Four HR leaders share how their approaches to mentoring programs are solving talent challenges.
By Marta Chmielowicz
Today’s employees are happier, more productive, and more engaged when their jobs bring intrinsic rewards, or the feeling of doing meaningful work that propels their personal and professional growth. In this environment, career development is no longer a perk reserved for certain high-ranking positions—it is an expectation. In fact, according to LinkedIn’s 2018 Workforce Learning Report, a whopping 93 percent of employees would stay at a company longer if it invested in their careers.
Mentorship programs are one great way to make an impact. They can bridge the gap between individual and organizational needs, providing connection and development opportunities to both the mentor and mentee; improving job satisfaction and retention; and solving talent challenges along the way. Moreover, they signal to employees that the employer values its people and is interested in their success—not just on the job, but throughout their careers.
The key to effective mentoring boils down to one thing: genuine connection. “Mentoring is fundamentally rooted in creating and sustaining connections between people of diverse backgrounds for the purpose of sharing insights, perspectives, and experiences that are of benefit, more often than not, to both the mentor and mentee,” says Ginger Gregory, CHRO of Biogen. “It is a perfect way for employees to broaden their network, learn new ways of thinking, and listen to an alternative approach to solving a problem. All of these lead to greater diversity and an appreciation for new ways of working.”
Organizations that are able to foster these connections effectively see a number of benefits. According to Levis Francis, managing analyst and leader of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s mentoring program, mentoring drives personal and professional growth, increased engagement, higher job satisfaction, and a better sense of the workings and culture of the organization.
These benefits are supported in industry research. A 2017 study by the Association for Talent Development (ATD), Mentoring Matters: Developing Talent with Formal Mentoring Programs, indicates that organizations with formal mentoring programs exhibited:
- higher employee engagement and retention (50 percent);
- greater support for high-potential employees (46 percent);
- stronger intra-organizational relationships and collaboration (37 percent); and
- better knowledge management and transfer (37 percent).
And the mentees also have much to gain, with research showing that the top three benefits of participating in a mentorship program include:
- professional development (36 percent);
- a better understanding of organizational culture (30 percent); and
- the development of new perspectives (27 percent).
“A culture of effective mentoring, coaching, and sponsorship connects, broadens, and deepens leaders’ awareness of all top talent in the organization. These cultural benefits translate to bottom line benefits,” adds Freddie Mac’s CHRO and Chief Diversity Officer Jacqueline Welch.
Freddie Mac’s program enhances connections between leaders of all levels and their employees by cultivating three key relationships: coach, mentor, and sponsor.
- Coaches help employees upskill in a key area for their career growth over a mutually defined period of time.
- Mentors talk with employees and provide insight and perspective as they navigate their careers.
- Sponsors use their influence to help employees advance their careers.
The company makes sure to take a human-centered approach, strengthening the collaborative culture by considering the individual needs and perspectives of each employee engaged in a mentoring relationship.
According to Francis, the support system that this creates can help new employees more easily transition into their roles and feel more connected to the organization. “When they have a mentor, employees know that they have someone in their corner that they can rely on if they have any questions,” she adds. “We sometimes undervalue how important it is to be able to connect with other people but mentoring truly allows people to do this.”
While the FDA’s mentorship program takes a slightly different approach from Freddie Mac’s, its goals are similar: to bridge the gap between experienced and new employees, to transfer knowledge, and to enhance engagement and job satisfaction.
“We have three programs in total: a general population program used agency-wide; a pathways and recent graduates program for students and graduates coming into the agency; and an executive mentoring program where new executives can receive required mentoring from other senior leaders,” Francis says.
And the results have been impactful. At the recent closing ceremony of the FDA’s mentoring program, one participant shared that prior to his mentoring partnership, he felt very alone, having moved to the area with no friends or family. However, his mentor turned all of that around. By connecting him with new people, sharing information about various organizations and events in and out of work, and even inviting him to Thanksgiving dinner with his family, his mentor was able to build his social circle and help him feel more connected to the agency.
But a mentorship program doesn’t have to be formally structured to be effective. According to Gregory, Biogen has implemented a hybrid program that provides both a traditional mentoring opportunity as well as guidance on how to self-manage a less structured engagement.
“Beyond the formal program, we create space and resources for informal, organic mentorships to occur through company-sponsored events like social hours, ‘Care Deeply Day’ (our company-wide day of community volunteering), and in global forums including our six employee resource networks,” she says.
Diversity by Design
And culture is only the beginning. Mentorship allows employees to share their strengths and experiences with their colleagues across service lines or geographies, improving inclusion within an organization.
“Mentoring programs facilitate the integration of culture and people,” says Francis. “By connecting with each other, we allow for the exchange of ideas, knowledge, customs, and culture. It allows us to celebrate the diversity that we all bring to the table and use our strengths to support the growth and advancement of an organization.”
Freddie Mac ensures that its mentorship program provides diverse employees with the expert insights and necessary resources to grow by leveraging employee resource groups (ERGs) to facilitate relationships with leaders.
“Our ERGs have played a meaningful role in developing and advancing a culture of coaching, mentoring, and sponsorship,” says Welch. “Many of our ERGs, targeted to various diverse affinities, have proactively established programs. While the frameworks differ, the goal is the same: connect diverse talent with knowledgeable and supportive leaders to help them grow and develop their career. While Freddie Mac is a majority-minority company and women make up nearly half of our workforce, these types of programs help ensure our diverse talent has the necessary resources to grow their career here.”
Diversity is also a key priority for accounting firm Armanino’s mentoring program. According to Chief People Officer Carol Ann Nash, the organization has two different mentoring initiatives in place: a voluntary formal mentorship program that is open to all employees, and a new executive access program (EAP) that specifically targets high-potential female leaders and funnels them into executive-level positions.
“The intention of the executive access program is addressing the lack of female executives,” Nash explains. “We align executives with high-potential female leaders to develop their skills and support them into that path to partnership. We know individuals often pull themselves out of opportunities when they don’t identify with leaders who look like them, so having access to a mentor who creates that relationship with the mentee really enables diverse individuals to thrive.”
Since the EAP launched in January 2019, 12 out of 18 participants who were identified by their practice leaders as rising stars have gone on to participate in the “Path to Partner” program, putting them in consideration for a future partner role. This is part of the organization’s larger commitment to female leadership and is supplemented by programming that brings awareness to what executive roles entail.
In fact, Nash says that one of the EAP program participants gained so much confidence as a result of her mentoring relationship that in only six months, she went from showing no interest in an executive role to being on the fast track to partnership. And this is not an anomaly. As a result of its leadership development initiatives, the number of female partners at Armanino has risen from 9 percent to 19.8 percent in nearly five years.
Even the company’s traditional mentorship program prioritizes inclusion. Established in 2014, the formal mentorship program is entirely voluntary—but the HR team makes sure that mentor-mentee matches are made with a range of experiences in mind.
“When we conduct the matching process, we think about experiences,” says Nash. “If a mentor has a particular strength because they have grown a business line within a certain region, we try to align them with a mentee who is coming from a different perspective.”
A successful mentoring program needs to be tailored to the specific needs and objectives of the organization while also taking into account individual employees and where they are in their personal and professional journeys. How can HR leaders facilitate a positive experience? Here are five best practices.
1. Set expectations at the start. “One of the most important things that you can do when establishing a mentoring program is defining the objectives and goals of the program,” says Francis. “It is extremely important to understand the organization’s goals, the purpose for developing the program, and the audience for which the program is intended. Having an understanding of the needs of the population that you are serving can support HR leaders in facilitating the right match and achieving positive results.”
For example, organizations should identify whether they are trying to develop lateral skills or leadership skills—and whether the talent development aligns with succession planning, business expansion, or growth in a new vertical. This information will help HR leaders set selection criteria and performance expectations.
2. Make smart matches. Mentor partnerships work best when both parties’ goals are compatible and when they have skills that complement each other. Armanino evaluates these factors during the application process, asking questions like:
- What are you looking to achieve within your professional growth?
- Why do you want to be involved with the program?
- Where have you found success around developing others?
This feedback is then used to match mentees with mentors from a different service line, location, or business unit, creating a unique experience that fosters a more diverse point of view.
“The intention behind it is we are trying to get to competency and experience development rather than a technical conversation around how to do audit or tax work better,” says Nash. “We are trying to develop those leadership, client-facing skills through the mentoring program.”
3. Leverage technology. Matching the right mentor to the right mentee can be a challenge, but technology can help. “When it comes to matching, partnering with a vendor to manage this can really be beneficial,” says Biogen’s Gregory. “If that is not an option, HR can deploy simple guidelines via a company intranet or file sharing platform to help employees find their own mentor. This should include the employee defining their goals for mentoring, thinking about what attributes they want in a mentor, defining their expectations, and then leaning on their network to find a great mentor.”
Biogen partners with Everwise Talent to implement its formal mentorship program, relying on capabilities like a matching algorithm that partners employees with either internal or external mentors based on a series of questions. Employees who are looking to broaden their network, learn a limited skillset, or experience a different culture have the option of connecting with a mentor beyond the confines of the company. The tool also gives participants the ability to set and track goals, check in with their mentor, and access additional learning resources.
The FDA also leverages technology to support, engage, and evaluate the agency’s 2,000 mentoring relationships. According to Francis, the MentorcliQ platform “provides a matching algorithm which we have found most helpful during the matching process. More importantly, their success coaches help us to strategically plan how we will approach mentoring within our organization and work with us step-by-step to execute our plan and tailor the software to meet our needs.”
The platform enables the organization to track program performance, including participant investment, the amount of hours spent mentoring, and real-time program and relationship satisfaction. This feedback is supplemented by monthly, mid-cycle, and program closure surveys designed to evaluate program function, design, and participant satisfaction. Since launching the program, the agency’s employees have logged over 14,000 mentoring hours with a satisfaction rating of 4.6 out of five.
4. Monitor progress. Once a mentoring partnership is in place, HR professionals need to set formal expectations of mentoring frequency and monitor the success of the relationship. Armanino recommends that organizations commit to a 12-month mentoring period with 30-minute conversations at least once per month. “You have to get to the level where the program is a formal commitment with clear expectations of frequency,” says Nash.
This level of frequency ensures that the mentor and mentee commit to deepening their relationship. “The goal is to create a space of support, encouragement, and goal setting so that there is a purpose behind the conversation while allowing freedom for the mentee to issue other questions where they are looking to receive guidance,” she adds.
Organizations should seek out feedback from both the mentor and mentee in the halfway point of the mentorship engagement to ensure that meetings are frequent and both parties are growing from the experience.
5. Encourage participation. Mentoring benefits an organization and aids in the personal and professional development of the mentee, but mentors themselves have much to gain as well.
According to a 2017 ATD study, a remarkable 75 percent of executives say mentoring has been critical to their career development—and Nash says that many of these executives acknowledge the value of this experience and want to carry it on to the next generation of employees.
“Very often, the mentors can clearly identify people who have mentored them or helped them get to the professional level that they have achieved, so their motive is very much to pay it forward and give back to those who have been there for them,” she says.
But mentoring isn’t entirely an altruistic affair. ATD reports that mentors receive three key benefits from participating in a program:
- the development of new perspectives (59 percent);
- the development of leadership skills (49 percent); and
- insight into the organization (38 percent).
“Don’t underestimate the role of the mentor as a development opportunity,” says Gregory. “Many employees are looking to build muscle in coaching others and this is a great way for them to do that—especially if they are in a role where they don’t manage other people. Encourage employees to pay it forward. Once they realize the benefits of having a mentor, encourage them to go out and mentor someone else. A program can really get legs when employees see the value and begin to talk about it with their peers.”