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Virtual Mentoring

Online mentoring offers employees potentially better matches from a wider pool of candidates.

HR Magazine, March 2006 Bright, polished and hardworking, Joan Gosier had the right stuff to make it in the corporate world. But soon after landing a position with a major pharmaceutical company, she realized that talent and ambition would not be enough.

She needed a mentor.

This was a multibillion-dollar company, and the culture was tough, says Gosier. Even after earning an MBA from a top business school, she notes, she faced a lot of unknowns that created workplace challenges for the Baltimore native.

Fortunately, while attending a company diversity meeting, she met a senior female executive, and the two clicked on a personal level. From there a mentoring relationship was formed. Gosier says the executive helped fight a lot of battles for me. She was my voice, making sure others had an accurate perception of my performance.

Gosier, who was promoted to a management position, later left the pharmaceutical company to pursue her dream of starting her own business. But her relationship with her former mentor was valuable enough that they still keep in touch.

Having a mentor is imperative, Gosier says. Some people think you can just work hard. But without a sponsor, you don’t know the unwritten rules that can take you to the next level.

Many employers nationwide would agree. But rather than simply hoping that mentors and protgs will connect at some chance meeting, they are instituting electronic matching programs that enable mentoring relationships to form more readily and help mentored employees flourish in spite of geographical distance.

What Its All About

A good mentor serves as an invaluable guide in the workplace, helping mentored employees in areas such as setting and meeting goals and navigating office politics. The mentor can also provide the employee informal feedback.

Mentoring is all about learning, says Judith Lindenberger, president of the Lindenberger Group LLC in Titusville, N.J., an HR consulting firm that recently launched a web-based mentoring program. Its clients include American Express and Rutgers University.

Lindenbergera former senior HR staffer for Mellon Bank and other companies, author of several articles in her field and two-time winner of a national award that honors excellence in mentoring says the best matches stem from realistic expectations, minimal pressure and ample enthusiasm.

To ensure that those matches work well, companies are turning increasingly to technology, rather than luck.

Make no mistake: Traditional mentoring programs still reign, but online mentoring is a growing trend. Innovations include web sites that link mentors and mentored employees via profiling software (much as online dating services work) and virtual mentoring that renders face time unnecessary. Online programs also are helpful in a global marketplace where employees can be in different ZIP codes or even different time zones.

Intel has been a pioneer in online mentoring initiatives. Its automated mentoring web site was initially launched for its HR team in 2001 and adopted for all of Intel’s 100,000 employees in 2003.

An employee looking for a mentor logs on to an internal web site and enters up to three career interests or skills he or she wants to develop. Literally, in a matter of seconds you get a list [of possible mentors] throughout the company, all over the world, says Kevin D. Gazzara, program manager of Intel’s worldwide Leading Through People program in Chandler, Ariz. You might even find your mentor in Singapore.

The employee then reviews information on-screen (no photos are used) about the potential mentors, decides whether any meet his or her requirements, and then takes the final step of clicking the match button. An e-mail is sent automatically to the possible mentor, letting the person know someone is interested. The mentor can respond regarding availability or suggest the employee return to the web site to choose an alternate.

Gazzara, who has degrees in engineering, an MBA and a doctorate of management in organizational leadership, is the concept developer behind the copyrighted program. He says in surveys conducted by HR, online mentoring was favored over in-person pairings due to its ease and immediacy.

While Intel’s online program doesn’t require formal training or approval from participant’s supervisors, there are basic guidelines to follow. Mentors generally are one to three grades higher than a mentored employee, are in another department or a separate chain of command, and should have more expertise than the protg in at least one of the three areas identified by the employee for development. An employee who seeks mentoring needs to have only the need or the desire to improve skills.

Once the two agree to work together, they mutually determine how much time they will spend, typically about an hour per month. HR suggests that the mentoring relationship last for a period of six months, though that’s negotiable. Either party can terminate the agreement at any time by notifying the other person.

The Intel mentoring program regularly administers surveys that measure satisfaction rates and progress. Being a volunteer mentor can also show up on a mentor’s annual performance review.

It’s been very successful, so well received, Gazzara says of the program. We get all levels of employee participation, up through senior managers.

A Positive Response

KPMG LLP, a New York-based tax and audit firm with about 18,200 employees nationwide, has also found success using an online mentoring database.

Although informal mentoring was taking place (partners mentored junior staff to help them move through the ranks), the company enacted a more formal voluntary nationwide mentoring program in 2004. For a variety of reasons, we wanted to expand on that [informal mentoring], says Barbara Wan off, KPMG's director of workplace solutions, which is part of HR. We set out to encourage people and establish mentoring relationships.

Mentoring is now part of KPMG’s Employer of Choice initiative, which also offers employees flexible work schedules, shared time off, community volunteer opportunities with pay and other work/life benefits.

The KPMG program is on the company’s HR web site and is customized to match our competencies, says Wankoff.

Similar to the Intel online database, the KPMG system uses key words such as boardroom skills or negotiation to help find suitable mentors for employees who seek mentoring. And before accepting an assignment, a mentor agrees to terms that include confidentiality.

KPMG officials describe the online program as user friendly and easy to navigate, with information that is prominently displayed and readily accessible. We feel the message is being put out there, says Wankoff. Employees know we support this and it’s available to them if they want it. We also recognize not everyone is ready and willing to commit [to mentoring], but we hope to see it grow and increase greatly.

So far, there’s been a positive response about 6,000 mentoring relationships have been formed, involving about one-third of the company’s workforce. And subsequent employee surveys have been favorable too.

When HR asked all employees if they believe management actually supports and encourages mentoring relationships, Wankoff says, the number who replied yes jumped to 85 percent in 2005 from 74 percent in 2004, after the online tools became available.

KPMG employee Manny Fernandez, an audit partner-in-charge for Colorado, has been both a mentor and a mentee over the past 10 years. He currently mentors three people formally and says his experience with the company’s matching process has been positive.

It has resulted in higher employee satisfaction, lower turnover and professionals who are better aligned with the organization and feel part of the team, he says.

Getting an Early Start

For some employers, especially those facing a shortage of skilled workers, online mentoring has proved effective in enabling businesspeople to share their knowledge and life experience with those who have not yet entered the workforce.

A key proponent of that approach is Carol B. Muller, founder and CEO of Mentor Net in San Jose, Calif., a nonprofit e-mentoring network that addresses the retention and success of women and minorities in engineering, science, mathematics and technology. The network works in partnership with colleges and universities, corporations, government laboratories and agencies, and professional organizations.

Since 1998, more than 15,000 mentoring relationships have taken place through Mentor Net.

I piloted the concept of e-mentoring in 1995 while in academia, says Muller, a former associate dean at Dartmouths School of engineering and currently a consulting faculty member at Stanford University. Both people in industry and students are time-pressured, she says. E-mail is convenient, quick and cheap.

Today, Mentor Net has a worldwide community of students and professionals. Like other programs, it operates with online profiles; has an agreed-upon time frame for mentoring, typically about eight months; and offers training, an online coaching curriculum and more.

I found that interactions between students and people in industry often have positive effects for students, says Muller. They benefit from mentors who can provide useful real-world applications for what they’re studying.

HR consultant Lindenberger believes that mentors benefit greatly from the relationship as well. In studies done on mentoring, she says, and in my own experience as a consultant helping organizations create mentoring programs, I have learned that mentors get as much satisfaction from mentoring relationships, if not more, than protgs.

Mentors report that they gain a different perspective of the organization, feel good about giving back to the organization and enjoy helping someone else manage their career. The lovely thing is that both people end up learning.

Donna M. Owens is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.

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