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Mentoring can supercharge your staff

A well-run initiative fosters greater employee loyalty, more effective problem resolutions, and a fatter bottom line.

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.

It’s done 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, 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 non-technical skills needed to become valuable players,” says Lois P. Frankel, President of Corporate Coaching International, 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.

Develop skills

Two workplace trends are making mentoring programs more critical. The first is the retirement of the 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 metropolitan St. Louis (richardavdoian.com). “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,” says Avdoian. “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?’”

Think business

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, East Greenwich, RI. “Very often a coach will reach out to an individual exhibiting a specific workplace development need. Maybe the person’s sales or evaluation skills need improvement.” 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?’” says Star. “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,” says Star. And opposite holds. “If you try to coach someone who needs mentoring, their needs will not be met and they will feel frustrated. Their job satisfaction will deteriorate, and they won’t stick around.”

Teach success

So what specific skills should your mentoring program teach? Start with the vagaries of company culture.

“Businesses are like playing fields,” says Frankel. “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.

Examples?  Weiss offers one: “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,” says Weiss. “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?

Share expertise

So 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,” says Goruk. “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,” says Star. “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 axe that might warp the learning process. “A good mentor is completely objective about the company and is not trying to push a personal agenda,” says Weiss. “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,” says Weiss. “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,” says Frankel.

Listen up

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:

(1) An innate desire to learn for the sake of learning, not just because it’s required for the job;

(2) The willingness to take risks and do things differently than they’ve always done them;

(3) Openness to feedback and the ability to internalize it without over-personalizing it;

(4) Insight into why they act as they do and the ability to see themselves as others see them;

(5) 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,” says Avdoian. “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,” says Goruk. “The individual must listen well and be willing to change.”

Bonus tip: 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,” says Star.

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:

* Establish parameters. “The mentor needs to define the scope of the mentoring relationship--what it is and what it isn’t,” says Frankel. “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,” says Avdoian. 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,” says Frankel.

Sometimes goals are called for. “If you have identified a weak performance area then a specific, measurable goal will be helpful,” says Goruk. “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,” says Avdoian. “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,” says Goruk. “That’s unreasonable. Map out working parameters before the process begins.”

* Discuss privacy. “The issue of confidentiality should be put on the table,” says Frankel. “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.”

* Be honest. “Don’t be afraid to say you do not have the answer to a particular problem for the mentee,” says Star. “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,” says Goruk. “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,” says Goruk. “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.”

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