Grow Your Own Talent: The Magic of Mentor Programs

For the past five years I’ve managed a corporate mentor program for new sales trainees of a large engineering company headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio. Each summer our kick-off training is a day of high-energy skill development and fun. We discuss (and practice) the cornerstone of several mentor models — listening. I teach the mentors coaching skills while my training partner works on career development with the mentees. And we learn about the tendencies and motivations of the four generations in the workplace. WIIFM On the surface it would seem that mentor programs are all about helping the mentees gain skills, but I’ve discovered “wins” at every level. While the mentor program has become a valuable part of the on-boarding process for my client’s new employees, it’s also become a low-cost, high-gain experience for developing the junior to mid-level employee. When new mentors ask the WIIFM question (“What’s in it for me?”), here’s what mentors selfreport in the year-end evaluations I conduct: Mentor Gains:
  • Sharpened listening skills
  • Leadership experience
  • An expanded company network
  • Empathy — insight into the struggles of new employees transitioning to the corporate work environment
  • Rejuvenated enthusiasm for the job
  • Improved time management skills
  • Great satisfaction in helping someone start his or her career
And the list goes on. I chuckle when mentors report that since serving as role models, they improve their own work performance. They up their game, which is, of course, a great benefit to the company. Other company gains include:
  • Promote diversity of thought and style
  • Develop leadership talent
  • Transfer institutional knowledge
  • Foster a collaborative environment
  • Ease and speed up the transition to new assignments or to the world of work
  • Upgrade employee skills and knowledge
The mentee gains can be numerous, from career development advice to an expanded company network to honest, candid feedback. Mentees appreciate the time and interest shown to them bytheir mentor and I always instruct the mentee to come prepared with a focused agenda. Success Factors: Many aspects contribute to the success of a mentor program. Here are four to consider:
  1. Matching — In Cleveland, we developed a list of attributes for potential mentors (top sales producer, leadership potential, etc.) and also try to have geographic proximity if possible.
  2. Commitment — First, commitment from top management is important. Those in the program need to know this activity is valued and that it’s an honor to be asked to be a mentor. Second, commitment is needed from the pairs to schedule meetings and take the process seriously. Most mentor programs last nine months to a year, so commitment is key.
  3. Accountability — This is the piece often missing when companies start a program. And this is where I have been able to assist in dramatically improving the success of a mentor program. It’s crucial for the pairs to be held accountable.Everyone is jazzed following a kickoff event, but it’s those on-going monthly conversations where the true value lies. Keeping the momentum going, plus tracking is essential. Each month I email all the mentors and request an update. I purposely keep it simple — no forms to fill out, just a paragraph on what topics they discussed and any issues or challenges. Mentors feel comfortable telling me what’s going on since I am an outside consultant and not immersed in company politics. From those monthly updates, I aggregate topics into a brief update back to the company. This confirms the pairs are indeed meeting and also serves as an early warning system if something is awry (sometimes it’s unclear communication regarding some aspect of corporate life. Other times it’s a mentor needing my help with possible activities or open-ended questions to keep the conversations flowing). In my report, I maintain confidentiality, so no one pair is identified.
  4. Recognition — This is another area that tends to get overlooked. Recognition and appreciation are important on three levels — from mentor to mentee, from mentee to mentor and from the company back to the mentor. It’s amazing how a simple “thank you” can keep the pairs engaged. In my emails to mentors I am always sure to thank them multiple times throughout the program. In Cleveland, we have a kick-off dinner the night before the training and hand out gift cards to the mentors. In other mentor programs, we’ve had a celebration lunch at the end to wrap up and thank everyone involved.
As organizations look to develop talent and grow their businesses, mentor programs are a win-win win. Consider starting a mentor program this year. Your employees will thank you.

Tags: Business coach, Mentor Programs


Susan Combs

Susan Combs, MBA and Professional Certified Coach, works with coaching clients to create fresh starts, enhance their leadership skills and increase their confidence. She is an authorized licensee of the Fit Leader's Program. Susan provides one-on-one coaching, DiSC team-building training and manages corporate mentor programs. She lives in Lansing with her son, Max, and their golden retriever puppy. Visit or for more information.

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