Teaming up to train company talent

Workplace mentoring gets new life as a tool for retention - and a way to build trust among staff

Traveling along the path toward a fulfilling career, wouldn't it be nice to have someone show you the ropes, push you along - maybe save you from a few of your own mistakes?

In a word: a mentor?

Faced with the shortcomings of informal mentoring - basically, nobody has time to mentor - a growing number of companies are now answering that call with programs that match employees of all levels with other employees.

"We are working so hard to attract and retain talent, and [a mentor] is what we are finding a lot of talented people are looking for," says Tina Miller of Dallas-based Texas Instruments. The company, which has offered formal mentoring to select workers for several years, this month kicked off a "self-managed" mentoring program open to all workers.

Mentoring is hardly new.

"People have been doing it since the first caveman," says Shirley Peddy, a mentoring consultant and author of "The Art of Mentoring" (Bullion Books, 1999). "That's how people have learned over the years."

The problem today is that no one has time to do it. And most businesses don't encourage it, much less support it.

"So many companies feel that if you're sitting in your office talking to someone, you're wasting your time," says Ms. Peddy.

At the same time, mentoring can often exclude workers - in particular women and minorities - because people tend to pick other people to mentor who are similar to them.

"It used to be that a senior white male ... looked in his network of up-and-comers, and chose a younger white male who looked like he did 15 years ago, and said: 'Do what I do, and say what I say, and you will be sitting in my seat,' " says Brent Holmes of Minneapolis-based Menttium Corp., which implements corporate mentoring programs.

So more companies are rolling out programs in an effort to create a more inclusive work environment, increase productivity, and help develop future leaders.

Consider: Sixty-four of the firms on Fortune magazine's list of "The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America" have mentoring programs, up from 59 two years ago.

Among those benefitting from a mentor is Leslie Hutto, a customer-service manager at Georgia-Pacific Corp. in Atlanta. For the past six months, she has been paired with Joanne Shufelt, director of the company's office-paper division, as part of a new initiative to develop high-performing employees.

"I would have never been able to meet someone like [Joanne] or establish that relationship without a formal program," says Ms. Hutto, who meets with her mentor monthly over lunch and chats informally as well.

The experience, she says, has been invaluable in such areas as learning to build morale in a department with high turnover.

"There are not a lot of resources to go to," Hutto says - particularly resources that are "impartial."

"I've been able to talk about things other people would have shirked off," she says.

No doubt much of the key to the success of these formal relationships comes down to the pairing. And many companies contend that they aren't necessarily looking to place people together who are carbon copies of each other.

"We think the employee can get more out of it ... by us [selecting a partner for them] versus them picking someone in their comfort level," says Lucinda Smith, who manages the mentoring program at Georgia-Pacific in Atlanta. "Sometimes we have to get out of our comfort zone to really develop."

When accounting firm Deloitte & Touche LLP kicked off a one-year pilot mentoring program last fall, pairing senior managers and partners - some people were skeptical.

"When people first found out who they were being matched with, a couple of people expressed concern," says program coordinator Vanessa Cornelius. But once they got a chance to make it work, she says, no one dropped out.

"I know there are a lot of skeptics who believe that you can't force these kinds of relationships," says Ms. Cornelius. "I think they can work, but it does require some common interests and values, together with some commitment between the mentor and 'mentee' to really make it work."

Kay Benesh, an accounting partner with Deloitte & Touche in Detroit, who is mentoring a senior manager in tax in Milwaukee, initially had her doubts about the idea.

"At our first meeting we just purely talked about our families and what we like to do in our free time," says Ms. Benesh, who spends one hour a month with her mentor as well as a handful of face-to-face meetings. "We didn't make it about, 'What are your issues.' "

The result, she says, has been positive. The goal of the person she works with is to make partner next spring. "All indications are that we are on track," Benesh says.

Indeed many of these pairings outlive the formal programs.

Doug Verret, a vice president at Texas Instruments, has been mentoring Yan Yang Xiao, a young female manager at the company, for the past 2 1/2 years.

Texas Instruments originally paired the two for one year as part of a program the company kicked off to help groom younger promising employees for future leadership positions.

The two hit it off and decided to keep meeting on their own.

"In order to be effective in mentoring, there really has to be a trust relationship," says Mr. Verret. "It takes time to build that trust. Once you've got it, it seems kind of foolish to drop it."

Much of the success, also, is that the mentors get something out of it as well.

"I don't think a good mentoring relationship can be successful in the long run unless there is a payoff," Verret says. "I get another perspective."

In this case, he says, "I get to hear what it is like to be a female in a male-dominated organization - that is the payoff for me."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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