Workplace Mentoring Boosts Careers, Skills And Retention

By Cindy Krischer Goodman
Miami Herald.

After 10 years in the workforce, Edward Cruz wanted someone to guide him on his career path, an experienced professional who could provide objective advice. Cruz, director of career development at the University of Miami, took a bold step. He called a senior leader he met at an industry conference and asked him to be his mentor, offering the man the opportunity to benefit, too.

Now, during monthly phone conversations that run from one to two hours, each has an agenda. “I pick his brain about career direction and how to handle situations as a new supervisor, and he has the ability to runs things by me to see how his staff would react,” Cruz said.

In today’s time-pressed workplace, mentoring matters more than ever, but the relationship has changed. Today, successful mentoring is decidedly a two-way relationship in which senior leaders, and the businesses they work for, gain as well. A new generation of workers understands this dynamic and realizes professional development requires seeking out a mentor, or two.

“It is about looking past titles and not being afraid to ask,” Cruz said. “It also is about letting them know what you are looking to get out of the relationship when you do make that request.”

Inside corporations, mentorship programs are on the rise. To keep valued up-and-comers from taking jobs elsewhere, companies are dangling mentorship as the new corporate perk. They are supplementing the casual, spontaneous model with new formats aimed at millennial workers who want access to leaders and ongoing career direction.

Most Fortune 500 companies see mentoring as an important employee development tool, with more than 70 percent of them having mentoring programs, said Terri Scandura, a professor of management at the University of Miami who has been researching mentoring for more than 20 years. “It has become part of the culture now for a lot of organizations,” she said. “Young employees expect it.”

Scandura said research shows many employees who have mentors earn more money, are better socialized into the organization and are more productive. They also experience less stress and get promoted more rapidly: “Anybody who is highly successful will say they have had a mentor.”

Formal mentorship programs, organization-initiated efforts to match mentors and proteges, now are common at large corporations such as accounting firm KPMG, tech giant Sun Microsystems and Burger King Corp., as well as law firms and government agencies.

These programs can be particularly critical for encouraging diversity. A 2013 survey of 1,000 millennials by Zeno Group found that while millennial women highly value mentorship, only 60 percent of them have mentors; and those who had them were more likely to believe they were on track to achieve their professional goals. This may be why mentoring programs also have gained popularity within professional organizations, particularly women’s groups aiming to bridge the leadership gender gap.

Academics who study corporate mentoring programs say they work best when leadership deems them as important and both parties are clear on what the benefit is going to be. Matching people is not a science. Both mentors and proteges have to want to participate in mentoring programs, and senior leaders with crushing workloads are more likely to sign on when there’s a return on their time investment.

For decades, the return came from the intrinsic reward of ensuring succession at an organization or seeing someone develop in his or her career. But now, additional benefits are dangled as incentives. Some companies include mentoring in performance reviews and reward mentors for participation. Beyond financial incentives, mentors are enticed by the opportunity to discover new ideas from younger workers, better understand generational differences, and learn more about emerging technologies and social media trends. Scandura said the relationship also could create a loyal work ally, “someone junior in the organization who respects and trusts you.”

The current thinking is that successful leaders have more than one mentor, which is why people are no longer limiting themselves to their work settings. They are reaching out to multiple people through social networks and professional connections and saying, “I’d like to learn this from you,” Scandura said. In other words, think of mentoring as creating a personal advisory board: “You need one mentor to teach you job related skills, a different one to give you big picture advice and a peer mentor for support in stressful times.”

Even within the corporate setting, young workers want more than one person to turn to for career support. Da’Morus Cohen, an associate in Holland & Knight’s litigation group, has a formal mentor at the firm but also has several less structured relationships he relies on for guidance. “I feel like all three of my mentors wear different hats. I go them for different things.” Cohen said. For example, he will go to his formal mentor with questions on who to get to know at the firm or in the legal community. He will go to his two informal mentors, lawyers he works for directly, for suggestions on how to better manage his caseload or what approach to take on a challenging case. When it comes time to be considered for partner, Cohen wants a broad network of partners with whom he has formed relationships: “I’m counting on all three different connections to reach different ears on the (decision) committee. You need to have multiple people who mentored you and see you as a business developer and leader.”

Real-estate professional Margaret Nee understands the new realities of mentorship and incorporates them into her work life.

Nee, vice president of development for Pointe Group Advisors, a Florida commercial real-estate firm, has mentored about a half-dozen young people that she has met through professional organizations, alumni networks and at her company. She said that most ask to be mentored or guided in a specific area and that learning often becomes mutual. For example, she mentors Christina Mas, a 27-year-old marketing director at Pointe Group Advisors. “She is eager and aggressive and challenged by lack of corporate structure. We spend time every week talking about her career path and how to clear obstacles,” Nee said.

Meanwhile, her mentee teaches Nee about new retail trends and social media: “She keeps me contemporary.” Because there are still things that Nee wants to accomplish, personal and career-oriented, she has sought out a mentor, too, a senior executive in the insurance field. Nee said the relationship has been based on trust and become invaluable. Her mentor has pointed out mistakes that could have held her back. She encourages anyone in a senior position to mentor: “If you are good at what you do, you should take the time to share that with others.”

Finding mentors can be more challenging mid-career, but also more critical in choosing paths to advancement or opportunities to pursue. Malli Gero, co-founder and president of the nonprofit 2020 Women on Boards, said anyone looking to reach a high level must seek out someone to open doors for him or her: “It’s as simple as asking.”

Eileen Elias, a senior policy advisor for JBS International and author of a series of articles on women in leadership, said that mid-level women, in particular, are reluctant to ask for mentors and need to get past that hesitation. She recommended a complete self-review to identify gaps. “Consider where you are now, where want to be, who can help you get there, who is in your network and who has attained what you are seeking,” Elias said. Then, reach out to that person and say, “I am seeking a mentor. I have watched you. I think you are impactful. I want to learn from you.”

Indeed, Alfredo Picardi said he willingly mentors others when they show an interest in learning and receptiveness to his guidance. Picardi, corporate director of food and beverage at JW Marriott Marquis Miami, mentors a handful of junior employees at his hotel, and after many years, he has created a network of mentees who are now key decision-makers within the hospitality community: “I’m not an easy boss, I can be tough and detail-oriented, but I notice when someone is interested in advancement.” The key component in the mentoring relationship is trust, he said: “They have to feel they can trust you to help them fix a problem and support them when they make mistakes.” A good mentoring relationship can be time-consuming, he said. But it also can prove advantageous: “It creates loyal relationships.”

Still, not all mentoring relationships are equally successful, and the time commitment can become a problem. A mentor may be preoccupied with challenges in his own career and end up neglecting a protege, or a mentee might become too needy.

Sometimes, the relationship isn’t a good match; the mentee, for instance, isn’t receptive to feedback or doesn’t show interest. Even in formal programs, mentors aren’t going to invest their time mentoring someone they don’t like or who they perceive lacks commitment. However, as Picardi has shown, once a mentor sees that you’re eager, the more likely it is the mentor will want to spend the time and social capital on you, introduce you to the right people and rally for your advancement. One unfortunate consequence of this dynamic is that sometimes the people who are most in need of guidance don’t have mentors, which means companies must make a special effort to reach out to them.

That reality is on Tiffani Lee’s radar. Lee’s mentor proved to be a key ingredient to her climb to partner at one of Florida’s most prestigious law firms: Two decades ago, the powerful Chesterfield Smith introduced Lee, a young female associate, to decision-makers at the firm and in the legal community, often introducing her to others as “my lawyer” and advising her on key career steps.

Having seen the benefit of mentorship, Lee initiated a formal program at Holland & Knight 15 years ago to encourage diversity and ensure that all new associates get mentors. “Our big concern was that some people get left out,” Lee said.

Over time, the formal mentoring program has proved beneficial with retention. But Lee acknowledged that even her own organic relationships with young lawyers tend to be stronger than in formal mentor relationships. This is supported by numerous studies on workplace mentoring programs by Lillian Eby at the University of Georgia, including a highly cited one on formal mentorship published in 2006. Eby found that formal mentoring is better than no mentoring, but it isn’t as effective as informal mentoring. Lee encourages young associates to pursue both types of mentorship: “Some people resist the notion of being designated as mentor. They are more likely to respond to something more flattering or manageable than a formal request such as ‘I noticed you have great practice, would love to get advice or insight on some ideas.'” The mentee’s goal in the relationship should be to receive customized advice and constructive feedback, she said. “You want someone who will say, ‘These are your blind spots that will become your Achilles’ heel if you don’t fix them,'” she said. “A good mentor is a game-changer for most people.”

Good mentoring programs also can be game-changers for organizations. The pressure to attract and keep millennials has led companies to seek out innovative ways to mentor them, building on the traditional one-on-one model and experimenting with peer mentoring (colleagues pass insights to each other), reverse mentoring (junior employees give advice to senior professionals) and group mentoring (several managers work together to mentor a group).

At the same time, organizations now realize mentoring can’t be confined to the lower ranks. A 2013 executive coaching survey by Stanford University found corporate boards want senior leaders to spend more time mentoring their middle managers in the pipeline, and about one-fourth of CEOs said they are getting coached on how to mentor and develop internal talent.

“Big organizations often are political and people need help navigating a career path that keeps them on track,” said Orpha J. Gerundo, vice president of quality/risk management at Plantation General Hospital. Recognizing the need to develop talent, Gerundo has been mentoring Lilian Barker, lead quality manager at Plantation General Hospital, whom she sees as having senior management potential: “A good nurse or practitioner doesn’t guarantee a successful leadership role. You have to mentor them.”

Gerundo said the experience has revitalized her own enthusiasm for her job by helping her realize how much she knows and enjoys passing on to others. The two women meet daily to prepare meeting agendas and talk through how to accomplish challenges with limited resources.

“I love watching her flourish and excel in areas I may not have in my own career,” Gerundo said. “Sometimes I find myself saying, gee, I like how she approached that problem.” As boomers begin looking toward retirement, Gerundo believes mentor relationships will become increasingly important, especially in health care: “If you put inexperienced, misguided people in senior roles, it can impact the success of an organization.”

Mentors can also be invaluable to small business owners.

A 2011 survey by The Commonwealth Institute and the University of Miami’s School of Business Administration reported that 62 percent of women business owners in Florida have been mentored and believed it important to developing greater potential in all business owners. “Having a mentor helped me become successful quicker,” said Paul Klugerman, the owner of a Signarama franchise in the Miami area. The franchise, Signarama has had a mentoring program for the last 12 years. The program takes some of the most successful franchisees and pairs them with new owners, allowing each new owner access to a franchisee who can give them guidance and direction. Klugerman said he has multiple mentees who come to him with questions on matters such as where to buy supplies or how to handle payroll. “When you are passionate and want to help someone, mentoring doesn’t seem time-consuming,” Klugerman said.

Experts advise using your networks to find mentors at any stage of your career, join incubators, look for programs through local chambers of commerce, attend meetups, and contact small business development centers or women’s business centers.

There also may be opportunities through young professional organizations. Today, seasoned professionals are acknowledging that they can benefit from relationships with young employees who can help them manage change.

Klugerman concludes successful mentoring pairings are reciprocal. There is the personal satisfaction of leaving a mark on the next generation of business owners, or future managers, and there is opportunity to gain new perspective: “No matter how experienced you are, everyone wants to learn and grow.”
Cindy Krischer Goodman is CEO of BalanceGal LLC, a provider of news and advice on how to balance work and life.

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