The Agency Business: Mentoring programs help senior execs, proteges hone skills

Although mentor relationships can be time-consuming and the benefits to the mentor might not be as quickly felt, many firms find they are a surefire way to foster growth on both sides.

Although mentor relationships can be time-consuming and the benefits to the mentor might not be as quickly felt, many firms find they are a surefire way to foster growth on both sides.

For PR pros lucky enough to have a good mentor on their side, the value is clear. PR is a business where experience is a key ingredient of success, and being able to draw on the knowledge of someone in a senior position, someone to act as a guide and a sounding board, can be an invaluable asset. But being a mentor is a bit trickier and at times might not seem to have as big a payoff as being the mentee. Still, for agencies both large and small, having mentoring opportunities is a way to strengthen their own shops and keep personal skills fresh. "Mentoring benefits both the protege as well as the mentor, and I highly recommend it from an agency perspective," says Ellen Hartman, president of Weber Shandwick's Atlanta office. Like Hartman, Lucy Siegel, president of New York-based Bridge Worldwide, credits her mentoring with helping to get the most out of a small staff. She says that one benefit of helping her young professionals grow in the field is that it boosts the efficiency and ability of her agency. "As an owner of a small PR agency, where the productivity of every employee makes a huge difference to the bottom line, I can attest to the importance of mentoring young professionals in order to get the best possible productivity from even the lowest salaried person," she says. Both Siegel and Hartman point out that mentoring doesn't just help employees increase their skills, but it also gives them a personal interest in the success of their mentor - and the agency - as well as gives them reasons to stick around beyond salary. "If you can somehow work closely with people, take people under your wing and teach them what you know, then you have a better, more experienced employee," says Tony Russo, CEO of Euro RSCG Life PR, "but also you develop a very tight bond with that person, and they end up working much harder for you." Rodger Roeser, VP of Cincinnati-based Justice & Young PR, adds that you can never underestimate where your mentees will wind up later in their careers. Creating goodwill now could have unforeseen benefits later on. "You never know when these junior members end up being the marketing director of AT&T or Procter & Gamble," he points out. Organizations differ on how they approach mentoring, though, with some creating formalized programs, and others leaving it to the discretion of senior-level people. At DC-based SheaHedges Group, the program has been formalized for nearly three years as a way to show the firm's commitment to the concept, says VP Lisa Throckmorton. Employees are assigned a mentor and meet with that person once a week during the first six months of their employment, then twice a month. Hartman calls it savvy to have this kind of formalization because it also offers the opportunity to help train the mentors to be good in their roles and helps identify the employees most in need of extra attention. But Roeser cautions that "a mentor is certainly a lot different than a boss," and it's important to have someone committed to being a mentor on a personal level, and who is not just doing it as part of a job. Hartman agrees and says that a lot of being a good mentor is "being both empathetic and listening, as well as being candid and frank with them in conversations." Roeser also points out that being a mentor can be extremely time-consuming. "It can be very challenging to be as accessible as some of these folks want you to be," he says. "So if you are going to agree to be a mentor with someone, you have to make sure you are wiling to make a commitment of time." Throckmorton warns not to underestimate exactly how much time that can be. "It definitely keeps me here later than I'd like to be on those days," she says. Roeser also points out that it is important to chose a protege carefully because you might later be asked to endorse or recommend that person or allow him to use your contacts. "No question about it," he says, "you're putting your personal reputation and a lot of your personal contacts on the line." Still, most mentors say they love to do it and find it personally rewarding. "It's actually the part of my job that I probably enjoy doing the most," explains Throckmorton. "It's helping someone to be successful. It's just a good feeling."

Tips on mentoring

  • Don't underestimate how much time it can take to be a good mentor.
  • Choose your protégé wisely - you might later be asked to vouch for this person.
  • Consider formalizing an agency's mentoring program as a way to help both mentors and proteges increase their skills.
  • Listen. Sometimes being a mentor is about letting young professionals work through their own problems.
  • Don't do it simply for business. It's a personal relationship at its heart. It requires friendship, as well as advice.

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