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Team Mentoring Boosts Employee Development

August 1, 1998
Despite a long history of being a good employer, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania-based Fuller Company began seeing high turnover among its most strategically important human resources. In the early ‘90s, young men and women who had been with the company for only two or three years, including high-potential managers and engineers, were leaving at rates that reached 20 percent per year, taking with them skills, talents and experience that represented a lost investment to Fuller.

In effect, the company had become a training ground for its competitors, just at a time when global growth was putting new demands on the company for technical and managerial excellence.

Fuller is an engineering firm that supplies everything from complete plants and machines to parts and services for the cement, mineral processing and chemical industries. Thus, retention and development of technically skilled managers are critical priorities. (The company was founded in 1926, and net sales reached $529 million in 1996.) Fuller operates as an autonomous company within the F.L. Smith-Fuller Engineering Group, and employs nearly a quarter of the Group’s 3,900 employees worldwide, with a high concentration of specialized engineering professionals. Therefore, senior management was forced to take a serious look at how they were building our employee pipeline.

From this came the Targeted Employee Development Program (TEDP). Announced in 1995 by Fuller CEO Ib Jacobsen, it’s a human resources strategy developed by the King of Prussia, Pennsylvania-based WMS and Company Inc., a management consulting firm. This mentor-team program assures the cultivation of key managers and technical leaders required for the future of our company. Its name describes the process: Potential leaders are targeted by management and coached through the development of critical leadership and technical skills. Their progress is then carefully followed by senior management. An added benefit of the program is that participants recognize their importance to the future of the organization, and are more likely to remain with the company.

Within the last three years, we’ve faced less than a 2 percent turnover rate. At Fuller’s Bethlehem-based U.S. headquarters and nearby manufacturing plants, a uniquely vigorous mentor-team approach has not only stopped the brain drain among high-potential professionals, but has turned professional development into a way of life in the organization.

As a side effect, the 30 or so participants in the program are themselves mentors for TEDP aspirants among the company’s more than 1,000 employees in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, developing leadership skills that focus on HR development. During an intensive 12-week orientation program, TEDP participants meet on a regular basis with newly hired professionals and establish themselves as resources for continued guidance for the employees during their first two years with the company.

Individual development is a team effort.
None of the specific characteristics of TEDP are necessarily new to human resources management, although their combination and the level of team participation in individual development are probably rare. These characteristics include:

  • Senior management’s initial commitment and continuing involvement in the process -- something much talked about in annual reports, but rarely practiced in most organizations. Each quarter, Fuller’s senior management teams review the development program and progress of each TEDP participant. Senior managers often make suggestions for field assignments or job rotation to help broaden the experience base of a participant. Senior management’s regular review of each candidate’s profile results in our senior management team knowing each participant better, which allows our senior managers to encourage the development of the participants in day-to-day interactions with their managers.

  • A supportive team made up of department heads, HR professionals, an outside consultant and senior managers. At any given moment, we have approximately 30 teams.

  • A process that was openly communicated to all employees, but managed from the top to assure that team members could spend quality time on individual development. We started with six participants and gradually added participants over a period of two years to get to the current level.

  • A two-track approach to development -- one technical and the other focusing on people-management skills -- with participants given the choice of which track to pursue.

  • Developmentally-oriented performance assessment, in which department heads and other team members focus on the next steps in an individual’s growth rather than past performance, and help TEDP participants match their interests and goals with corporate requirements.

  • And perhaps most importantly, the individual is continually reminded that he or she is never alone in professional development, and that his or her growth as a corporate asset is a strategic business goal.

HR is part of the team.
From the start, the program has been presented to all salaried employees as an HR development program with strategic importance to the organization -- not just a succession plan designed to groom high-potential managers and professionals for specific jobs. No promises are made about future promotions or other job changes. Instead, management’s commitment focuses on assurances that TEDP participants will not be expected to fly solo in their own individual development. Each team member has a specific responsibility:

  • The manager or department head conducts performance reviews and is responsible for an individual’s day-to-day performance. He or she recommends candidates for the TEDP, monitors progress and addresses problems related to operational needs, such as scheduling conflicts between an individual’s job and off-site development activities.

  • An HR professional is responsible for assuring that individual development matches corporate goals, for creating and delivering appropriate developmental activities and for overall management of the program.

  • An outside consultant conducts in-depth, objective assessments of the individuals selected for the program, helping them and the company identify strengths and developmental needs that correlate with successful performance in different kinds of careers or work.

  • The individual undergoing development commits extra time and effort. While continually reminded that he or she is not alone in self-improvement, TEDP participants know that more is expected of them because they were selected for the program, and their developmental activities may at times represent a second job with no immediate rewards.
Initially, we selected two people each month for admission to TEDP, nominated by their department managers and approved by their vice presidents and senior management. All salaried, exempt employees were eligible, with the only prerequisite being that the nominee had worked for Fuller Company for at least two years.

One size doesn’t fit all.
Another key to the success of the TEDP at Fuller has been the recognition that development must be a highly individualized process, and that the interests and proclivities of individual participants should be key determinants of the type of development undertaken. This balancing of the company’s need for certain kinds of management competencies and individual interests is achieved in two ways: First, an in-depth assessment of newly admitted participants helps match individual potential to corporate needs. Then, participants are given a choice of two general types of development to pursue, one focusing on people management and the other on technical proficiency.

In terms of individual assessment, each new participant in TEDP spends a full day with WMS and Company, undergoing a battery of psychological, intelligence, and other tests designed to identify strengths and developmental needs. Conducted by a professional business psychologist, the tests and other assessment tools used for TEDP participants were developed on the basis of information provided by Fuller, including profiles of the characteristics of successful Fuller managers and professionals. WMS consultants interviewed key managers and HR planners at Fuller so that assessment is effectively tailored to meet the company’s needs. Soon after the assessment, the consultant meets with the individual at Fuller headquarters in Bethlehem, where findings are reviewed in detail. The climate of these meetings is deliberately positive, setting the stage for individual commitment to the developmental activities that will build on unique strengths and address development needs.

In one of the early mentor team meetings held to help TEDP participants shape a development plan, the company’s two-lane turnpike approach to development is presented to the participant, and a structured interview is conducted to help the individual decide which lane best suits his or her interests and goals. From the company’s perspective, both technical proficiency and the ability to manage people are crucial management competencies -- engineers need people skills, and managers need technical expertise and knowledge.

But there are business-based reasons for distinguishing the two types of development. Because of the importance of technical leadership and innovation at Fuller, the company wanted to avoid forcing technical people into traditional career paths aimed at assuming department managers’ roles, which are limited in number. While it may be desirable to improve his or her communication skills or other management competencies, the real focus on development should build on the strengths of the individual. Structured interviews conducted by the HR department team members help TEDP participants select the type of development that best suits the individual’s immediate and long-term goals. In addition, the participants may change lanes later if they feel they’ve made the wrong choice, and remain in the program.

Focus on continual improvement, not ratings.
Performance management for participants in the TEDP at Fuller is a matter of managing developmental progress, and focuses on continual improvement, rather than traditional ratings based on operational measures alone.

Participants formally meet with their mentor teams every six months to review progress, and an annual meeting offers the opportunity to set new goals and possibly a new development plan. But participation by department heads is ongoing, focusing on problem-solving and continual monitoring of the individual’s progress in development.

Finally, senior management continually devotes time to the TEDP and its participants. Such dedication assures that management development is addressing strategic business needs, while staying abreast of the progress of these individuals -- the leaders of tomorrow.

Kenneth L. Dockery is vice president of human resources for Bethlehem, Pennsylvania-based Fuller Company. Robert J. Sahl is general partner of King of Prussia, Pennsylvania-based WMS and Company Inc., a management consulting organization.

Workforce, August 1998, Vol. 77, No. 8, pp. 31-36.