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Mentoring Lets Employees ‘Stand on the Shoulders of Giants’

Mentoring at WorkIt’s often said that employees are an employer’s greatest resource. That being the case, it’s no wonder many employers turn to mentoring — the linking of talented but inexperienced employees to proven leaders.

Famed scientist and philosopher Sir Isaac Newton has been quoted as saying, “If I have been able to see further, it was only because I stood on the shoulders of giants.” Employers can borrow and build on Newton’s wisdom by developing a mentoring program in which the “giants” in a company or field can teach the up-and-comers to be the titans for the profession’s next generation.

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Getting started

Dr. Allison Duke, an assistant professor of management at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, and a former human resources practitioner, points out six critical points to consider when planning a mentoring program.

First, Duke says, an employer should identify the program’s objectives. Ask questions such as, “What is the purpose of a mentoring program? Who will be involved? How does this help the organization meet its strategic objectives?”

The second point is to ensure senior management supports the initiative. “Without evident support from the top, it is often difficult to get mid-level managers and employees to buy into the importance of the program,” Duke says.

Next, develop a strong communication plan that focuses on the expected outcomes of the program. “Everyone is busy, and people often think a mentoring program is just another initiative from HR that will take up their time and resources,” Duke says. “Be clear about the purpose of the program, and communicate the expectations for all parties, as well as the benefits.”

Researching other organizations’ programs can be helpful, but Duke cautions against a “copy and paste” approach. “You can use ideas from other companies as long as you pick and choose to customize a plan that meets your needs.”

Voluntary participation is another key. “Employees who do not buy into the benefits of the program or are not committed to it will not be motivated to do their part and will decrease the likelihood that the program will be successful,” Duke says.

Finally, it’s important to plan for accountability. Both the mentors and those they are mentoring need to spend time together and document their progress. “Develop a simple reporting mechanism to hold the parties accountable,” Duke says. “Don’t make it complex or it will feel like another burden.”

Setting goals and duties
Developing high-potential employees and identifying successors for key positions are typical goals of an employer planning to use mentoring. But it’s not just the employer that needs to set goals. Employees looking for mentors need to consider their own objectives.

Mike Maslanka, managing partner of the Dallas office of Constangy, Brooks & Smith, has blogged on mentoring and offers advice gleaned from some three decades of practicing law. Not only has he been in a position to mentor new lawyers, he recalls what he has learned from mentors, and he advises employees looking for a mentor to consider two questions:

  • Who can help teach me my craft?
  • Who can help sponsor me in the company for promotions, lateral moves to enhance my skill set, and networking opportunities?

“The person may be the same or may be different,” he says.

Identifying candidates

Besides deciding on goals for a mentoring program, employers need to identify appropriate mentors. Duke recommends tapping senior leaders within an organization who are known for developing employees.

It’s also important to identify appropriate employees to be mentored. Maslanka says a mentoring program should be part of a thoughtfully planned successorship plan. That means carefully identifying employees to be mentored so that “decisions on successorship are made on merit, not on who belongs to a good old boys network.”

Sometimes employers can benefit by selecting mentors from outside the company because mentored employees then have “an outlet to discuss issues with someone not closely familiar with the situation and all the parties involved,” Duke says.

A downside to an outside mentor is the difficulty for the company to manage accountability. If an employer does decide to go outside the company for mentors, Duke says professional organizations and retirees can be great resources.

“If this is the route a company decides to take, it might be better to simply encourage and incent employees to become involved in outside mentoring relationships,” Duke says. “Research demonstrates that informal mentoring relationships are more effective than formal relationships because people tend to pair up based on similarity in values and personality rather than being assigned to someone that might not be the most compatible.”