Mentoring successful careers

IT mentoring improves morale, reduces turnover, and shortens the learning curve for new hires.
Posted November 1, 1999
By

Ann Howe


(Page 1 of 3)

In this article:
Areas addressed by mentors
How to make formal mentoring work
What style of mentoring program is right for you?

What's the IT perk of the next millennium? Try mentoring. IT professionals everywhere are asking for the guidance, wisdom, and knowledge that only a good mentor can provide. Mentoring makes a difference because it offers IT professionals access to the skills and knowledge necessary to climb the corporate ladder. Although money and benefits count, they only go so far--people ultimately want to feel appreciated and like part of a team with a common mission.

At Miliken & Co., mentor Tammy Reeves (l.) coaches Ken Brown, who is new to the company.
According to the experts, mentoring programs provide new hires with the sense that they are valued and that the company is willing to invest in them. For companies offering such programs, mentoring improves morale, reduces turnover, and shortens the learning curve for new employees.

A career based solely on technological skills isn't enough in today's business world. IT organizations use mentoring programs to teach new hires "soft skills" as well as how to operate effectively in the company culture. These soft skills include topics such as conflict resolution, project management, and how to persuade people to your point of view. Equally as important, experts say, is getting up to speed with the company's "unwritten rules"--everything from attire to protocol in meetings.

At Milliken & Company, an international textile and chemical firm in Spartanburg, S.C., a mentoring program for IT recruits is mandatory. Milliken has a centralized IT department of 160 employees and 40 contractors that provides systems support for the information needs of the company's U.S. and corporate business. Before a new associate reports for work, a mentor orients the individual to Milliken culture, processes, and technology. The program expands the traditional role of supervisor by adding responsibilities that include coaching and mentoring. The supervisor works with the protégé to jointly develop action plans, identify pitfalls, and determine how to avoid them.

AT A GLANCE: Milliken & Company
The company: Headquartered in Spartanburg, S.C., Milliken & Company is a leading international textile and chemical firm with more than 60 manufacturing facilities worldwide and 16,000 associates.

The problem: Milliken wanted to recruit and retain IT college hires, as well as provide them with a solid technical and cultural orientation to the company.

The solution: Expand an employee-orientation program to include technical and cultural training. Make the program mandatory for all new IT hires to ensure that everyone receives the same information and training.

"Those being mentored recognize that the program gives them an advantage," says Gus Metz, IT training and recruiting leader at Milliken. "As students leave school, they expect to behave differently, and the program teaches them what new habits are expected and rewarded." For example, employees are referred to as associates, and everyone is on a first-name basis. Mentor and protégé discuss corporate and ethical issues, how to get things done, and whom to go to to solve problems.


A new paradigm

Milliken gives new employees seven to 12 weeks of initial technical training and continues to build technical skills with real project assignments. Formalized management-skills training is incorporated into a five-year core curriculum. In addition to developing the new employees' management skills, this curriculum tells associates that Milliken expects them to stay at least five years. With this training, new employees have the opportunity to broaden their experience and career within the company.

Since the company is making an investment in an individual, it naturally wants something in return. The new paradigm requires associates to be generalists and to learn skills outside their area of technical expertise. Mentoring shortens the learning curves so associates feel productive rather than like they are wasting time.

Tammy Reeves, project leader, and Ken Brown, information services professional, represent a mentor-protégé team at Milliken. Reeves is an 11-year veteran, while Brown is moving from college to the working world. For Reeves, the mentoring program expedites the learning process for new hires and enhances leadership skills in the mentors. "I've improved my skills in communication, delegation, planning, time management, and performance reviews," says Reeves. "It's been a very valuable growing experience."

Mentors often address these areas
Proper attire--business and casual
Presentation skills
Communication skills
Time management
Influencing others
Company protocol and culture
Management fundamentals
Life balancing--personal and professional
Assertive vs. aggressive behavior
Project management
Work ethics
Conflict resolution
Leadership skills
How to network (relationship building)
Reeves belongs to the Associate Leadership Team, the group charged with career development. The team is responsible for improving the mentoring process and for training future mentors. Annually, the team hosts separate protégé and mentor breakfasts to garner suggestions for improving the program. The most recent result of these meetings is an annual two-hour training session for mentors. "In this session, we share experiences, discuss what-if situations and how to handle them, and give suggestions for feedback and evaluations," says Reeves. "The mentoring process continues to be listed by our new [IT] associates as one of the highlights of their first year."

Brown agrees. "Each week, Tammy and I had a mentor meeting where I had the opportunity to discuss any concerns and offer any suggestions for the mentoring process," he says. "The constant feedback I received from my mentor helped me identify the areas where I was performing well, as well as areas where I could improve."

As a protégé, Brown was responsible for keeping track of his progress, writing weekly status reports, documenting his time, and participating in weekly mentor meetings. Brown found these tasks didn't detract from his regular work, but rather "interacting with my mentor enhanced my ability to complete these tasks quickly and make an early contribution to the company," he says.

A big-picture perspective

Doug Klippel, CSX's director of organizational development.
Unlike Milliken, CSX Corp., a railroad company headquartered in Jacksonville, Fla., operates a voluntary mentoring program across all areas of the company. CSX's eight-year-old mentoring program has approximately 200 mentor-protégé teams participating. About 15% of the protégés and 10% of the mentors involved are from the technology group.

"Frequently, our technology folks want to gain a big picture perspective of company operations, and they want to learn how the projects they are working on impact our company's operations," explains Doug Klippel, director of organizational development for CSX. "Some want to learn more about how our technology group itself operates and how it formulates its strategy and objectives."

Recently, the technology group needed to assess a new computer package to handle the demands of train car accounting. Several of the mentoring participants asked to join the focus groups investigating the issue. The participants increased their knowledge of rail operations and fine-tuned their abilities to evaluate a situation and to make a quality decision. "Their work factored into the recommendation our Technology Group made to senior management," says Klippel.




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