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Mentoring Matters

Corporations are ramping up formal programs that pair seasoned managers with up-and-comers.

January 13, 2006
Related Topics: Career Development, Employee Career Development
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Among the latest trends in leadership development is a tactic as old as Socrates and Plato: mentoring.

    Corporations are ramping up formal programs that pair seasoned managers with up-and-comers, experts in the field say. Such programs are among the tools companies are using as they strengthen succession-planning efforts and transform them into broader talent development programs.

    Fostering one-on-one relationships in effect replaces how it was done a few decades ago, when bosses informally took rising stars under their wing. It’s a practice that declined in the go-go 1990s, but has ancient roots, says Wayne Hart, a senior faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership training facility in San Diego. "It’s a return to the wisdom of apprenticing," he says.

    Hart says key benefits to mentoring include company-specific guidance and having a supporter who can open internal doors, "kind of like an advocate."

    Preliminary data in a study on succession planning by Aberdeen Group researcher Katherine Jones show that 41 percent of firms have mentoring programs with higher-level executives or emeritus employees.

    Companies can go too far in structuring mentor programs, says Jerry Hunt, management professor at Texas Tech University. In particular, he warns against top-down pairings. "Programs seem to work better if the protégés pick the mentor or have something to say about who the mentor will be," he says.

    About two and a half years ago, apparel firm Kellwood launched a succession-planning program in which five senior executives serve as mentors to high-potential managers. About 30 promising junior executives have been placed in the "talent pool" at the firm in Chesterfield, Missouri. It employs about 30,000 people worldwide and owns brands including Phat Farm and Sag Harbor.

    Every quarter, mentors spend two to three hours with each of their five or so charges. A mentor might sponsor the junior executives for senior positions, talk with them about how to handle current business issues and discuss what they’ve learned in training sessions.

    John Short, Kellwood’s director of organization development and employment, says the mentoring relationships, along with quarterly conversations among top executives dedicated to talent issues, have helped lift the company’s internal hiring rate for vice president positions and above from 10 percent to about 30 percent last year.

    It also is triggering a cultural shift at Kellwood.

    "It’s begun to sow the seeds for more of a coaching-mentoring approach to talent development," Short says. "Typically, our industry is pretty impatient, and expects people to come to positions fully developed."

Workforce Management, January 16, 2006, p. 34 -- Subscribe Now!

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