Thursday, June 13, 2024

Mentoring successful careers

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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.

In other cases, some of the participants have chosen to sit in on staff meetings and serve on task forces. Klippel believes that all these efforts have enhanced the participants’ views of how IT and the railroad work effectively together.

How to make formal mentoring work at your company

Match participants on the basis of skills and need. A personality fit isn’t as important. For example, a mentor with proven communication and presentation skills is matched with a protégé interested in learning those skills. Whether their personalities are compatible isn’t significant. Learning the new skill takes priority.

Build in accountability and commitment–ensure that all participants understand their roles and responsibilities:

Mentors-protégés need to regroup within two weeks of their initial meeting.

A joint mentor/supervisor/protégé meeting is held within one month.

An action plan is finalized the first month.

Oral status/activity reports are given at follow-up meetings.

Start with a pilot program and expand after you have been successful.

Evaluate the program’s impact to justify any company expenditures. One suggestion for a quick evaluation is to compile a protégé’s accomplishments in a “yearbook” and share it with senior management and other appropriate parties.

Prospective protégés in the CSX program fill out a formal application that includes letters of recommendation and an interview by a cross-functional committee that oversees the program. “It’s a lot like a graduate-school application,” says Klippel, noting not everyone is chosen. The protégés drive the process and are responsible for formulating an action plan that lists what they will accomplish during the program’s one-year tenure. Those chosen indicate what they want to learn and are then paired up with a mentor who has the functional expertise.

“For example, we’ll pair an IT person who wanted to know about railroad operations with a trainmaster or a superintendent on the railroad,” Klippel says. “Similarly, we have people from operating departments who want to learn about the technology group, so they’d be paired with a mentor from that group.”

By providing this cross-functional exposure, Klippel believes IT professionals see the gaps and, in turn, can think of future applications while learning how the railroad does business. “When our IT folks move to IT management functions, they do so with more scope and more of an understanding as to how technology serves the railroad they work for,” says Klippel. “For mentors, we look for someone, director and above, with a good overall knowledge of our company and for someone who has a genuine interest in people-development issues, that is, someone who has done a good job of developing the staff members they currently oversee,” he says.

The committee meets with prospective mentors to outline their roles and to ensure their interest. Next they complete a profile form listing their skills and knowledge. The information helps the committee pair up a mentor with a protégé. The CSX program kicks off with a three-day orientation session where the partners get to know each other, and where they receive training on how to be good mentors and good protégés. Groups leave this orientation with an action plan. The CSX ground rules state that the mentor-protégé team must touch base within two weeks of the orientation program. An internal survey indicates that most teams meet once a month, some twice a month.

The group has quarterly follow-up meetings that combine a topical business presentation along with progress reports from each team. Klippel says 70% of the mentoring teams choose to continue the relationship after the program’s formal conclusion. “We have found that over 70% of those participating have been promoted. Of course, this isn’t due solely to the program. In fact, we go out of our way to point out that this is a career-development program, not a promotion-oriented program,” says Klippel.

What style of mentoring program is right for you?

Formal or informal–just what type of mentoring program works best for IT professionals? Opinions vary. Read more >

CSX conducts extensive surveys of participants at the six-month mark, and again about six weeks after the one-year anniversary date. Klippel says these surveys “show that an overwhelming number of participants report that they have a better idea of the big picture of our company, understand more about other departments, found the program’s networking valuable, and developed more of a career focus while in the program.” He estimates that about 70% of the IT protégés are interested in learning the operational side of the business–how the company is structured and how the trains run. The remaining 30% want additional technical skills.

A winning combination

Marilynne Miles Gray of The Mentoring Institute, in Sydney, British Columbia, is the consultant working with CSX on its mentoring program. She believes that the guidelines developed by the company are one reason the program is successful. “The mentoring program has to be voluntary with stated expectations,” says Gray. “You must have confidentiality between the mentor and the protege, a commitment, and the supervisor shouldn’t be the mentor.”

For IT professionals, mentoring programs offer tremendous opportunities to learn skills not often associated with technical prowess. “Mentoring is an easier method of learning a company’s unwritten rules, such as how people dress, how they talk to each other, and how they get things done,” says Gray. “People skills are necessary today. The combination of people and technical skills is a winner.”

Dr. Linda Phillips-Jones, principal consultant of The Mentoring Group, in Grass Valley, Calif., believes IT mentoring benefits the mentor as much as the protégé. “Mentoring is a way for seasoned IT professionals to keep up with current trends and exchange information,” she says. “Since mentoring shortens an individual’s learning curve, management sees improved performance sooner.” //

Ann Howe is a freelance writer living in Amherst, N. H. She can be reached at

What style of mentoring program is right for you?

Formal or informal–just what type of mentoring program works best for IT professionals? Opinions vary. Mentoring consultants maintain that informal programs lack guidelines and accountability, placing the emphasis on subjective criteria such as emotion or personality–in other words, “chemistry.”

Formal programs are focused, tied to business objectives, time-bound, and measured for effectiveness. These programs follow strict criteria for participation, for the training of participants, and for monitoring the process. Participants are challenged to learn new skills such as team building, communications, or time management.

According to Rene Petrin, president of Management Mentors, in Lexington, Mass., mentoring is a “qualitative relationship that takes on specific dynamics with a focus on getting things done in a structured way. A formal, structured program is more egalitarian and compatibility is more important than chemistry. You need to develop a professional relationship–not [make] a best friend.”

Yet participants of informal mentoring programs believe just as fervently that it’s the chemistry between the mentor and the apprentice that counts. Bill Slater, director of the mentoring program for the Chicago Computer Society, contends that mentoring is a personal, time-honored concept best described with a quote from Buddhist philosophy: “When the student is ready, the master will appear.”

Finding informal mentors is a challenge. Sometimes, an individual discovers a nurturing co-worker who provides help in understanding company culture. Other times, the search goes outside the corporate boundaries to support groups and professional organizations. For example, Women In Technology International (WITI) is filling the void by providing mentors at conferences. This creates the opportunity for women to make contacts and develop relationships outside their employer.

And what do protégés look for in an informal mentoring relationship? They want answers to everything from resume writing to salary negotiations to how to climb the ladder to success.

So which is better–informal or formal? It depends on the goals of your company and the goals of the individual. Interestingly, some will argue that although informal mentoring lacks the objectivity and structure of a formal program, it has a very interesting potential upside–recruiting. After all, if your mentor likes where he or she works maybe you will too. –A.H.

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