Youth Mentoring Partnerships Are a Win-Win-Win

Mentoring children in need sharpens employees’ leadership skills, strengthens an employer’s future executive team

By Greg Goth Mar 22, 2017
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​Youth mentoring programs not only provide vital help to children, but they also can help turn employees into leaders, which is a plus for their employers.

Veteran mentors, as well as those who are new to dedicating some time to their communities' young people, say that mentoring recharges them and enhances interpersonal skills that serve them well in their work.

"It gives you wonderful perspective," said Jim Moretti, a senior financial business consultant at Danbury, Conn.-based Cartus, which provides corporate relocation services. "I work in finance and it gets very intense and time-consuming," he said. "I need a chance to clear my mind so I don't get too bogged down, and mentoring is a perfect way to step away for a time and not only clear my head but to help someone in need."

Moretti has been mentoring weekly for the past 18 years through the Danbury Schools and Business Collaborative (DSABC), a nonprofit partnership of the city's public schools and its business community. Former DSABC director Mary Gregory said the organization currently has 220 volunteers mentoring students in the organization's one-to-one program and about 90 mentors in its new e-mentoring initiative.

Working with mentees with widely different temperaments, and on a variety of issues, helped Moretti sharpen his own interpersonal abilities. With more people using social media to interact, direct personal communication is "a skill many mentees lack or don't bother to develop," he said. Likewise, in his professional life, "I've worked with people who are not good listeners." Nevertheless, "you learn how to get a point across."

Working with mentees with widely different temperaments sharpens interpersonal skills. 

For Shannon Rountos, who manages social media platforms at Ridgefield, Conn.-based pharmaceutical firm Boehringer Ingelheim, mentoring an elementary school student for whom English was a second language led her to discover latent communication and leadership skills that now help her in guiding colleagues.

"It was hard work to establish that initial trust" with her young mentee, said Rountos, who also mentors through the Danbury collaborative. "I was trying to teach her things in a way that was entertaining because she was very shy, and I had to pull her out of her shell. You could tell she was interested but she wouldn't say anything in the beginning."

To build rapport, Rountos said she "finessed—and in some cases developed—skills that draw on patience, creativity and, most of all, empathy." She called the experience "a crash course in leadership training. As a leader of people and projects, it's imperative to be conscious of how members of your team prefer to communicate. It requires sensitivity, attunement to others and a genuine interest in understanding some else's unique perspective."

[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: What is employer-sponsored volunteerism?]

Mentors Needed

Even though experienced mentors such as Moretti and Rountos express great personal and professional satisfaction from mentoring, there is a nationwide shortage of adults willing to share some time with youth in need. Across the U.S., about one-third of children who seek a mentor have to wait, said Elizabeth Santiago, a Boston-based senior director of programs for MENTOR, a nonprofit that provides support and resources to facilitate mentoring partnerships nationwide. The DSABC program currently has about 50 students on a waiting list.

While many mentoring programs run on a community model and depend on individual volunteers, school-business collaboratives such as Danbury's are becoming more common, as is e-mentoring, which uses online communication channels to link mentors and mentees. They use video messages if they can't be online at the same time.

Community-based programs are forging new partnerships with businesses and schools. Similar to Danbury's program is a partnership between Clearwater, Fla.-based USAmeriBank and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay. In September 2016 the groups launched a mentoring program for 25 students at Northeast High School in nearby St. Petersburg, Fla.

Tina Ford, the bank's HR director, said the students are bused to the bank once a month to spend the morning with their mentors. The first part of the session is spent in group settings, such as listening to guest speakers give advice on topics like applying to college or preparing for exams. During the second part of the day, the students observe their mentors at work. The group then gets together for lunch before the students are bused back to school.

Ford said the program proved so popular—it ended up with more volunteer mentors than students—that its size will double for the 2017-18 school year. Feedback about the program has been overwhelmingly positive, she said.

"It helps you groom employees and see how they react in certain situations you may not get an opportunity to see otherwise," which can help these workers to move into leadership roles at the company, she said. "It gives you a lot of insight into your own staff."

For instance, she noticed that one mentor remembered to send her mentee a congratulations card for making the honor roll, and she has seen others display a sense of tact, transparency and diplomacy when discussing sensitive topics with their mentees. Mentors also learn to balance their professional and mentoring obligations.

"We've also found they enjoy learning what's trending with the younger generation, and the partnership has helped our employees keep a sharp mind," Ford noted. "The mentees ask a lot of challenging questions and are very creative."

Getting Started

There is no shortage of resources available for companies thinking of beginning a mentoring program. Gregory said the questions her organization has received from interested businesses center around nut-and-bolts issues.

"We have had our mentors from businesses in similar industries come out and connect with HR folks who seem interested, to show them how they make it work," Gregory said, "so there is support to help them implement a program."

Similarly, Ford said that many community organizations—such as Big Brothers Big Sisters and Junior Achievement, just to name two—can offer guidance.

"There are a lot of organizations out there that have the infrastructure already in place that can help you so it's not a drain on your employees to set up and administer," she said.

MENTOR maintains a nationwide database of vetted mentoring programs called Mentoring Connector. The database is sortable by zip code, ages of the youth served and program type so interested HR managers or other would-be program sponsors can narrow their search.

Santiago said the organization is working with global athletic apparel company Nike to set up a corporate mentoring program, and interested volunteers are directed to the database while the company builds its strategy.

MENTOR also partners with businesses that employ mentoring as part of larger community-building programs. For instance, JP Morgan Chase's Fellowship Initiative helps young men of color from economically distressed neighborhoods prepare for college.

Marybeth McGuire, director of corporate social responsibility for Boehringer Ingelheim, Rountos' employer, said the pharmaceutical firm's volunteer efforts, including mentoring, are so aligned with its HR mission that the company's charitable foundation reports to HR.

"When it comes to employee development, for example, we are able to offer [youth mentoring] as experiential learning" that teaches employees to think on their feet. "HR sees volunteerism as a huge plus," she added. "As employers, it's a low- or, in most cases, no-cost development opportunity that we can provide to employees."

Why Employers Should Support Volunteering

"Over the years, employers across the country have bolstered benefits that contribute to employee well-being. … One of these benefits particularly touches the heart and soul of employees: volunteering," Henry G. ("Hank") Jackson, president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, recently wrote.

Twenty-one percent of U.S. employers offer their workers paid time off to volunteer, according to SHRM's 2016 Employee Benefits research report. "This benefit is important to many workers, particularly Millennials, who view participating in community service as part of being a whole person," Jackson noted.


Related SHRM Article:

The Benefits of Philanthropy and Volunteerism, SHRM Online Benefits, February 2016

Video Resource:

How to Engage in Effective Mentoring Relationships, Danbury Schools and Business Collaborative

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