HR Leadership Column

Redefining the Mentor

The traditional definition of a mentor -- someone who teaches or gives help and advice to a less-experienced and often younger person -- needs to be both updated and broadened for today's workplace.

Monday, October 28, 2013
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I was recently in Boston to attend HRE's HR Executive of the Year award dinner, which was held in conjunction with the Human Resource Policy Institute's fall meeting at Boston University. I was attending both as a Fellow of HRPI and as one of the judges for the HRE award. This year's winner, Mark James, SPHR, CCP, CBP, is senior vice president of human resources and communications for Honeywell.  You can read more about James here. He's an impressive executive whose accomplishments reflect well on the profession.

Earlier in the day, Honeywell's CEO, David Cote, addressed an audience of business-school students and HRPI members. Cote was named CEO of the Year earlier this year by CEO magazine, which highlighted that, during his 10-year tenure at Honeywell, he increased sales by 71 percent, to $37.7 billion, delivered a total-shareowner return of 240 percent and ensured the company consistently outperformed the S&P 500.

One of the questions posed to Cote from the student audience was, "Who was your mentor?" Cote responded that, while he had had many mentors, he couldn't recall any single mentoring relationship that lasted over his entire career. At different points on his professional journey, he sought out a variety of people for help on different issues. 

I suspect his experience is the rule, not the exception. After all, consider the type of mentoring you needed with your very first job, and compare it to the mentoring you'd like with your current role.  

Many organizations with large employee bases have established formal mentorship programs as part of leadership and professional-development efforts. These large companies are able to assign mentors in other divisions or geographies, ensuring the mentee won't be in a direct-reporting relationship with the mentor. 

But many companies do nothing. It may be because of resource or leadership limitations. It may be because the top leaders of an organization never participated in a formal program and therefore don't see a need for it or understand its value. 

Whether or not a company has a formal program, it's important to create a culture in which mentoring is encouraged and expected throughout the organization. The traditional definition of a mentor -- someone who teaches or gives help and advice to a less-experienced and often younger person -- needs to be redefined in the workplace, and viewed more expansively.

Mentoring can occur wherever there's knowledge, skills, insight or expertise held by one person that can be shared to help another person, regardless of age or experience. If you've ever had your kids guide you through the operation of a new TV or piece of technology, you know that mentoring relationships between generations can indeed be beneficial.  

HR executives also can play a leadership role in helping to build a culture of mentorship by:  

* Looking for opportunities to act as a matchmaker. HR executives are uniquely positioned to view the skills and abilities of employees across the organization, and are more likely to have insight into individuals' strengths and weaknesses. Help connect employees who may not know each other, but may be able to help each other.

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* Assisting managers, through training, to understand that part of their responsibility is to be available to mentor employees who work elsewhere in the organization. Help managers understand that, as mentors, they'll be helping other employees develop professionally, but not in a supervisory capacity. 

* Helping managers and employees understand that being a mentor doesn't have to be a long-term commitment. Serving as a mentor may last only as long as necessary, perhaps serving as a sounding board for the duration of a specific project or undertaking. 

* Stressing the fact that, in mentor relationships, both mentor and mentee will benefit. It's not simply a one-sided relationship. While a mentee is gaining important insights and understanding from an experienced mentor, a mentor gains a better understanding of the challenges being faced by less-experienced workers and other parts of the business. 

And finally, HR executives should model the behavior they're expecting from other executives, acting as mentors when opportunities arise while also searching out other HR and non-HR executives who can provide advice and guidance throughout their careers.

Who are your mentors?

Susan R. Meisinger, former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, is an author, speaker and consultant on human resource management. She is on the board of directors of the National Academy of Human Resources.



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