Companies such as General Electric and State Farm have recognized the value of reverse mentoring, especially in educating staff about social media tools and techniques; PR firms have learned to tailor mentor programs to fit both culture and employee needs.
What hasn't changed is the fact that people in the industry seek out great mentors and understand the role they can play in not just furthering a career, but in establishing an organization as a leader.
Bruce Berger, a PR and advertising professor at the University of Alabama, says examples set by mentors are the most important source of leadership development for PR pros. “It's in times like this,” he adds, “that the value really comes through.”
Organizations grapple with formalizing such programs, in part, leaders say, because of how different the culture is for each firm and in-house team.
Keith Burton, president of GolinHarris' Insidedge, created a formal mentoring program in its Chicago office, calling it “one of the most successful things we've done.” There are 32 mentor relationships, with some people serving as both mentors and mentees.
At Porter Novelli, the firm is focusing on what CEO Gary Stockman calls a “peer-to-peer” model of mentoring, but it does not have a formalized mentor program. He says because the environment, especially when looking at social media, is changing so quickly, there is a greater need to learn in different ways.
“The current climate and the need to innovate quickly – the need to move knowledge around an organization quickly – really does require some new ways of looking at learning,” notes Stockman.
The peer-to-peer model, which is in beta, allows staff to share new learning about social media in a real-time format that reflects how busy people are and how quickly the technology is changing.
What makes a mentor
Despite the different ways that organizations set up mentoring programs, there is agreement on the characteristics that all the good ones have.
State Farm has a formal mentoring process, where employees in the communications department can choose to have mentors in another part of the company to better understand that section of the business, says Mike Fernandez, who is joining Cargill as VP of corporate affairs in mid-September after four years as VP of public affairs at the insurance company.
He cites several key questions he asks when establishing mentor relationships: How prepared should the individuals be before meetings? Is it acceptable to take notes? How often should meetings be scheduled? What are the goals for the relationships?
Fernandez himself has a reverse mentor he speaks with to understand the young adult consumer.
“We talk about what the company is doing directionally, in terms of reaching out to young adults and what they do and don't see as working,” he says. “It has helped inform some decisions. Now, it hasn't necessarily been to the point of starting up anything new. It's been more in terms of making us better aware.”
Kate James, CCO at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, turned to her mentors when making major career decisions, such as the move from Standard Chartered Bank in the UK to Citibank, and then from Citibank to the Gates Foundation.
“It's also about a mentor really understanding your strengths and weaknesses and having a deep relationship where they can talk candidly to you,” she says.
None of James' four mentors were established through formal programs and each serves a different purpose. Yet all are people she can trust – the most important quality of a mentor relationship, she adds.
“The best relationship is where there is that degree of trust and candor so that the mentor brings objectivity to the discussion,” explains James, “but also knows the individual well enough to be able to give very constructive counsel.”
Another key understanding between mentor and mentee is the need to protect the privacy of the conversation. Looking at the past two years, many employee concerns had to do with job satisfaction and safety.
“When you lose people, it always takes a toll on those around them,” says Burton. “Mentoring is such an important part of the work we do – to protect the talent pool and ensure that the values we talk about for a great workplace are really lived out.”
He adds that as firms hire people with non-communications backgrounds, such as those with social science experience, mentors can play an even greater role in teaching the best PR practices.
“In a tough economy, we need to work smarter, really invest in our talent, and realize their potential – and there are many ways to do that,” says James. “Mentoring is a really important way to do so.”
GE'S TWEET SQUAD
General Electric launched a Tweet Squad in June 2009 as part of an overall effort to address growing interest in social media and the medium's place in the company's business.
Led by Megan Parker, the communications specialist for social media, it is the first social media mentoring program for GE, which has a long history of mentoring, says Linda Boff, global director of marketing communications.
The squad, which comprises 15 social media experts, schedules one-on-one meetings with GE staff to talk about everything from the latest social media trends and tools to how best to listen to consumers online. Topics range from something as simple as how to upload a YouTube video to understanding the technology and relationships of Facebook.
“There is no longer communications that isn't going to touch some form of digital or social communication,” says Boff. “It's becoming impossible. There is a growing awareness about that among our leaders and managers.”
Following one-on-one meetings, the squad also sends out weekly e-mails, providing information about trends to watch and Web sites to visit. Since its inception, the group has trained more than 125 GE managers and officials.
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