Mentoring programs are morale-builders. They replenish energy among those who are expected to be more productive tomorrow than they were yesterday. Mentoring’s considerable contributions to morale and energy are an investment in tomorrow and an investment in today.
As an example, a forward-looking city government in Southern California, with which we have had the privilege of working as mentoring training consultants, has leveraged its mentoring program to build a strong esprit de corps throughout its workforce. The commitment of staff to bettering themselves spills over into the important work that they do everyday.
A recent study published by the Harvard Business Review (January-February 2010 issue, "What Really Motivates Workers" by Teresa M. Amabile) reports that an important ingredient, perhaps the most important ingredient in employee satisfaction is having a sense of making progress in the work that the employee is doing. At Strategic Futures, we believe that this principle applies not only to the work that the employee does for the organization, but also the work that the employee does on and for himself or herself.
Mentoring is as important, perhaps more important, in economically difficult times as it is during times of prosperity. It’s neither a secret nor inappropriate that employees who leverage your organization’s mentoring program and seek out mentors are committed to cultivating their careers. Naturally, it’s important for mentors to make plain that extraordinary efforts to develop oneself are not a guarantee that promotion will follow. Expectations must be set judiciously. The bottom line is that employees who make an investment of time and effort in bettering themselves and their skills are likely to increase the probability of promotion or other rewards, but there is no guarantee.
That said, career mobility in today’s flattened organizations is not what it once was. Promotions and rewards in budget-constricted organizations can be few and far between. Indeed, sustaining one’s gainful employment at a status quo level is a challenge in many places.
However, these difficult times can be viewed by employees as an opportunity to “pre-position” themselves for future career gains. Once the protégé or mentee, has grasped today’s economic realities, s/he can gain motivation from the fact that they are gearing themselves up for opportunities that will eventually emerge. A large cadre of mentees who share this optimistic view and who continue to improve themselves affords vital positive energy to the enterprises that are strapped by current economic challenges.
When you are considering the possibilities for high-return HR investments, give mentoring programs a close look.
The Washington Post reported on February 13, 2010, that the “Toyota Way” was derailed in part because the company had thinned its ranks of expert mentors. The article quoted Susan Helper, a professor of economics at Case Western University in Cleveland, as follows: “So much of what made the company work well was that each manager was personally trained by a mentor who himself had long experience with the company. When the fast expansion came, Toyota was very short of senior managers who were ready to become mentors.”
Whether you are dealing with explosive growth, constricted staffing, or simply the changing of the guard as a new generation replenishes the ranks, the Toyota story is instructive: Mentoring is not an HR frill to be dismissed lightly. Indeed, as the Toyota example demonstrates, sufficient high-quality mentoring is the make-or-break difference in ensuring continuity of quality and productivity as well as pivotal values and norms. Those who have brought success to an enterprise can and should pass the torch to those who will bring future success after the mentors have moved on. Effective mentoring is the passing of this torch of success–a torch that is not passed by accident or raw luck.
It takes several years to ramp up a quality mentoring program with an adequate stable of capable mentors. This cannot be done overnight. No mentoring “miracle-grow” exists. Fancy electronics won’t get it done either.
Mentoring is a long-term investment intended to yield long-term benefits and as such, it conflicts with day-to-day operating imperatives. Long-range initiatives are trumped regularly by the emergencies of the day. Those of us in the training business often hear “there is no good time for training.” This logic suggests that there is no good time for mentoring either. That said, ask Toyota if there is a good time for failing.
Once your mentoring program has developed momentum, it is essential that it be maintained adequately. This means ensuring that new mentors are cultivated and that legacy mentors are refreshed periodically. In addition, once target mentor-mentee ratios have been established for the workforce, an enterprise must ensure that these ratios are maintained properly.
We don’t know if quantitative and qualitative indicators of mentoring were Balanced Scorecard dashboard items at Toyota, but we surmise that Toyota now wishes that it had paid more attention to the maintenance of a mentoring program that was once the envy of its industry. “Short-Term Bottom-Line Fast Buck Freddy” companies don’t and won’t make the long-term investment that quality mentoring requires, but “Built to Last” companies will.
To ignore mentoring is to ignore the long-term interests of your stakeholders. Today’s choices surrounding mentoring are your strategic future. The strategic future is now.
The Director of the 2010 Census recently remarked in the Washington Post that he is concerned about the imminent brain drain in the US Bureau of the Census owing to projected retirements. He pondered how this development could impact adversely a 2010 census which promises to be more than a little controversial at best. His solution? The older employees should take 15 minutes to sit down and have coffee with the younger ones to “transfer knowledge.” It begins to make you wonder about the level of compensation afforded to Census executives and managers if the knowledge can be transferred successfully over a cup of coffee, be it tall or grande. Sad. Starbucks will like this “strategy,” but the thoughtful citizen will not.
The passing of the mantle of leadership in American government and business is nigh. Baby Boomers have begun leaving the scene in one way or another but the question is: Are they ensuring that the transfer of knowledge and expertise will be smooth and complete? Too often, it’s being left to “someone else”—the next person “on watch” as it were.
The problem is that most of the time, the next person on watch is the very person who needs to be mentored for the job! Look at public utilities, such as water and wastewater districts and you will usually find the same predicament. The need for making a smooth transition is ubiquitous, yet the level of systematic and concentrated effort is usually paltry. Indeed, if Y2K proved to be a sheep in wolf’s clothing, the passing of the baton to a new generation has the potential to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
The Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS) is a 14,000-employee federal agency that performs a vital function—it pays our military heroes, our defense contractors, along with the President and a few other notables. A few years back, then-DFAS Director, Thomas Bloom, was concerned about ensuring uninterrupted performance as the mantle of leadership is passed from one generation to another. Indeed, the leadership demographics were cause for pause. The top leadership team of 20 executives was at or quickly nearing retirement age. Not remarkable on the face of it. However, the average age of the next lower echelon was actually older than the top leadership team! Go down yet another level and the employees were still no younger, on average. This is the condition at many organizations, particularly public organizations where no less than 50% of the employees are retirement-eligible as this is written.
DFAS started working on this challenge in 2001. Tom Bloom certainly wasn’t content with the idea that a couple cups of coffee would do the trick. The agency instituted a mentoring program. Strategic Futures Consulting Group has now trained more than 2500 of the agency’s employees in how to do quality mentoring. Creating an embedded mentoring culture in a large organization takes time—probably a decade, give or take. When it comes to renewing organizations by preparing the workforce adequately, leaving things to chance or leaving things to the next leader won’t do.
The strategic future is now: Organizations should ensure their perpetuity while those who can transfer productive knowledge are still on the payroll, not after they have already departed.
Should we say “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” even when our lying eyes promise us that it is fixin’ to be broke? Today is the time to prepare for tomorrow.