Help Employees Learn The Ropes

Mentoring programs offer a low-cost, low-risk solution to disengaged employees and high turnover.
Help Employees Learn The Ropes
Horace McCormick

Here’s an interesting factoid to chew on: According to a recent survey conducted by the Corporate Executive Board, 25 percent of companies in the United States run peer-mentoring programs — a dramatic upward leap from just 5 percent before the 2007 recession hit.

Is your organization among the other 75 percent? If so, it’s missing out on one of the most effective ways — and least expensive methods — to increase employee engagement and satisfaction, reduce turnover and accelerate the leadership-readiness of high-potential employees. Moreover, a good mentoring program serves as an effective, must-have recruiting tool, says Horace McCormick, the program director for executive development at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School.

“Mentoring is not only inexpensive, it also achieves higher-quality results than more formal learning experiences,” notes McCormick, who compiled 15 years of executive human resources and talent-management experience at global 200 organizations. “Mentoring is more sustainable than formal learning events because you’re making a cultural shift in how you want to develop people.”

Why are mentoring programs mounting a comeback? Part of it stems from the financial hardships encountered by companies and organizations during the recession. Employee training and development programs usually are the first victims of organizational budget cuts, and mentoring provides a natural substitute for revenue-strapped companies that still want to develop employees, McCormick notes.

Another factor: the surge of millennials, or Gen-Yers, entering the labor market. Unlike the employee demographic cohorts that preceded them, millennials crave the kind of workplace culture that mentoring produces. “They don’t want a traditional boss-employee relationship,” McCormick points out. “They want something more … and mentoring provides the framework for how they want to communicate and learn.”

Faster employee acclimation

In addition, the days of employees staying with a company long enough to earn the proverbial gold watch at retirement are long gone. So if most employees’ tenures will be ephemeral at best, why not acclimate them as quickly as possible and increase the odds of them staying longer, as well as maximize their productivity? Mentoring programs can help achieve those goals.

“Employers need to get as much out of employees as they can,” McCormick says. “And to do so, they have to find ways to bring them up to speed faster. If you don’t do that, they’re not going to stay very long, and they won’t be very productive while they’re employed, either.

“Employees make up their minds quickly. Generally within the first six months, they know if they want to stay with an organization,” he adds. “If I had to bring someone along in a hurry and maximize their impact on an organization, I would make sure I had the right mentor in place to connect them to the right knowledge and the right people. Most new employees struggle to figure out how things work in an organization — how they can be successful. And mentoring bridges that gap.”

Most employees enjoy mentoring programs because they help them learn more. That’s valuable because learning is energizing and engaging, and energized and engaged employees are less likely to brush up their resumes and contact headhunters. And if someone doesn’t like to learn, well, that’s useful knowledge, too. “No organization should want to keep employees who don’t like to learn,” McCormick says.

Different options available

Mentoring programs vary widely. One-on-one mentoring usually involves a senior manager serving as a role model to a junior employee, focusing on specific skills the mentee wants to hone. E-mentoring uses social media platforms to more effectively reach widely dispersed workforces.

In reverse mentoring, the mentee is an older employee who perhaps needs help with learning new technologies that younger employees already fully grasp. With group mentoring, a mentor offers guidance to multiple mentees. Then there’s peer mentoring, in which employees with similar interests meet periodically to serve as mutual sounding boards and exchange experiences and ideas.

In some instances, an organization might use a combination of different mentoring approaches. Another may opt for one type of program that’s best suited to its goals and culture. For example, in an engineering environment, a more structured and traditional form of mentoring might be more appropriate, while a sales workforce that’s spread out geographically may be better suited for group or e-mentoring.

“E-mentoring works great with millennials,” McCormick adds. “They like to have mentoring on demand, sort of like movies on Netflix. To select the right mentoring approach, you have to understand your organization’s culture and how people behave in your culture.”

Tie to strategic goals

But no matter what approach is taken, the mentoring programs must align with an organization’s strategic goals. “Mentoring programs will die off after time if there’s no strategic imperative,” he observes. Moreover, the purpose of the mentoring should be articulated clearly and evaluated and measured periodically. In addition, mentoring relationships should not last more than a year, he suggests.

Another thing to consider: Mentoring is not the same thing as coaching. What’s the difference? There are gray areas that overlap a bit, McCormick concedes. But in general, employee coaching is short-term in nature and centers more on solving specific challenges that are behavioral- or performance-related. In addition, it’s often performed by external consultants.

Mentoring, on the other hand, is an internal, long-term endeavor that’s broader in scope; it focuses more on giving advice, connecting employees with the right resources and helping them to better understand an organization and its culture.

Like stormwater and sewage, it’s best to avoid mixing up the two. “I wouldn’t encourage anyone to use mentoring to help someone who’s struggling performance-wise, for example,” McCormick says.

One key to a successful mentoring program: A one-day workshop in which someone who’s trained in mentoring explains what mentoring is and isn’t, clearly specifies the program’s objectives, and engages participants in some role-playing “before turning them loose on one another,” McCormick says.

Pockets of resistance

It’s always possible that some managers will resist implementation of mentoring programs. They may trot out old tropes like there’s not enough time or that mentoring is just a bunch of touchy-feely New Age-ish hogwash aimed at placating spoiled millennials. Nonsense, says McCormick.

“You need to explain that you’re not asking them for more time, you’re just asking them to develop a better relationship with employees — a mentoring relationship,” he says. “In other words, you expect your managers to talk to their people and find out how to make them feel more connected to the organization. If people say they don’t have time, you’ve selected the wrong mentor or the wrong mentee.”

Other dissenters will claim that it’s too difficult to assess the return on any investment in mentoring programs. McCormick disagrees, noting that not everything can be documented in terms of numbers, financial or otherwise.

“But with mentoring, you’ll eventually see the results every day,” he says. “You’ll see people connecting with your organization and choosing to stay.”

And by any measure, those are priceless commodities these days.

To learn more about mentoring and how to establish a successful program, visit and download a mentoring white paper written by Horace McCormick.


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