When I first started in consulting, career development was easy. Each professional level and path was very well-defined, with an analyst moving predictably from team lead to project manager to partner. At a start-up, motivated employees did not have to work for 15 to 20 years to make it to the CEO or general manager position. Options for worker advancement were based on current position plus training or education and were often accelerated at a small company. Today, while working at a large company, I see that people have more opportunity to change roles, seek new challenges, or find work in different departments or lines of business, and they often make many lateral moves before getting to their desired position.
Yet this flexibility increases the need for additional employee development. That’s why I recommend mentoring as a vehicle for learning. Mentors are typically more seasoned employees who facilitate networked learning experiences, offer career counseling, and act as a role model for other workers.
Mentoring offers benefits for mentors, mentees, and the business itself. Recent research from the CEB Learning & Development Leadership Council shows that high-potential employees who develop internal, job-focused networks through mentorships can increase their potential by up to 32%. Mentoring also provides new opportunities for learning that helps employees remain engaged in their jobs. By enhancing employee performance and engagement, mentoring can also increase corporate performance.
Unfortunately, many organizations fail to create formalized mentoring programs. In these companies, mentoring exists only as an informal learning platform, where help is given on an ad hoc basis as time permits. Employees are typically too intimidated to ask senior employees for assistance.
To gain maximum benefit – for both employees and the business – in the new networked learning environment, companies need to develop a clear vision for mentoring along with a structured mentoring program.
Understanding the fundamentals of mentoring
As part of the SAP mentoring program, I typically mentor five to seven employees at a time, usually for a term of one year. I meet with each mentee once a month for an hour to discuss topics of their choosing. Depending on their role and objectives, mentees may seek insight into issues as diverse as how to roll out a new program, increase their exposure to executives, or network more effectively. My role is to serve as a sounding board in these discussions and
help mentees take steps that will advance their careers.
Technology can support mentoring programs. I often use telepresence tools like Facetime to meet with mentees located at SAP sites around the world. I also host quarterly conference calls, where all my past mentees are able to discuss issues, learn from one another, and share successes. For local mentees, the face-to-face experience of going for a walk or having coffee or breakfast together with a mentor creates a “safe” environment outside of the office, where they can receive guidance on controversial topics or situations.
Choosing a mentor requires careful consideration. My advice to prospective mentees is to select someone who is one or two levels ahead of you. Look at the person’s job description and, more importantly, what he or she actually does. Make sure the mentor has the time and bandwidth to spend with you. Watch your potential mentor in action. Choose a mentor with skills or qualities you admire, such as managing influence or coordinating large or distributed teams of people. Never choose a mentor only because they have a prestigious title or position.
For a mentorship to succeed, both mentor and mentee must engage with one another and take the relationship seriously. Mentees should identify areas for self-improvement and develop a set of topics they can work on with their mentor. Mentees also should be prepared to accept feedback, both positive and negative, from their mentors in the safe haven of private meetings. In addition, I usually ask mentees to report back on each issue we discuss. How did an issue resolve? Did the mentee take my advice? What did he or she think of the experience? Answering these questions and going through these exercises help the mentees become more aware of who they are and what they want out of their career.
Boosting network performance through mentorship
Another important part of my responsibility as a mentor is to open doors for employees. Some mentees shadow me at work for a few days or weeks, where they meet others in my network. By introducing them to other executives, I can offer mentees new opportunities to talk with or learn from other business leaders and build connections in our increasingly networked learning environment.
By breaking down barriers and giving people the opportunity to meet top performers throughout the company, mentoring creates new resources that can help mentees work more productively and innovatively. For many talented and motivated people, mentoring is the perfect way to share knowledge with less experienced employees. In these ways, a great mentoring program delivers benefits to the mentor and the mentee while creating incremental value for the company. After a year, my big ask for the mentees is to “pay it forward” and mentor others using the power of mentoring to develop the next level of leaders.
How can mentoring help your company build the next generation of leaders while improving the bottom line?