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Tips for Effective Mentoring

It’s tough climbing the corporate ladder, so being guided by someone who has already climbed a few more rungs is certainly an advantage. But often, mentoring programs—despite being well intended—are loosely structured, informally administered, and lack the kind of curriculum, matching, training, and engagement necessary to deliver bottom-line results. Running mentoring programs can be difficult, time consuming, and often frustrating.

So what’s the best way to develop a mentoring program?

Using private companies, such as Atlanta-based Pathbuilders Inc., often is a solution.

“Mentors are important because they offer additional insight into the business world and the company. It’s a way to connect with high-potentials within the company,” says Helene Lollis, Pathbuilders president.

“However, when companies already have some sort of mentoring program in place, there are some challenges. Providing structure is important to the success of a mentoring program, and that is often difficult to do if you are managing it internally,” she says. "You have to match, track, and monitor and that is very time-consuming. You have to make those follow-up calls to make sure that the program is working and iron out any problems. It also isn’t a lot of fun.”

Lollis says that companies with structured mentoring programs as opposed to informal mentoring have a better success rate: “The outcome is better and more consistent.”

She has made her career helping people, especially women, realize their potential and reach personal and professional success. Her company partners with Fortune-ranked organizations and government agencies to develop high-performing individuals through mentoring, executive development programs, and consulting.

“You want the mentor’s skills to align with what the mentee needs in terms of career and personal development,” Lollis says. “In a lot of mentoring programs, mentees tend to gravitate toward the title or person’s position rather than whether that person has the skill set to help unleash your talent and move up in the corporation. Just because someone took a different path doesn’t mean they aren’t the right mentor. You need people who, regardless of their title, can help them break through whatever barriers are holding them back in the corporate world.”

For instance, she continues, a person in finance may need help in communication. “So instead of trying to match that mentee with someone above her in finance, we might look at the public relations department or someone who has the communication skills this person needs. People outside the organization often can see those types of matching better than those who match internally.”

Chemistry, she says, is overrated. “This is not about building a friendship, although the relationship often results in a friendship. It’s not about the messenger; it’s about finding a basis for a connection point. The match is connecting point of talents.”

Christie Smith, senior fellow, with the U.S. Army in Washington, D.C., enrolled in an Army mentoring program that worked with Pathbuilders. She was initially concerned about finding the correct mentor.
“I was skeptical,” she says. “I wanted someone who was fun but also was a bottom line type of person. I wanted her to provide leadership and guidance but in a very diplomatic way. And, I got exactly what I wanted. Anita (Bales) is a great storyteller but still gets her message across. I couldn’t believe we were so well matched by Pathbuilders.”

Lollis says that another reason why it is good to have an external company monitor the mentoring program is that it is often easier to have an “outsider” deal with problems. 

She thinks a well-run mentoring program has a three-way benefit: one for each of the two people involved and one for the company. “You have a committed seasoned leader forming a relationship with key talent,” she says. “That creates a conduit of internal knowledge and cultural guides. That’s a huge value, and it demonstrates the support of senior leaders in growing talent. Employees clearly see that the leaders are engaged in strengthening the talent pipeline, which helps tremendously in employee retention.”

Having a mentor also opens a mentees eyes to “a different perspective about the company and their careers. Often it helps them be more able to take on different responsibilities and opportunities that they might not see,” she says.

The benefits are two-way, she emphasizes. “The mentor learns a lot from the mentee as well. They get a fresh outlook on the company, which helps them in their job as well.”

Anita Bales, deputy auditor general, Army Audit Agency, mentored Christie Smith.

Bales volunteered to be a mentor because, she says, “I’ve had lots of informal mentors but not a formal one. When I read about the program I thought I could do it and that it would be cool to take my turn to help someone.”

Although she is an auditor, Bales thought the best skill set she could offer her mentee would be in terms of communication and negotiating. “That’s what I’m really good at. Auditors come in and talk to people and ask them about their jobs and the work. People really don’t want to talk to auditors, and it’s my job to turn that around. I need for them to talk to me so that I can figure out what’s wrong and then turn around and make recommendations.”

Pathbuilders didn’t initially find a good match for her but eventually she was paired with Smith. “I think I’m helping her,” Bales says. “I’m supportive, and even though her job and mine aren’t specifically in the same field, I still have tips to offer her. We talk about negotiation skills and ways to work with and deal with the political aspects of the job. I’ve shared some stories of what worked for me and what didn’t, which sometimes is just as beneficial.”

Smith calls her mentoring program with Bales “eye-opening. I’m working with people who are doing things, and they are helping me change my behavior and outlook. I’m learning things that I need to know to get to the next level. I’ve learned that the key to everything is nurturing relationships—genuine relationships—not relationships of convenience.”

Even though their year-long mentoring relationship is officially over, the two intend to stay in touch. “There’s never a dull moment with Anita,” Smith says. “The things we share have been amazing and really helped, really exceeded my expectations. I know she’s made me a better leader and communicator.”

Bales says she benefited from the Pathbuilders relationships as well. “They have a tool that I found really interesting. It’s called Strength Deployment Inventory, and it shows how you deal with people normally and how they react to you and then how that changes when you’re under stress. It helped me deal with my career in a new way. I also liked that the program was not monitored by someone within my organization. It’s better having someone on the outside that you could work with. It lets you be more honest.”

As the dynamics and composition of the work force have changed, the benefits of mentoring as a development tool have become more apparent, Lollis says. “All developmental activities are now expected to demonstrate a return for the organization and contribute to bottom-line performance as well as increasing diversity in senior management. That’s why mentoring programs, especially when they are effectively linked to measurable outcomes, are becoming more vital.”