Mentorship is about much more than industry newbies soaking up the wisdom of experienced and accomplished professionals. That’s one major benefit of a mentorship program, of course, but agencies and in-house units can reap much broader rewards – for the mentors themselves and the organization as a whole – by taking a strategic approach to such initiatives.
This begins in the planning stages of a mentorship program. Randomly pairing up executives with upstarts and urging them to interact is likely to yield few benefits. Instead, an organization should set out clear goals of what the individuals and the company as a whole expect to gain from such a program.
Maril MacDonald, CEO and founder of Gagen MacDonald, gives examples of objectives an agency might set for participants, such as learning to better manage teams, write persuasively, or do something as straightforward as understand balance sheets.
"It should be structured for accountability on both sides," says MacDonald, who recommends that any mentorship program include regular performance reviews to ensure individual and joint goals are being met.
"The mentee must be ready and willing to be coached. The mentor must have respect for the mentee, the willingness to meet that person where he or she is, not where the mentor wants him or her to be," she adds.
The decision of which mentors and mentees to pair together should be made with a clear understanding of what both parties seek to gain from the program. Once the partnerships are set, mentors should commit to dig deeper into the specific needs of the younger employee.
"Being a good mentor means understanding what the mentee’s goals are," suggests Nick Ashooh, senior director of corporate and executive communication for APCO Worldwide, which runs a formal mentorship program in which he is heavily involved. Ashooh has become a hearty advocate of these efforts after learning under a number of mentors himself.
"It’s not just a matter of giving contacts," he adds. "Instead ask, ‘What in my experience will be valuable to you? Who else might you benefit from speaking to?’"
Chances are, the mentee is not solely concerned with getting a high-paying job or moving up the company ladder, but rather would be more enriched by learning a new skill or tips on working with different types of clients within a sector, or a different sector altogether.
Developing new relationships
Exposing participants to areas beyond their specific job functions should also be a key goal of an effective mentorship program. Mike Fernandez, corporate VP of corporate affairs for Cargill, stresses that mentees never be paired with their own managers.
"If possible, they should be paired with people in different disciplines," he says. Fernandez points to the fact that almost all his mentees at Cargill have been from operations and functions other than those that would usually report to him. Among them are a female plant manager in Cargill’s corn milling business, a "rising star" in its finance organization, and a country lead in Latin America.
"Each relationship has afforded me a unique look at Cargill’s business," he notes. "At the same time, my mentees have learned a bit about being more effective communicators and understanding the broader public policy issues that impact Cargill as a whole."
Fernandez adds that a key to a mentorship program’s success is getting public support from the company’s top brass. That is the case at Cargill, where he reports the top executives "are all in," with the CEO and chairman helping to mentor others, showing they feel the effort is worthwhile and important to the organization’s future.
Jon Iwata, SVP of marketing and communications at IBM, is familiar with the above scenario. He reveals he has had his share of "wonderful mentors" inside the company during his three decades with IBM.
"They took the time to get to know me and very often challenged me to grow in uncomfortable ways," Iwata says of his advisers. "Effective mentors help you navigate the unseen aspects of a company’s culture. They also help – sometimes force – you to see yourself."
When asked to describe the ultimate type of interaction in a mentor-mentee relationship, McGraw-Hill Education CCO Catherine Mathis says, "You want there to be sparks." She urges that meetings between participants be conducted without "multitasking," which ensures that even if a mentor is busy, he or she sets aside time for focused interaction with the mentee.
Discussions about mentorship programs often focus on helping guide young professionals in the early stages of their professional careers, but in perhaps even more ways, such efforts can provide benefits to the mentors.
Mentees have likely had experiences very different from those of the mentor, or have a specific understanding of something that can update and expand on the mentor’s knowledge base. At the very least, the younger pro provides the mentor with a personal understanding of what interests and concerns the next generation of communications professionals.
"Many of us gain satisfaction from simply helping others navigate their careers," says Fernandez, "but there’s also the opportunity to gain greater familiarity with a company’s emerging leaders. But the biggest benefit may be that it expands one’s perspective."
He highlights one such "reverse mentoring program" in which State Farm Insurance, where he led public affairs prior to joining Cargill in 2010, paired younger digital natives with senior executives. The executives acted as mentors relative to the digital natives’ development, while the latter helped company leaders navigate their way through the latest social media technology.
As important as clear planning and goal-setting might be to the program, the follow-up is just as essential. For a mentorship to have lasting impact, it should continue after the formal guidance ends – a responsibility both members of the partnership bear equally.
"I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met with someone and told them, ‘Let me know how you’re doing,’ but then never hear from them again," says Ashooh, adding that this requires effort by both parties to stay in touch. "From a mentor’s position, I want to know how the person does and where they land. From a mentee’s perspective, I want to build this lifelong partnership that might be helpful in the future."
The greatest benefit
PRWeek asked our five industry leaders to highlight one key piece of advice they would offer mentees to ensure they get the most out of a mentorship program.
"The most important thing a mentee should get out of a mentorship program is a lasting relationship. Take a long-term view."
"Consider the perspective others offer you, even if it is not exactly what you want to hear. Be willing to learn new things and open yourself up to constructive criticism."
"Make sure the mentor search goes external. Outside of IBM, I’ve ‘adopted’ Bill Nielsen of Johnson & Johnson and Harold Burson as mentors. I learn from every conversation. They help make the inexperienced one wise."
"Remember that you’re simply getting a point of view. It’s up to you to decide what to do with it."
"Come with an agenda to meet with your mentor. If you stray off course, that’s fine, but come with an idea of what you want to discuss."