Companies & Industries

Mentors Make a Business Better


Your managers may be your biggest asset. Tap their talents to teach new employees, and they'll learn from their protégés along the way

When attorney Maria Speth went for an interview four years ago at Jaburg Wilk in Phoenix, she told the firm's founder and managing partner, Gary Jaburg, she'd be more likely to take the job if he would be her mentor. Jaburg agreed.

Speth and Jaburg's ongoing relationship, which consists of two monthly meetings for 30 minutes to an hour each, has helped Speth improve her marketing and networking efforts to attract more sophisticated clients. It has also helped boost her efficiency: She estimates she spends 90% of her time working directly for clients, making more money for the firm.

"It's never too late to have a mentor," says Speth, 43, who has practiced law for some 20 years. "If there's an area in your career or your personal life you want to improve, don't think it's too late."

For workers who are seeking to change direction in their industry, climb to the next level, or adjust to a merger or structural change at their company, management experts say finding a mentor could be their best transitional tool. Where can an ambitious person find a mentor? Try retirees looking to give back or stay engaged, and business leaders seeking to improve their managerial skills.

Insight You Can't Get from Reports

Companies looking to promote a diverse workforce often encourage their managers to be mentors—the teaching can go both ways. As the mentee is often younger, he or she can help enlighten the mentors about new trends in the industry or give them insight into another generation.

"If you're still active and your company wants to market to younger people, what better opportunity than to sit with a younger person?" asks Scott Allen, a consultant on social networking and building business relationships online, and an active mentor and mentee. "You will get insight sitting there with one-on-one face time that no market research report could ever give you."

And if the mentor is lucky, they may even learn a thing or two about technology. "How many times have we heard stories of the CEO finding the kid in [information technology] to teach him programs?" says Chip Bell, author of Managers as Mentors: Building Partnerships for Learning. "[Mentoring is] not about hierarchy or structure."

Set Commitment Goals

Successful mentorship can be in any number of forms: online or in-person, in both formal and informal settings, on a temporary or long-term basis, and between individuals or in groups. What is essential, experts say, is direction, dedication, and openness.

"One of the biggest issues we see is that people will say having a mentor is a great idea and they'll end up having lunch or coffee a few times, but without committing to goals a lot of relationships will just drift and fade away," says Chris Browning, vice-president of operations and client services for Triple Creek Associates, which creates Web-based mentoring programs.

To be sure your time as a mentee is fruitful, experts recommend setting specific goals at the outset and revisiting them along the way, as well as looking for a mentor who has traveled the career path you seek and has the skills you need, instead of seeking out a mentor whom you like for personal reasons.

"People put too much weight on chemistry," says Lois Zachary, president of the education and training company Leadership Development Services, and a consultant to Fortune 500 and multinational companies. "Likability is not a prerequisite for learning."

An Aid to Talent Attraction and Retention

So what makes a good mentor? Asking the right questions is key, but having all the answers is not expected. "Your mentors shouldn't tell you what your goals are, they should just ask you what your goals are," says Speth.

Audrey Seki, a recruiter for Aon Risk Services who last year concluded an eight-month company mentorship, says she benefited when her mentor, David Walker, invited her to observe him conducting official business and encouraged her to interview his colleagues.

The benefits are far-reaching. In addition to improving managerial skills, company mentorship programs may also aid in recruitment. "More and more people are attracted to organizations that help them grow and learn," says Bell. "For the whole purpose of talent attraction and talent retention today, mentoring is a vital part."

Don't Make Promises You Can't Keep

Yet mentors and mentees must be dedicated to skill-building for the relationships to work. Mentees should avoid seeking relationships for political or nebulous reasons, like trying to get a promotion, and mentors should avoid making promises they can't keep, says Browning. "One of the worst things that can happen is committing to a mentee and then not being able to be there when they need you," says Browning, who encourages mentors to reschedule rather than cancel appointments with their protégés.

When the right match is made, the benefits of mentoring also extend beyond the participants' professional lives. Zachary notes that mentoring can teach life skills such as the ability to give and receive candid feedback, and promote self-reflection.

"It also becomes a life thing, because we aren't segmented human beings," Allen concurs. "Every good one I've had, the scope does venture into other areas because they affect our work."

Keller is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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