During the summer I got calls from two organizations. Both were considering a mentoring program.
References were provided and there were some follow-up phone calls. One of the companies is moving forward with more planning and the other has dropped all of its plans. What happened?
In one environment the senior managers wanted what might be called a quick fix to what appears to have been a conflict between management levels. How would a new effort at mentoring be of value? The senior management team had been exposed to mentoring at a one-day seminar; they seemed to be grasping at straws.
After reading basic materials on the pros and cons of mentoring, they chose not to proceed. I believe they made the proper decision. Each management tool is generally designed to approach a specific organizational issue; a match was missing there.
The more realistic of the two inquiries questioned the use of mentoring as a vehicle to develop new employees during a rapid growth period. A mentoring program can add real value to many areas of employee performance: Induction/orientation, knowledge/skills transfer, customer service training and leadership preparation training are areas that can see valuable benefits.
Mentoring can be defined in various ways. Essentially a mentoring program involves a partnership (short-term or long-term) in which an employee (or mentee) is assigned to someone more experienced (a mentor) whose role it is to guide the mentee through his or her career and to pass on valuable aspects of their own accumulated experience and wisdom for the benefit of the mentee’s personal and professional development.
There are several strategies for managers (and HR managers) to encourage the design and implementation of a workplace mentoring program. Consider these:
Can you show the benefits to the organization? What are the benefits to the mentee? What are the benefits to the mentor? Will senior management be actively supportive?
Suggestion: Develop a formal contract between mentor and mentee. A careful matching of mentor and mentee is critical — age, personality, etc.
Who will oversee the mentorship program? What recognition/rewards will there be for extra efforts by mentors?
More than 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies report success with “internal” mentorship programs; the bottom line is greener!
What about “external” mentorship programs? This has a different goal and operates quite differently. The bottom line is much more long-term and the benefit is within the company and the broader community.
Does a business have a social responsibility to contribute to the broad community welfare? This question could well be a debate topic among your managers in the same manner as it usually is among MBA students. There is also a public relations component, an advertising component, a branding component and personal-impact and feel-good components. How might it work?
Business managers, not unlike most Americans, like to think of themselves as rugged individualists. In the past 50 years the societal pendulum has swung heavily toward individualism and away from community.
Robert D. Putnam at the Kennedy School at Harvard University has amassed research to show the importance of “communities” and the value of such communities for our personal well-being and our children’s opportunities (Robert D. Putnam, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, 2015, Simon & Schuster).
Putnam and others often use the term social capital to describe social connectedness — the informal ties to family, friends, neighbors and acquaintances; involvement in civic associations, religious institutions, athletic teams and volunteer activities; and other similar community groups.
Putnam’s social capital has been shown in a multitude of research to be a strong predictor of well-being for individuals, as well as communities. The well-being can be illustrated in the health, happiness, educational success, economic success, public safety and welfare of children.
However, just as financial capital and human capital are distributed unequally in society as a whole, so is social capital. You may recall that in the 2012 presidential election campaign it was alleged that one candidate could not understand the challenges of “the other 47 percent.”
What can you do, both as an individual and as a company, to increase the social capital of the communities where you operate? Here is where the idea of external mentoring comes into the discussion.
The following illustrations are not exhaustive. You can surely find examples in your community that are aren’t mentioned here. If you do, that is a real plus because you are identifying with problems that need confronting. The greatest impact is with elementary and middle school students.
What are the organizations for young people? These might be Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and their junior organizations, the Cub Scouts and Brownies; or boys and girls clubs; or 4-H clubs; or football, soccer or basketball teams; baseball/softball; tennis; golf teams.
Many churches and PTA/PTO groups sponsor tutoring programs for at-risk students. At the secondary level in schools there may be opportunities to join clubs associated with an academic discipline; an Interact Club (associated with Rotary Clubs); Future Farmers of America; debate clubs (recall the Harvard debate team lost to a team of prison inmates in October); and similar ones in various school districts.
What can be done to mentor in any of these groups? Many managers have a home disciplinary field; it may be automotive, electrical, accounting, marketing or one of many others. What can you do to help students in any of your special fields?
You could first contact principals in your school districts, or even the superintendent. You could be directed to teachers who may be able to use your expertise or just your presence. You may end up as guest speaker (one or more times in a class.) You can make the dry textbook come alive in ways the teacher cannot. Many classes have team projects; you could be a mentor for the team; perhaps several from your company can mentor competing teams and make it even more lively.
On the financial side, you may wish to underwrite the uniforms, equipment and travel expenses for an athletic team and have one or more company employees be coaches for the teams. Yes, it will mean time away from the job, but productivity often improves and the mentor is rejuvenated.
Discuss the possibilities in your community and survey your staff at all levels to see who might be willing to be an external mentor. Suggestion: For each upper-income school selected, choose another in an at-risk community.
For a longer-term mentoring arrangement, you will be able to track the progress of various students. You may become a major source of assistance in college applications in the future. Remember, a manager is a good listener and good counselor.
The company may even want to offer financial aid and/or an internship opportunity. You may find that your company is growing its own future employees. Don’t forget the opportunities to offer tours of your operations to school classes and see which students are turned on by what they see. Follow up with them.
Although there is public relations potential in external mentoring, that should not be the major reason to consider doing it. Large and small companies can undertake such efforts. What ideas popped up as you read the above potential actions? You can find many more right there in your community.
Jerald F. Robinson, Ph.D., is professor emeritus, international management, at the Pamplin College of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. He can be reached at (540) 449-5870 or by e-mail: JFR@vt.edu.
This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue.