There’s a scenario that plays out in countless executive conference rooms. Well-intentioned senior leaders want to be sure they contribute to leadership development by mentoring up-and-comers in their organization — making themselves available in casual settings, sharing insights about the company and their career paths and answering questions.
Learning leaders create these opportunities — often lunch and learn formats consisting of a key executive meeting with six to 10 individuals who are considered high-potential talent. The company’s executives meet the attendees and try to create an environment where people feel comfortable asking questions. However, too often the outcome is attendees are impressed by the breadth of the senior leaders’ knowledge and insights instead of being personally impacted in a way that facilitates growth. Breathing the same air as a senior executive is not enough.
Informal one-on-one mentoring of a high-potential individual by a more senior leader is another practice frequently incorporated into development initiatives. While this approach is more impactful than the executive roundtable format, when left unstructured or informal, these partnerships can become a series of polite but ineffective conversations. Mentees may be unsure how many or what types of questions to ask, and mentors often think their role is to impart knowledge rather than develop the mentees’ strengths or work on weaknesses.
Learning leaders’ challenge is to create sufficient structure to design meaningful interactions between senior executives and high potentials and drive growth and development. Whether in the executive roundtable format or in individual interactions, thoughtful participant matching, training, monitoring and the incorporation of content are all key to facilitate this kind of high potential development.
“In the past, I thought I was mentoring by answering questions and by the guidance I provided my employees,” said Keith Hicks, senior vice president of human resources for MedAssets, a health care supply chain management company. “We would get together and chat, but that was just having a conversation. Talking is not enough. While a mentee might gain some pearls of wisdom, there is no action plan, no accountability and no follow-up. Hoping a mentee benefits from the conversations is not true mentoring.” What Works
A high-impact mentoring experience is marked by four key pillars: rationale for mentee-mentor matching based on mentee development needs, participant training, monitoring and targeted content to drive conversations. Each of these elements increases engagement and impact.
“Mentoring needs to be approached with intention and structure,” Hicks said. “Structure includes a variety of components, from the deliberate matching of mentor and mentee based on needs and experiences, to mapping milestones in the overall mentoring relationship timeline, to the deliberate understanding of a mentee’s strengths, areas of opportunity, career aspirations and perceived roadblocks.”
With these elements as the foundation, goals can be identified, an action plan established and measures for success selected. Topical issues will occur, but the conversations should circle back to the main focus — the mentees’ goals and how to move forward to achieve them.
Matching, training and monitoring program elements can increase mentee and mentor engagement by as much as 40 percent, according to a 2010 study by Pathbuilders, a mentoring company (Editor’s note: The author works for Pathbuilders). The most impactful mentee-mentor matching focuses on the mentee’s developmental needs rather than a match based on title, role or function.
For example, mentees with strong financial acumen interested in a CFO position can be better served being matched with an expert in interpersonal communications instead of someone whose strengths and weaknesses align with their own. CFOs may have taken a path to their role so different from the mentees’ that their insights may be less relevant than other mentors. Third-party management can provide insight on matching and creating partnerships that insiders might not consider. Skilled outside interviewers can objectively assess a mentee without being impacted by brand or reputation.
“I’ve had mentoring matches made by a third party based on mentee needs, and they have been spot on. I found I was better able to use my expertise and leverage my knowledge in a more effective manner,” said Michelle Boyea, vice president of talent acquisition in the Atlanta office of McKesson Corp., a pharmaceutical distributor and health care information technology company. Boyea has been a mentor for an external cross-company mentoring program for the past four years, and her mentees have brought insights and practical learning back to their organizations that resulted in roles with greater leadership responsibilities.Learn to Be a Mentor/Mentee
Training is another critical element in a structured mentoring program. It is most essential at program launch, and mentees and mentors must be educated on roles and responsibilities along with facilitated discussion of the mentee’s program goals, open sharing of expectations and exercises to create connection and begin knowledge transfer. Efforts to convene partnerships for face-to-face launches are worth the investment, though some interactions may need to leverage technology for remote meetings.
An effective mentoring program launch covers the better part of a day. Program managers share key information on the program calendar, the requirements for participating and the resources available to the partners. The roles of the mentees and mentors are clearly delineated — who schedules meetings and who selects discussion topics. Mentees ideally leverage existing tools to share their goals with mentors such as individual development plans or assessment feedback. Frank discussion of partnership ground rules is essential so there is confidentiality and agreement surrounding meeting scheduling, frequency and means of communication. This conversation should be facilitated by program leaders. Efforts also should be made to broker the connection between mentee and mentor via communication exercises or games to share insights on backgrounds. Partners will understand why they’ve been matched once they share information about themselves and have shared experiences.�
Even partnerships that start successfully can encounter challenges. Monitoring and support throughout a mentoring experience is critical to maintain high levels of engagement, and a strong program manager will keep tabs on each partnership’s progress. Frequent contact with participants can uncover unreported difficulties, and appropriate intervention quickly can identify and resolve partnership disconnects to get a relationship back on track. While disengagement can have myriad symptoms, the root cause is almost always a communications challenge — rules of engagement around scheduling haven’t been clearly defined, a mentor’s gatekeeper has not been briefed on the mentee’s needs or the partners need to adjust their styles to really connect. The program leader holds the responsibility to monitor partnerships and maximize engagement.Leading a Development Discussion
Content is a key component of a high-impact mentoring relationship that is often overlooked. It introduces topics for discussion in the mentoring partnerships and can be delivered in a variety of forms. Mentees and mentors can participate in seminars/webinars together that create a framework for deeper discussion, and program leaders can provide discussion guides (Figure 1) that facilitate conversation. Program administrators frequently steer clear of content delivery for fear they will impact the direction or limit the scope of partnership discussions. However, by identifying level-appropriate discussion topics, which can include issues such as navigating politics or industry dynamics, learning leaders can equip mentees and mentors with insightful content and discussion-driving questions to increase the depth and impact of the relationship.
With content infused into the partnership, mentors find it easier to relate stories from their own experiences and to challenge their mentees’ choices. Mentees also find it easier to ask probing questions and solicit specific advice. Mentee Laurie Ragan, HR manager at Assurant Solutions, a specialized insurance product company, and current participant in a mentoring program focused on development of high-potential women, said “by utilizing and leveraging the questions provided to me I am able to have deeper and more valuable conversations with my mentor.”
These same concepts apply outside of a formal mentoring environment. Take the aforementioned executive roundtable format; that same scenario can be transformed by incorporating level-appropriate content and basic facilitation. A roundtable discussion with a clear topic and agenda along with a few prepared questions and open Q&A time will ensure there is two-way dialogue. Attendees equipped with conversation starters are also more apt to ask questions once the dialogue ensues.
“By infusing mentoring module and seminar/webinar content into a mentoring conversation, mentees can more easily apply thought-provoking concepts to the reality of the workplace,” said Dan Sax, human resources director and a mentor in an internal mentoring program at InterContinental Hotels Group. “With these tools, I find it easier to relate specific stories from my own experiences that demonstrate how the concepts apply to actual events in the office. It creates a jumping off point for great conversation.”
Senior leaders sharing their insights and perspectives through mentoring is a key component for successful leadership development. A mentor-mentee partnership can help to accelerate the mentee’s growth, provide unique insights for the mentor and help to build a pipeline of high-performing leaders. But far too often, this critical transfer of knowledge and cultural awareness is managed informally with moderate success.
Structure and content increase senior leader and high potential engagement, whether in casual group formats or one-on-one mentoring. Formal mentoring approaches provide a format for a senior leader to share knowledge and experience with an individual looking to take that next career step.
For mentoring relationships to be successful in today’s highly demanding workplace, mentors and mentees need structure in their relationships. Without a framework, both parties can be left with a feeling of unfulfilled potential. Helene G. Lollis is president of Pathbuilders. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.