group? Experts suggest these tips for success.
“The mentor needs to define the scope of the mentoring relationship — what it is and what it isn’t,” Frankel says. “For example, mentoring might not be advocacy. A mentor who can’t or won’t put in a good
word for a mentee applying for a promotion might be willing to help prepare for an interview or provide insight into what a position will require.”
Set goals when appropriate
The most successful mentoring programs center on the individual’s perceived needs. “Rather than make your own interests the agenda, start by asking what the mentee needs,” Avdoian says. Perhaps the person needs to develop a more
impressive leadership style, a more authoritative posture or a more positive attitude.
Are specific goals necessary? Maybe not. “Successful mentoring is often more about creating a safe environment to discuss career issues and explore challenges than it is about doing any one particular thing,” Frankel says.
Sometimes goals are called for. “If you have identified a weak performance area, then a specific, measurable goal will be helpful,” Goruk says. “But if you are just trying to develop your bench strength and prepare people for
advancement, the goal might be simply the retention of a quality employee. In this case, the mentor might help the person stay inspired and feel empowered.”
Keep to a schedule
“Decide how frequently you will get together and how long the relationship will last,” Avdoian says. “It’s best to enter meeting times on a calendar. A ‘we’ll meet when we can’ approach never seems to
work out, because there’s always something else to do.” As for the venue of the meetings, establish some designated area which is relaxing and allows for uninterrupted conversation.
And respect the mentor’s work schedule. “The mentee may think that the mentor will be available at any time for a consultation,” Goruk says. “That’s unreasonable. Map out working parameters before the process begins.”
“The issue of confidentiality should be put on the table,” Frankel says. “The mentor should assure the mentee that any shared information will remain private. The mentor might want to ask the same of the mentee to facilitate
candid and unguarded discussion.”
“Don’t be afraid to say you do not have the answer to a particular problem for the mentee,” Star says. “Take steps to help them find the answer, and you will both learn in the process.”
How are you doing?
Assess the quality of your mentoring effort by asking mentees for feedback. “Periodically seek insight into how the initiative is going,” Goruk says. “If you get a blank stare when you ask, ‘How am I helping you?’
maybe you have not been very helpful. Remember that you are engaged in a process of developing new leaders. If you are not doing that, you are wasting your time as a mentor.”
You should also assess the quality of your organization’s overall business training initiatives. “Start with a 360-degree survey, to find out where your mentoring program is now,” Goruk says. “Then redo the survey a year
down the road to see how well you have advanced. Identify areas for improvement and encourage mentors to work on them.”
A quality mentoring program will assure your business retains critical skills and expertise when good employees leave. Try to extend the mentoring process to every individual who shows promise, no matter what the work level. Says Goruk: “The
further down you can take your mentoring program in your organization, the more profitable you will be.”
Use this worksheet as a resource to determine the effectiveness of your mentorship programs and relationships.
Phillip M. Perry is an award-winning business management writer based in New York City whose work has been syndicated in publications nationwide, including GCM.