Tending Talent

Academic research—and practitioners’ experiences—demonstrate mentoring’s return on investment.

By Susan J. Wells May 1, 2009
It’s no news flash, of course, that great futures come from mentoring—the pairing of managers with protégés or peers to share knowledge, offer guidance, lend informal learning and help build careers.

As organizations continue to face the recession’s tightening grip, however, conventional wisdom might suggest a corresponding pullback on such historically popular, but hard-to-manage programs. Yet the exact opposite appears to be true:

"There’s an opportunity to articulate a strong argument for why mentoring is more valuable now," says Kathy E. Kram, Ph.D., a scholar in organizational behavior at Boston University School of Management, who has studied mentoring for decades. "It could actually be an answer to the economic stress."

Consider this: In a study Kram co-authored during a 1985economic downturn, 161 managers and engineers at a large manufacturer undergoing corporate downsizing were asked about work stress, career concerns and attitudes toward mentoring. Results showed that attitudes toward mentoring were positively related to work stress and overall job pressures—employees, in fact, wanted more mentoring, not less.

"It rings true today—mentoring alliances may offer an antidote to stress by providing a range of support," says Kram, co-author of The Handbook of Mentoring at Work: Theory, Research, and Practice (Sage Publications Inc., 2007)."Such relationships may become more visible, rather than less visible, during stressful times, which is exactly the opposite of what we expected."

While companies may find more opportunities for mentoring today, proving the positive outcomes of mentoring can help ensure ongoing buy-in and support from managers and participants. But because mentor-protégé relations are all about human behavior and interaction, executives and HR leaders have found it hard to quantify how mentoring programs meet goals.

Tracking the value

Against this backdrop lies nearly four decades of academic research showing benefits for mentors and protégés.

University of Miami graduate school dean and professor of management Terri A. Scandura, Ph.D., says leaders in most Fortune 500 companies see mentoring as an important employee development tool, with 71 percent having mentoring programs.

"Research has shown that when there’s an effective match between mentor and mentee, positive things happen," she says. "Employees who have mentors tend to earn more, advance more quickly, learn faster on the job, are better socialized into the organization and are more productive. And, the benefits go both ways."

Mentoring is a best practice for corporations—and their executives remain interested in furthering the process, she says.

Making the Case

Leaders in some organizations simply track certain aspects of participation—such as whether and how often pairs meet—or ask participants to evaluate their experiences. Others take their measures much further, such as Sun Microsystems Inc. in Santa Clara, Calif.

To examine the value of mentoring at the information technology company, a 2006 statistical analysis examined data from more than 1,000 employees in the dot-com-bust years of 2000-04. The analysis was conducted by Sun with Bellevue University’s Human Capital Lab in Omaha, Neb.; HR software and consulting firm Capital Analytics Inc. in Durham, N.C.; and Stamford, Conn.-based research and advisory firm Gartner Inc. Researchers examined 68 variables—including product area, base pay, previous job code and reason for termination—to find correlations with a half-dozen metrics: employee salary grade, salary grade change, job performance rating, promotion, merit increase in salary and salary increase due to promotion.

Findings show that mentors were promoted six times more often and protégés were promoted five times more often than those not in the program; retention rates were much higherfor protégés and mentors than for those who didn’t participate. Salary grades rosefor 28 percent of mentors and 25 percent of protégés, compared with 5 percent of employees who didn’t participate in mentoring.

The study "was a proof point," says Karen Rohde, vice president of human resources, global talent management and rewards, for the 33,500-employee company. "We’ve had mentoring in place since 1996 and have had thousands of people participate and succeed. We feel we’ve made the business case for it: It’s embedded in our DNA."

In 2001, Sun enhanced its mentoring by launching the Sun Engineering Enrichment & Development (SEED) program that matches new and established engineers with volunteer senior-level engineer and executive mentors. Results have shown that SEED participants as a group earn more promotions and higher performance ratings than do Sun employees overall, Rohde says.

Managing the Programs

Beth Carvin, president and chief executive officer of Nobscot Corp., a retention management firm based in Honolulu, says leaders in many organizations are still hungry for more data and management tools for mentoring programs—and crave easier and less time-consuming ways of making successful matches and monitoring mentoring. "We’re seeing a resurgence in mentoring because technology has made the administration of the programs much easier," Carvin says. Online mentoring software, for example, can be used to facilitate matching, tracking and reporting.

Some companies have multiple mentoring programs, she adds, one for their high-potentials, another for diversity groups and a third for the general employee population.

To address these trends, her company is currently developing features of its software that helps administrators determine the ROI of mentoring by examining turnover and promotion of participants and other factors.

Setting the Stage

Though some mentoring relationships still form naturally, without a formal, structured program, it can be hit or miss as to whether a protégé will find a mentor. But the advantages this relationship confers are too vital to just leave mentoring to chance.

At audit, tax and advisory firm KPMG LLP, for example, where mentoring had been occurring informally for years, every new employee is assigned a "transitional coach" to help him or her assimilate. The coach can either become the employee’s mentor, or facilitate a hand-off to a mentor, says Bruce Pfau, vice chair of human resources. The firm makes mentoring available to all employees, regardless of level or career track, and offers incentives to participants.

Mentors and protégés receive training; serving as a mentor has become part of performance reviews, and KPMG offers an annual award to reward and recognize top mentors at a dinner with senior managers.

KPMG managers evaluate mentoring through surveys as well as through retention statistics. More than 80 percent of employees say the firm supports a mentoring culture, and close tracking of mentoring pairs shows solid results, Pfau says. In 2008, turnover among mentored staff and managers was about 18 percent lower than turnover of those without mentors; for mentored partners, it was 50 percent lower. There are currently 13,000 mentoring relationships among the firm’s 23,000 U.S. employees—an impressive number, by any count.

Mentoring works because "this is a place where you can build your career," Pfau says. Through the positive response, "We’re at a point where we take it on fact and faith that it’s a good thing."

For Jack Reagan, partner in the Washington, D.C., office of KPMG’s public-sector audit group, mentoring comes full circle—he’s been a mentee and mentor during 17 years with the firm. "It was very influential in the formative stage of my career and in making the decision to go for the partner track," he says of his four mentor relationships. "Some people think you glom onto one mentor who guides you for your whole career, but I think what really and more naturally happens is that you move in and out of mentoring relationships in a kind of evolutionary process."

A Bargain in the Making

Regardless of the types of programs offered, culture and talent management practices influence whether employees and managers invest the energy and time necessary to develop successful mentoring relationships, experts say. And growing evidence of positive returns should be a wake-up call to foster the bonds.

A 2007 survey of 110 members of the Society for Advancement of Consulting LLC (SAC), an international association of 300 solo consulting practitioners based in East Greenwich, R.I., found that active mentoring within even the largest organizations can have a direct impact on individual productivity—a key goal in any challenging business climate.

"The time saved by people who have access to an expert source is significant, as is their ability to take faster action and prudent risk based on their mentor’s advice," says SAC CEO and founder Alan Weiss, Ph.D.

"Mentoring is inexpensive, highly productive, and a symbol to employees that they are not sailing solo," he notes. "It’s usually of higher impact and longer lived in its effectiveness than most high-cost training programs, outdoor experiences or other attempts at employee development."

Invaluable Instrument for Onboarding

After a 32-year career in human resources and nine years in her current position, Tamara Trummer still considers the benefits of the mentoring relationships she took advantage of as a newly minted college graduate. They gave her the "business smarts" necessary to get off to a good start.

"I found mentors in two of my early companies, both male and female managers, who ‘taught me the ropes’ in an informal sense by giving me inside information about the company, certain executives—and even such practical things as how to conduct business travel and handle an expense account," she says.

One mentor, for example, arranged for her to spend a week at the corporate office, where he set up meetings for her with the key players in the corporate HR function that she would need to work with.

"It was truly a gift and invaluable for me, working in a remote manufacturing plant and rarely having the opportunity to meet these individuals," she recalls. When she first joined her current company, an HR mentor was there to "give me a lot of history and perspective on the programs, policies and practices we use."

In her current position, Trummer continues benefiting from working with three former bosses in a peer management team where, due to their coaching and mentoring in prior years, she says she now feels better prepared to participate as a full member of the team.

Returning the favor, Trummer mentors other HR professionals, including two mentees in SHRM’s Mentor Program. She holds informal discussions with protégés—and follows up by asking for feedback on "how my suggestions may or may not have worked"for them, she says.

"My mentors have been both male and female managers, co-workers and peers, as well as subordinates—several of whom have taught me computer software skills and how to use our myriad online tools," she says.

"Having been mentored by prior managers and peers throughout my career, I’m very pleased to be able to provide similar guidance to others within the HR profession. It’s a very satisfying endeavor, and one that creates further learning opportunities," Trummer concludes.

Mentors and Protégés Tell Their Stories

Sometimes, Mentoring Leads to New Paths

In the early 1990s, Pam Schilling was part of a new financial management development program at a large telecommunications company. The intent was to build the next generation of leaders—and it included formal mentoring.

She was paired with two female mentors—one, the assistant controller; the other, a finance director. While Schilling considers both relationships critical to her development, she recalls one mentor’s assignments as "career-transforming."

To get exposure to core components of financial reporting, the mentor challenged her to consolidate work done by 13 groups. "Politically, it was not a welcome piece of work," she says, "but she stood by me every day, offering suggestions and guidance."

This mentor nominated her to join a re-engineering team where she gained perspective, had the opportunity to "make a difference," and work with top-notch management consultants, Schilling says.

From this experience, she decided to pursue and complete an MBA degree at the University of Chicago in early 2000.

Spurred on, she pursued a management-consulting career after graduating—and traveled the world for the next eight years. "I’m sure my mentor didn’t intend for me to pursue an external path," Schilling admits. "But as a mentor, she did exactly the right thing for me—provide opportunity, experience and exposure.

"This example shaped me as a leader," she says, and her work with a professional career coach convinced her of the strength of her newfound career.

All of this led her to join the university as a career coach in summer 2008. Today, she supports the post-graduation pursuits of MBA candidates—lending her mentoring style along the way.

"Mentoring is a special quality, skill set and attitude," she says. "The benefits are not only between the mentor and mentee, but the future generations."

Solving Everyday Workplace Issues

MGM Grand Hotel & Casino bets on its people through professional development and employee engagement programs that have become important tools in its workforce strategy.

As one of the "engaging eight" companies recently highlighted in Closing the Engagement Gap: How Great Companies Unlock Employee Potential for Superior Results (Portfolio, December 2008), the MGM Grand’s focus on employee development, training, mentoring and recognition has led to more than 90 percent of its employees saying they’re satisfied with their jobs and 89 percent agreeing that their work has special meaning. Co-authors and consultants Don Lowman and Julie Gebauer of Towers Perrin also found that 91 percent report they’re proud to tell others where they work.

That comes as no surprise to Christina Leathers, who has been a part of the 5,044-room property’s HR function for four years.

Since graduating from MGM’s Management Academy, a 24-week development program designed to prepare supervisors and assistant managers for manager positions, Leathers now mentors other potential managers.

Specifically, she mentors as part of the company’s "Reach" program launched in 2003 to prepare entry-level employees for supervisory careers—a six-month intensive training effort. Upon completion, participants receive career coaching to help them find promotions.

The content was designed with advice from operational executives. In addition to mentoring, it includes classroom and online training, leadership book reviews and other coaching.

"It is definitely a high-impact, one-on-one relationship," she says. Discussions include application of the training to everyday situations.

Recently, "My mentee was asked to take a new position that he felt would be a step back," she says. "We talked about how sometimes in order to move forward, you have to take a few steps back—and we discussed what experience and opportunities could arise out of this new position."

Mentoring opens the doors to critical skills and experience: "The participants feel open to come, share their challenges and ask for advice," Leathers explains. "The bonds that I have built with them have had a tremendous impact on me."

The author is a contributing editor of HR Magazine and a business journalist in the Washington, D.C., area.


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