Drawing on experience

Fostering employee development has huge benefits, Vanessa Bernard writes.

Fostering employee development has huge benefits, Vanessa Bernard writes.

United States President Barack Obama proclaimed a whole month dedicated to this activity, and Oprah Winfrey plans to introduce Lindsay Lohan to it. What is the movement that world leaders and celebrities alike are championing? Mentoring, and you can do it too.

According to Mentoring Australia, mentoring is a mutually beneficial relationship that involves a more experienced person helping a less experienced person to achieve their goals. Obama goes further to say: "A supportive mentor can mean the difference between struggle and success."

With career success of the individual often related to business success, it makes sense for companies to implement a structured approach to develop employees. With increased staff engagement and retention rates, strong employee morale and higher resiliency in tough economic times, mentoring programs are infiltrating many Australian businesses.

In the 2013 Best Places to Work survey, algorithmic trader Optiver came out on top. Independent arbiter Great Place to Work awarded points to managers who promoted a positive working culture. Executives are judged on policies, including inspiring, caring and development, of which mentoring is a natural progression.

This focus on development has led to Natasha Jones emerging as a mentoring success story at health and beauty company Beiersdorf.

Jones began as an intern on the Nivea brand at Beiersdorf almost three years ago. Informal mentoring settled her into the business but the structured program helped Jones step into a role with brand management responsibilities at just 24 years old.

Jones attributes much of this success to the confidence instilled by her mentor and accomplished marketer Kate Hensley.

"I'm learning so much by drawing on Kate's experience," Jones says, "and I find the outside perspective important.

"I definitely encourage anyone in my position to find a mentor. I've learnt how to challenge things in a positive manner, whereas I may have avoided the discussion in previous years. I'm finding my voice and feeling more confident in my ability."

Beiersdorf encourages all employees to join the internal mentoring program, in particular staff they consider high-potential employees, because the company believes these people are most committed to career and personal growth. The program runs over 12 months and matches candidates with leaders at the company.

So what's in it for the mentor? "There's a real opportunity to encourage young people in leadership roles," Hensley says, "and that's something I'm passionate about. I want to see people grow to their full potential and that, for me, is rewarding.

"I've had two key mentors in my career and I still seek guidance from them. Because I've had such a good experience, it's something I want to give back."

The idea of giving back is certainly motivation for others, with an informal approach a valid alternative.

A senior partner at a financial firm explains it like this. "I don't go to work thinking I'm going to mentor today. You often don't realise you've been mentoring until afterwards. You don't put a label on it. If you see a staff member struggling, sometimes you just need to ask them if they would like to talk."

An important part of this man agreeing to be interviewed was anonymity. When asked to explain, he said, "It's very confidential. Mentoring can be professional, but it can also be emotional. I wouldn't like to be identified, in case one of the people I've mentored feels in some way that their confidence has been betrayed. At the end of the day, all I was doing was being decent."

Old-fashioned decency and the modern desire for structure can both be effective, providing the development of the mentee remains the overall objective.

Hensley makes the point, "informal mentoring has a place, but structure is important, because it makes development a priority and allows the right discussions to take place".

If personal and professional development is innate in your organisation, then you can capitalise on the opportunities. If not, perhaps it's time to get proactive and find your perfect mentor match. Ask your human resources department if your company is willing to implement a mentor program or consider approaching a trusted colleague or friend.

For advice on how to develop your own business, many organisations offer fee-based mentoring, such as My Marketing Mentor, or review the Great Place to Work website for tips, methodologies and a systemised approach.

Impromptu versus structured, professional versus personal - mentoring comes in many guises. The size and structure of an organisation, individual and business goals and resources can all dictate what options are possible, yet the consensus is that mentoring can be a powerfully transformative tool. As Hensley says, "I think it's a really rewarding experience for both parties, and that's why I always put my hand up."

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