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Mentoring: How It Can Help You Keep Your People And Grow Your Company


By Max Messmer, chairman and CEO of Robert Half International

Anyone who’s had the experience of starting a business knows how important it is to recruit great people. Equally important — and even more difficult perhaps — is keeping those hard-won employees.

Although we often think money is the most important factor in keeping staff content, the potential for professional growth is also a key consideration. Employees surveyed by Robert Half were asked, “Aside from salary, which of the following aspects of your job is most tied to your satisfaction?” “Opportunities to learn and grow” and “work/life balance” were in a virtual tie at the top.

And these are areas where you will want to deliver for your people. By supporting your employees’ career development efforts, you can help them realize their potential while increasing their value to the business.

If you think your firm is too small, too virtual or too strapped for resources to worry about investing in employees, remember that any step you can take to help staff members grow professionally and contribute more fully is good for business. Moreover, there are ways to develop your employees that are both economical and easy to implement. One of these is the still-relevant art of mentoring.

‘Development’ is strategic in nature.

The terms training and development are often used together or even interchangeably, so you may be wondering, what’s the difference? Think of training as tactical and development as strategic. Training refers to activities a company offers employees to help them become more proficient at tasks that are part of their jobs. Development prepares staff members for future roles and gives them the skills to work smoothly on teams and as nascent leaders.

Mentoring is especially suited for helping develop people, often considered more essential than functional training, especially if your staff consists of skilled professionals who are just beginning their careers — recent college graduates, for example. These workers may already possess adequate technical skills and functional knowledge; what they often need is help sharpening and applying these assets in a real-world business setting. And that’s exactly where mentoring comes in.

Mentors play an essential role in career development.

Mentors can help their protégés gain attributes that aren’t easily “taught” in the classroom, such as people skills and how to navigate the corporate culture.

Another reason mentoring arrangements work is that topics discussed between mentor and mentee are typically kept confidential. If an employee is having difficulty working with certain team members, for instance, he or she can comfortably discuss these dynamics with a mentor in a way that’s not possible in a structured setting or with an immediate supervisor.

A mentor can recommend ongoing learning and training programs that can best serve a mentee’s career goals. If an internal position opens up that represents a form of career advancement, mentors can suggest effective strategies to pursue that opportunity — or offer feedback on why it may not be a good fit.

Following are other ways mentors can assist in career development efforts:

•    Helping to identify an employee’s long-term career goals: Professionals in the early stages of their work life often fail to consider how they want their careers to develop over time. Mentors can provide perspective and guidance in this area, helping their mentees to begin to think long term, not just about where they want to be next year.

•    Serving as a role model: Rather than an employee having to figure out on his or her own how to navigate each new situation or challenge, a mentor can serve as a real example. The mentee can emulate the behaviors and attributes of someone who’s already taken a similar (and successful) career development path.

•    Unlocking the power of networking: Mentors can introduce their protégés to others who may be valuable contacts and who can, perhaps, become additional role models or career advisers.

What are your goals?

Developing and implementing a mentoring program takes more than the best of intentions. First, pinpoint your company’s specific goals for mentoring. For example, you may want to increase staff retention rates, nurture employees who can help you develop future products and services, or just make the onboarding process for new hires as stress-free as possible.

With these goals in mind, consider what sort of mentoring arrangement may be most helpful. Do you want formal relationships — with partners in regularly scheduled contact — or do you want to operate more on an as-needed basis? Do you want to pair mentors with individuals in the same department or mix things up a bit?
A mentor should not be the mentee’s direct supervisor. Mentees need to feel comfortable discussing challenges with and soliciting advice from a neutral party who has no control over that person’s career advancement. Still, there should be some type of communication process that helps all three parties (mentor, mentee and mentee’s manager) stay engaged. Managers should be flexible enough to allow direct reports to have time away from their day-to-day work to take part in the mentoring program.

Finally, the key to an effective mentoring program is to choose mentors who are temperamentally suited to the task. They don’t have to be your most senior managers. Age should not even be a factor. But mentors do need to have a level or type of experience the mentee lacks and must develop. In addition, mentors should be naturally empathetic and enjoy the role of helping, listening and sharing information with others.

Mentoring still works.

While mentoring is hardly a new concept, the idea of pairing a new or less experienced employee with an accomplished person from within your company remains a highly effective way to help employees bond with your organization — a key contributor to high retention rates. The business also benefits from the transfer of proprietary skills and knowledge that takes place, while the mentee gains a dedicated career adviser and advocate.

For young companies that may not have deep pockets for employee development activities, mentoring is not only an ideal way to build on the assets you already have within your organization, but an economical tool as well.


Max Messmer is chairman and CEO of Robert Half International, parent company of Accountemps®, Robert Half® Finance & Accounting and Robert Half® Management Resources. Robert Half is the world’s first and largest specialized staffing firm placing accounting and finance professionals on a temporary, full-time and project basis. Mr. Messmer’s most recent book is Human Resources Kit For Dummies®, 3rd Edition.