Someone to Look Up To

How mentoring will position your firm or company for tomorrow.

BY CECIL GREGG
November 1, 1999

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
  • MENTORING GROOMS YOUNG STAFFERS for important positions and prepares firms and companies for the future by creating a pool of employees with skills to eventually manage.
  • MENTORING PROGRAMS NOT ONLY are an attractive benefit to students, they may help you retain employees.
  • BESIDES THE TRADITIONAL PAIRING of senior managers or partners with more junior employees, organizations are assigning peer mentors and even bringing in senior consultants to serve as mentors.
  • THE SIZE OF THE ORGANIZATION will largely determine how the mentoring program will be coordinated. Small firms often can create company-wide programs managed by a single person, while larger ones may find programs tailored to and managed by individual departments more practical.
  • NO MATTER WHAT PARTICULAR structure a mentoring program chooses to adopt, its overall success depends on the quality of the matches made between mentors and their protgs.
Cecil Gregg is executive director of RHI Management Resources, a consulting firm in Menlo Park, California, that provides senior-level accounting and finance professionals on a project basis. The company Web site is www.rhimr.com.

t’s been 10 years since Adam Price first met with Victoria Deegan over coffee in the company cafeteria. Far more than just a social encounter, the informal get-together to share work experiences ultimately would turn into a long-term mentoring relationship from which both would benefit.

Price—then a payroll assistant in the accounting department of an Atlanta bank—needed help with a project he was working on for his department’s senior managers. He heeded Deegan’s advice and, under her continued guidance, went on to become a senior payroll manager. Since that day, scarcely a month goes by without the two of them getting together to discuss projects. Deegan, now vice-president of finance, still serves as Price’s mentor.

Increasingly, CPA firms and companies across the country are establishing mentoring programs such as the one in which Deegan and Price participate. Not only does mentoring groom young staffers for important positions, it also prepares firms and companies for the future by creating a pool of employees with strong technical and management skills who eventually can be called upon to be leaders.

The best mentoring programs are tailor-made. For example, TravisWolff, an accounting firm in Dallas, developed a mentoring program whereby each new employee is assigned to a senior staff member on the first day of employment. The two-year mentoring relationship is designed to assimilate employees into the firm’s culture and provide ongoing professional development of staff to help them advance within the firm.

WHAT A MENTORING PROGRAM CAN DO FOR YOU

Mentoring programs provide junior staffers with the personal attention they need to round out their professional and interpersonal skills. Such plans help firms to recruit workers who, today, are more inclined to choose a company for its benefits. In fact, 70% of executives polled in a survey commissioned by RHI Management Resources said that, apart from questions about salary, applicants inquire more frequently about benefits and corporate culture during job interviews than about any other issues, including job security.

Prospective new hires may consider such programs a sign that a firm cares about people, their development and future success. Having an official mentoring program can make a big difference in a candidate’s decision to join a company, particularly if the person has concerns about getting lost in a large organization. Mentoring programs can also help your firm retain employees for whom you have invested in training.

Determine the Attributes of a Good Mentor

Use this checklist when choosing the right employees for your mentoring program. Potential mentors should

  • Already have a track record of motivating and listening to their staff and other employees.

  • Demonstrate an enthusiastic attitude toward work.

  • Offer positive feedback and constructive criticism in meetings and with other staff members.

  • Possess strong interpersonal and communication skills.

  • Understand the importance of supporting a young staff person’s need for guidance and advice.

  • Understand they should point their protgs in the right direction but be able to allow them to find their own path.

One of the most positive aspects of mentoring is that its benefits last. As is the case with Price and Deegan, mentoring frequently results in long-term informal relationships between mentors and their protgs that far surpass original expectations. Our survey found that 82% of executives polled still keep in touch with their mentors. Many senior-level managers or executive successors credit mentors with having helped them rise to high-visibility positions. In addition, those helped by mentoring often go on to become excellent mentors themselves, passing on the best from their own experience.

The professionals who give their time as mentors benefit from the relationships, too. Not only do mentors contribute to the continued success of their firms by aiding in the development of company leadership, but they also enjoy the intangible satisfaction of knowing they have helped shape someone’s career. Mentors who maintain ongoing contact with their protgs beyond the mentoring relationship reap the personal rewards of seeing them grow professionally and, often, take on a sharing role themselves. Mentors also learn valuable management and leadership skills that can help them advance their own careers.

A VARIETY OF RELATIONSHIPS

Besides the traditional pairing of senior with junior employees, firms are assigning peer mentors and consultants to serve as mentors to less-experienced executives growing into new roles. The only requirement for being an effective mentor is the ability to enhance the personal and professional growth of another. Consider the following types of mentoring programs for your firm.

The “buddy” system. New hires often benefit from being shown the ropes by peer mentors who have similar day-to-day responsibilities. This one-to-one interaction can supplement formal training and orientation programs, accelerating newcomers’ productivity and fostering a sense of belonging. For example, at PricewaterhouseCoopers, the recently merged Big Five accounting firm, each new employee in the financial advisory services practice is assigned for three months to a peer mentor who helps him or her with everything from locating supplies to solving computer problems. After the three months of peer mentoring, employees are advised to select a more senior mentor with whom to work on career objectives over the course of a year.

Team mentors. Although mentoring traditionally has involved a relationship between two people, some firms encourage their employees to work with multiple mentors, each of whom provides assistance in a specific area. Others establish formal mentoring teams composed of department managers, human resources representatives and senior partners, each of whom plays a role in coaching a group of selected candidates. An engineering firm based in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, implemented a team mentoring program—called a targeted employee development program (TEDP)—where the supportive mentor group consisted of department heads, human resources professionals, senior managers and an outside consultant. In a TEDP each team member has a specific responsibility for the individual undergoing development.

Consultant mentors. When there’s no one in a company who has a specific skill set or range of experience needed, businesses sometimes seek the expertise of consultants to prepare middle managers to take on a new or expanded role.

Do You Need a Mentor?

The following questions will help you to determine if you will benefit from the mentoring program.

  • Are you limited in your ability to advance to a new level or take on new projects?

  • Do you wish to sharpen your technical or interpersonal skills?

  • Do you need to acquire “soft skills,” such as managing people, handling negotiations, resolving personnel conflicts or interacting with clients?

  • Are you being considered for a promotion?

  • Do you seek professional development or career counseling?

  • Are you looking to shift your career focus, perhaps to a new specialty area?

  • If you are new to an organization, do you have a clear understanding of the firm’s corporate culture, policies and procedures?

Take the example of a senior-level project professional who was engaged by the CEO of a multimillion-dollar telecommunications company to assess the skills the firm would need for a new CFO position. During his stay, the consultant was asked also to mentor the controller, whom the company wanted to keep on board. The consultant helped familiarize the controller with the accounting rules and regulations required of a public company by various reporting agencies, and coached her on the kinds of questions likely to come from future stockholders. In addition, he developed a competencies assessment and checklist to help her evaluate the skill levels of her current staff and the capabilities of the existing financial systems to ensure that both could meet the demands of a growing company.

Mentoring provided by professional consultants should be balanced by mentoring from the inside. This mix is especially important for finance professionals, whose work with other departments requires them to be as familiar with big-picture organizational issues and the nuances of corporate culture as they are with the technical details of their jobs.

Reverse mentors. While there’s no substitute for the wisdom born of experience, some firms have discovered the value of infusing their corporate strategies with a different kind of knowledge—the savvy of their youngest employees. People just beginning their careers can provide fresh perspectives on new products and services and younger markets that can prove invaluable.

For example, a company with a product geared toward young adults may rely on reverse mentoring from employees who are recent college graduates and closely match the firm’s targeted demographics. Acting as a “focus group,” these individuals participate in meetings with more senior employees to provide them with firsthand knowledge of the trends and buying habits of younger consumers. Companies that create formal structures for this kind of information exchange consider what they learn particularly significant, because it can help them reach younger audiences and remain more competitive.

ESTABLISHING A MENTORING PROGRAM

Although mentoring relationships can take root and flourish on an informal basis within a company, creating formal programs has several advantages. A departmental or companywide mentoring program allows mentor pairs to set performance-based goals and boundaries.

The first step of planning a mentoring system is to determine its scope and how it will be managed. A firm can begin by taking a look at its current and long-term needs. There may be a particular department that has recently undergone significant downsizing, or perhaps there is high turnover companywide. A mentoring program may be needed to keep staff, improve recruiting efforts or concentrate on the career development of individual employees.

No one should be purposely excluded from participating in a program, but there may be situations for which mentoring is especially beneficial. For example, a firm concerned about recruitment could develop a program that initially concentrates on entry-level staff. Pairing newly hired junior employees with more experienced managers within the same department for a six-month period, to help them more quickly acclimate to the company, demonstrates a commitment to education that can be very attractive to job candidates.

Similarly, tenured accountants who want to develop new skill sets for a large upcoming project could benefit from the coaching of a senior partner or a consultant mentor. For the long term, a program could focus on increasing the number of women and minorities at the partner level.

The size of an organization will largely determine how it coordinates its mentoring program. Small firms can create companywide programs managed by one person, but larger ones may find programs for individual departments more practical. The first step in setting up a program is to create a roster of potential mentors who are both capable and willing to take on the task. At the top of the list should be those who truly reflect the values of the organization as a whole and who best fit the focus of the program. Employees should be paired with mentors who have experience in their area of development, whether it’s technical knowledge or well-developed interpersonal skills.

The effort can be directed by either a company’s human resources group or by a team of managers who act as a steering committee. Often it’s beneficial to involve both. If the initiative is to serve the entire firm, it helps to involve both human resources and department managers. This implies a stronger, overall level of commitment to the goals of the program. Before structuring a mentoring program, obtain the support of the firm’s partners. Although the overall concept is likely to have been established before a company starts to organize its program, it’s important that partners and other senior managers endorse it. This approval sends a strong message to all employees that the firm cares about its staff and is willing to devote time and resources to their professional and personal development.

How Has Mentoring Changed Over the Years?
Traditional Mentoring Mentoring Today
Informal relationships. Combination of formal and informal programs.
Senior mentor/junior protg. Reverse mentoring (junior mentor/senior recipient),
peer mentors, team mentors and consultant mentors.
For select few. For all who can learn from the experience.
Mentor and protg share common backgrounds
and personalities.
Mentor and protg often come from dissimilar
backgrounds and possess different strengths.

QUALITIES OF EFFECTIVE MENTORS

No matter what structure a mentoring program adopts, its success depends on the quality of the matches made between mentors and protgs. Although a sense of trust is a critical ingredient in creating a mutually rewarding bond, real learning cannot take place if both individuals are not challenged.

Traditional mentoring programs attempt to pair junior and senior employees who are basically alike in personality and skill sets except for their experience levels. However, many companies today find that matching people who are dissimilar maximizes learning opportunities. Protgs can benefit from having mentors with opposite personality types who can provide guidance where they need it most. For example, a mentor with an outgoing personality can often instill confidence in an employee who is less sure of himself or herself.

Managers selected as mentors are expected to impart wisdom and information, but they also should possess excellent listening skills. Fully understanding their protgs’ career goals, strengths and weaknesses is critical to helping them grow. If you serve as a mentor, don’t hesitate to offer direct, honest feedback to your protg on his or her technical and interpersonal skills, approach to work and rate of progress. Seasoned professionals know what it takes to be successful at their firm or company, so there’s nothing wrong with offering a gentle push as you guide less-experienced staff members.

A respected mentor’s judicious use of forthright criticism can prove immensely valuable to young employees on the road to becoming leaders. For example, a top manager at a Boston software company spent a year counseling a promising new accounting manager who, although extremely bright and resourceful, had trouble with his relationships with colleagues. The mentor engaged his protg in role-playing in various workplace scenarios, critiquing his responses to help him improve his communication skills and professionalism. By assisting him in understanding the attributes considered necessary for success within the company’s culture, the executive was able to help the aspiring manager temper his know-it-all attitude and begin exhibiting leadership qualities.

TEACH AND LEARN

Of course, mentors are only half the relationship. Protgs first should perform an honest self-assessment, to identify the skills they would most like to develop. They should then ensure that their employer has carefully matched them with a mentor who demonstrates these abilities and has the time to devote to mentoring. Once assigned to a mentor, the protg should ask for a mid-point evaluation to determine the effectiveness of the matching and selection process. If the firm offers no formal mentoring program, consider seeking a mentor outside the organization, perhaps a former supervisor or a member of a professional association to which the protg belongs.

At the most basic level, mentoring is about teaching and learning. At their very best, mentoring relationships take advantage of the aspects of an organization’s culture that have made it successful and—without institutionalizing or dehumanizing—transmit these qualities to a firm’s next generation of leaders. As an investment in the future, it would be hard to imagine a more worthy pursuit.

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