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Find Your Mentor

To keep their careers from stalling , HR professionals can set up informal mentoring relationships.

HR Magazine, March 2004"It’s tough to be a one-person HR show,” says Shirley Pincus, SPHR, director of human resources for a nonprofit training organization in Rolling Meadows, Ill. “It’s even tougher,” she says, when you’re part of “a small company with limited resources [that are] spread out across the United States and Canada.”

Pincus is with I-CAR, which provides training in automobile collision repairs, and she needs to stay current on employment laws not only in Illinois but also in other states. Fortunately, she found a way to do it—through an informal mentoring relationship with others in her field. “It’s especially gratifying,” she says, “to befriend HR colleagues who can advise when questions arise about employment law in my nine other locations.”

Like many HR professionals, Pincus has discovered the benefits of being mentored. And also like many, she taps online resources to forge her mentoring ties. She is part of an online community of HR professionals called the HR Mentoring and Networking Association (HRMAN), founded nearly four years ago by former HR director Andy Armstrong and based in Knoxville, Tenn.

Pincus explains one of the ways that having informal mentors has been a plus for her: “Most challenging is keeping abreast of California law. Two great friends I met through HRMAN act as my mentors in understanding and complying with California law. For example, they helped me understand and develop the requisite policy on the new California paid family leave program.”

As Pincus and many others in HR can attest, a mentoring relationship can help a professional gain career advice, support and perspective. David Hutchins, SPHR, senior vice president and chief administration officer for the U.S. Federal Credit Union, headquartered near Minneapolis, says a mentor “can challenge thinking and expand the perspective” of the person being mentored. “A mentor provides a sounding board and can be a guide in the exploration of career interests and options.”

In fact, some experts say, an HR professional who doesn’t have at least one mentoring relationship along the way can become stalled in his or her career. Yet many HR professionals do not become involved in such relationships. Their companies lack formal mentoring programs, they are uncertain of where to find a mentor outside their organizations, or they are busy. “Too often, HR professionals, like many other employees, get caught up in their work and don’t allow themselves time” to meet new people, says Michele Ruppal, president of HR Strategies and Solutions in Plymouth, Mich., and chairperson of the committee on mentoring for Greater Ann Arbor SHRM.

To get around such obstacles, many HR professionals are creating their own informal mentoring relationships through local community groups and online HR bulletin boards—as has Dawn Kubiak, SPHR. She is HR manager for a computer and integration services firm in Germantown, Wis., that doesn’t have a formal mentoring program. And because the firm is small, she says, “I do not see one developing soon. I turn to a network of HR professionals in other organizations for that mentor relationship.”

Which Way To Go—And When

Mentoring relationships like Kubiak’s—initiated by the person who’s being mentored and, as with her, drawing on the expertise of professionals outside the organization —are called informal. In comparison, formal mentoring is conducted by a company generally for particular categories of employees, is carried out with established procedures, has a time frame and concrete goals, and involves training for mentors and screening for those to be mentored. Another major difference between the two types of mentoring is that in formal arrangements the mentor and the mentee are paired by a third party, while in informal relationships the mentee has to select a mentor.

Armstrong, CEO of HRMAN, whose web site is described as aimed at fostering mentoring and networking connections among HR professionals, sees value in “loose, informal mentoring relationships.” He says: “Solo practitioners who were isolated for years now have a network of experts across the country who can help them at the drop of a hat.”

An HR newcomer who finds mentoring value in HRMAN’s web site is Amanda Simon, human resource coordinator for the National Committee for Quality Assurance, a nonprofit health care organization headquartered in Washington, D.C. “I have only been working in HR for a little over a year,” she says. “I don’t have a formal mentor, and I don’t know too many people in the industry personally. However, [through HRMAN] I am able to get advice and support from people of all ages and professional levels, all over the country, that I never could have gotten otherwise.”

Kubiak agrees that breadth of resources is a benefit: “Because human resources deals with human behavior and legal issues, there are a lot of gray areas. It is beneficial to have many different experiences to draw from.”

Moreover, it’s not a one-time experience. “A mentor is of value throughout one’s career, from initiation through retirement,” says Hutchins, board chairman of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and author of an SHRM white paper on mentoring. “The needs and interests of the mentee change over time, which may create a need for different mentors during different stages of career development.”

Lynn Sontag, president and CEO of MENTTIUM Corp., a firm that develops and manages companies’ formal mentoring programs in various professional specialties, agrees that the need to have a mentor can crop up at various stages of a career. “It is especially important during transitions,” she says. “When you take on a new role, there are specific changes that lead you [to learn] new skills and knowledge, to change your behavior. We see a lot of need for mentors in the first 15 years of one’s career.”

Establishing Your Criteria

Before you go looking for a mentor, experts say, you should know your reasons for wanting one, the kinds of knowledge and advice you’re seeking, and the types of personalities that suit you.

Ruppal recommends three steps: First, decide what you expect to achieve with the relationship, then “schedule a short meeting with the potential mentor, to establish if the relationship is comfortable. Third, explain what you are looking for” to the prospective mentor, and see if the person agrees with your criteria.

“Core things to look for,” in Sontag’s view, “are someone who is well-respected by peers, with strong interpersonal communication skills, and willing to give you tough feedback. Make sure they want to do it and have the time.” But don’t select a mentor solely on the basis of “chemistry,” she says. “It’s not about immediate chemistry, it’s about learning and growing and being uncomfortable. Can this individual help me?”

If your first meeting with a prospective mentor causes you to doubt that the relationship would work, Sontag says, give it a couple more tries.

Says Hutchins: “It’s important to identify someone with a different perspective, someone that isn’t a mirror image of the mentee. ... The great mentors I’ve observed are great listeners, as well as questioners. It should be someone who matches the needs and interests of the mentee and, most importantly, someone who desires to be a mentor.”

Moreover, it need not be just one person. One HR professional, who prefers not to be named, says HR practitioners should develop mentor relationships with “a number of contacts who can offer expertise in different areas. HR is a broad field with many different specialties, and even the most senior SPHR doesn’t know it all. Those who get the most out of mentoring relationships are the ones who develop relationships with multiple people.”

Where To Find a Mentor

HR’s functions seldom overlap any other department’s, so it can be difficult to find a mentor who has experience in your specialty but isn’t part of your direct chain of command. Nonetheless, there are other places for you to find mentors. Among them:

Local SHRM chapters
These groups are often overflowing with potential mentors, and some chapters, such as Greater Ann Arbor SHRM, even offer mentoring programs. Ruppal notes that “individuals looking for a mentor may visit our web site and review a list of members in the mentoring program. The site tells about the mentor’s certifications, work experience and what they can offer the mentee.”

Other organizations
By joining community groups or local chapters of national organizations such as Rotary International, Toastmasters or the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD), you can get in touch with various potential mentors you might not encounter otherwise. “At ASTD Ann Arbor, we have an informal program where the leadership directs new members to potential mentors,” says Ruppal. She recommends that you not limit yourself to just one professional organization.

If you’re doing graduate studies, search for potential mentors among your professors or fellow students. Cheryl Cristanelli, staff development administrator for the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, a nonprofit science organization in Boulder, Colo., found a role model in her adviser in graduate school. After graduation, Cristanelli continued to work with her adviser, enlisting her help as a facilitator for on-site training. “She’s a good listener and gives me good feedback when I ask her professional questions,” Cristanelli says.

Mentoring relationships conducted via e-mail or with postings on a web site bulletin board can be worthwhile. Kubiak likes the arrangement. “I can post a question and not be intrusive into one person’s time,” she says. “Mentors can post a response when they have the time and inclination.”

A potential drawback to online mentoring is that it may not be able to offer the personal dimension that can come with, say, having lunch with your mentor. But not always. Catherine Greenhow, SPHR, president of HR by Request Inc., an HR consulting firm in Scituate, Mass., met the HR professional she was mentoring online at a local SHRM conference. They kept in touch, both online and in person. “We met for dinner several times,” Greenhow says, and the person she was mentoring “took her PHR exam the same day I took the SPHR, and we studied together the night before.” (And they passed.)

Two online avenues to mentoring relationships are SHRM’s bulletin boards (for SHRM members only) and Armstrong’s HRMAN site.

Other departments
Finding a mentor within the company when your organization does not have a formal mentoring program can be difficult, but it’s not impossible. Departments to consider include finance, sales and marketing. Hutchins recommends looking for opportunities for mentor relationships while working on interdepartmental projects.

Sontag describes her own experience in finding a mentor within the Fortune 500 company where she worked some years ago as a trainer for executive development. “I was asked to take on a large project and roll out the initiative to 80,000 people. I had never done that before. I knew if I messed this up, it could be my career; I’d have to go somewhere else.” So she started looking for a mentor in the company’s executive ranks. “I looked for someone who had strategic background in rolling out strategic change, knew what line of business I was in, knew how to influence senior leaders in other parts of the business and knew me well enough to give me straight feedback.”

Sontag says she made clear “via e-mail and voice mail what I was looking for from a mentoring perspective. When we met, he was prepared to ask me the right questions. He helped me strategically pick the right people to participate in the pilot to influence the rest of the organization. The [program launch] turned out great.”

From Start to Finish

The most important point to remember in an informal mentoring relationship, experts say, is that as the person being mentored, you are responsible for driving and maintaining the relationship.

“Work together to design a goal of what you want to learn, the time period to do so and the method of learning, as well as check-in points to look at the progress,” Ruppal says. “Obtain agreement from the mentor on your role, and be sure to offer the mentor your help. Your help may be assisting them on a project or doing research on their behalf. Call the mentor and meet at the mentor’s office. A mentee should do everything they can to accommodate the mentor, such as being open-minded to new ideas and feedback and flexible to meet the mentor’s [schedule]. Always be on time.”

Sontag says that “the top two reasons mentoring fails are a lack of commitment and misaligned expectations. The lack of commitment is often unintentional; the mentor is mentoring half a dozen other people and can’t squeeze in anyone else. Or the mentor is unaware of the mentee’s expectations or unable to give [what the mentee wants]. It’s important to set expectations upfront.”

Sontag recommends establishing a date six months hence to reassess goals and the relationship.

Since the relationship is not part of a formal program—one with an established deadline—how can you move on when it is no longer beneficial? How does an informal mentoring relationship end? With great care, experts say.

“When you’re going to close a relationship,” Sontag says, “it’s important to say, ‘Here is how we’ve benefited. It’s been a great six months. I’d like to stay in touch. Thank you for your time.’ ”

Ruppal notes that “often you will find that mentoring relationships don’t end. In the process of mentoring, a relationship is developed and the two individuals will continue to keep in touch with updates of their progress. Some can last over one’s professional career.”

Sontag underscores the point. “Informal mentoring relationships can go on forever,” she says. “I’ve known some for almost 20 years. I may talk to or see them only twice a year, at the most critical time, when I have a question. The need is only circumstantial.”

As one HR professional put it: “HR can be a lonely profession. Many of the challenges HR folk face involve confidential matters, so it’s hard to know who you can turn to. A mentoring relationship, whether formal or informal, helps HR professionals at all levels to share successes, look for feedback and advice, and vent—all in a safe environment.”

Kathryn Tyler, M.A., is a freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer in Wixom, Mich.

Is It Mentoring, or Is It Coaching?

The words “mentoring” and “coaching” are often used interchangeably, but they have separate meanings. Lynn Sontag, president and CEO of MENTTIUM Corp., a mentoring consulting company in Minneapolis, explains the difference: “Coaching is around specific performance issues or goals. [Coaches are] subject-matter experts, such as learning a new computer program. Most coaching is short-term; it typically doesn’t last over a year. In mentoring relationships, you’re usually talking about soft issues, people issues, cultural issues. How to be a more effective communicator or motivating a high-performing team.”

Moreover, coaching implies a paid relationship, whereas mentoring is altruistic. A coach is a person you hire to help you with a specific issue or goals. A mentor is a person with whom you cultivate a relationship, based on a mutual exchange of information and perspective.

A mentor helps others in order to pass on lessons learned and benefit the whole HR profession. Mentoring often exceeds the boundaries of the workplace, spilling over into work/life balance issues. And, experts say, good mentors often learn as much from their protégés as their protégés learn from them.

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