Someone Promised Mentors: Will You Deliver? - Management
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Someone Promised Mentors: Will You Deliver?

Written By: Marilyn Moats Kennedy

Article Date: 03-01-2006
Copyright(C) 2008 Associated Equipment Distributors. All Rights Reserved.

The 2006 crop of college recruits will soon be on your doorstep. Even though you've eyeballed and interviewed them, do you really know what they're expecting - not just from you, but from your organization?

College career services offices (formerly placement offices) tell me that while there has always been a degree of disconnect between corporate recruiters and managers on who promised what to whom, too many students have told them they took a particular job because "the company has a mentoring program." Sort of.

While recruiters did not promise that a mentor would be waiting in the parking lot for each new recruit, the honest ones will admit they did nothing to discourage the very hottest candidates from believing some form of mentoring would be forthcoming. This fact has not always been passed on to managers who, until confronted, may not be aware of how top-of-the-list the demand for mentoring is.

Mentoring has been talked about since 1995 but, this year, recruiters tell me more candidates asked directly if the organization had a mentoring program. Many colleges have even formed alumni mentoring groups to work with both undergraduates and young alumni.

In focus groups I've done, college students believe that anyone going into an organization that employs more than a handful of people needs a mentor. Candidates address the issue early on - or so they believe - and don't necessarily mention it to the person who makes them the offer. Most are probably still dealing with human resource departments. Some haven't met the individual they'll be reporting to. They assume a program is in place, and they'll fit in.

Imagine their surprise and sense of betrayal when they arrive in July and find it isn't so. Where does that leave the manager who may not be aware of this expectation?

Mentoring was a hot concept, especially among women, in the 1970s and it's become hot again. Faced with anchoring highly mobile Baby Busters, many companies have explored the idea of a mentoring program, theoretically, because it seems to be an inexpensive way to improve retention.

All those twentysomethings are out there, ready and wating, eager for sage advice from wise and nurturing veterans. What could be more encouraging to a new hire than the idea of a godfather/mother who'll keep him/her from harm?

What's wrong with this picture? Mentoring is not a technique that can be applied like a warm blanket to solve the problems of orientation, training, skills development, and retention. There are two reasons why mentoring isn't foolproof -
the mentor and the protégé.

Faced with both demands and expectations, many companies decide that assigning older or long-term employees to mentor younger hires will turn even the most recalcitrant veteran into a mentor. Not always.

Some people are temperamentally unsuited for mentoring. It imposes additional work on managers. Some managers literally have no time. Some just don't want to be bothered, period.

No one can be forced to mentor - it's a pretty unimaginative employee who can't figure out ways to blow off the assignment. A manager eager to institute even a departmental program will not necessarily succeed if mentors are reluctant.

On the flip side, there are new hires who are argumentative ("that's not the way I heard it"), arrogant ("I've got an MBA, who's he to tell me?"), or just plain disinterested ("who cares?").

Sometimes, although both parties are willing - even anxious - to participate in the mentoring process, a personality conflict precludes any meaningful communication. Pairing the right people is a real coup for management.

If you are considering adding a mentoring program, or becoming a mentor yourself, here are some points to ponder:

If You Can't (Or Won't), Say So

If you've been assigned to be a mentor, you must do so - or decline very gracefully immediately. If you're assigning people to mentor and they balk, let them off the hook. The fallout from neglecting a protégé will waft into an exit interview. If the new hire doesn't get what was promised, the final interview will reflect that disappointment in detail and that will reflect on you.

Two of the most mentioned reasons given by new hires for moving on within a year were the lack of a mentor and spending too much time on the mundane technical tasks necessary to support a computer-incompetent boss.

If mentoring doesn't appeal to you but you're under extreme pressure to do it, you'll have to take a stand with your boss or work out something with the employee. If you can't spare even an hour a week, say so.

Let your protégé shadow you through a day. Offer to be on call to answer specific questions. Don't let him/her even think the words, "build a relationship." There's not going to be one. However, if your new hire realizes that you are willing, but honestly can't give the time, he/she may seek help from someone else without tarring you in the grapevine. Doing nothing in the hope the issue will be forgotten is not an option.

Other management fads may fade away but those who have benefited from mentoring will keep this one alive.

Establish Rules Of Engagement

Nothing dooms what might have been a successful mentoring relationship as quickly as inchoate, unsatisfied expectations.

Spend the time up front to explore what your protégé thinks he/she wants from the relationship and respond honestly. Once you know your protégé's agenda, you'll be able to gauge the time commitment and examine your own willingness to participate. A weekly meeting may be too often. Once every six months is too infrequent.

You may be able to meet only a few of your protégé's expectations but you probably know someone who could help with the rest. Call these people first to make sure they're willing, then provide referrals.

Being shunted from one reluctant advisor to another would make any protégé feel like undeliverable mail.

Loyalty Isn't Guaranteed

A mentoring relationship doesn't guarantee loyalty. It's true. You can put much time and effort into a protégé who will leave for 20 cents more an hour. You may feel your efforts were in vain. Again, focus on what you can learn.

Don't expect any workplace relationship, however invested both parties are, to be an "ever after" one.

Consider The Risks

Having a protégé has political risks. He/she interacts most with peers. Be discreet about what you say, bearing in mind the axiom that two people can keep a secret if one of them is dead.

Your protégé may respect, even like, you and intend to be infinitely discreet. However, even
a raised eyebrow could be interpreted by peers as a negative comment or confirmation of a compelling rumor.

The temptation to pass on hot new gossip may overwhelm even the best judgment.

You Can Lead A New Hire To Water

You can't force anyone to take advice. If you're an eager mentor with years of experience and excellent advice, nothing will frustrate you more than a protégé who balks at every suggestion.

Before you decide he/she is hopeless, try letting him/her mentor you. The questions and challenges he/she presents might provide a major growth opportunity for you.

The greatest danger in rising to the top is having no one who will question your ideas or force you to defend them as you had to when you were a neophyte.

A senior vice president, assigned to mentor a brash, confident young man, said, "I hated every contact with Jack until I realized that nobody had talked to me or challenged me as he did in years. It was a revelation and, painful as it sometimes is, I never miss our weekly lunch. Do you think any of my middle managers would be as honest as he is? Not likely."

If, however, despite effort on both sides, you deduce an irreconcilable personality conflict, help him/her find another mentor. You can't force chemistry, either.

Expect A Quid Pro Quo

If you're spending hours as a mentor why shouldn't you expect the protégé to reciprocate? If he/she is a computer whiz, and you're not, how about some tutoring on the shortcuts? If you're swamped with a project and your protégé could help, why should he/she leave at 5:00 p.m.?

Most managers tell me their protégés welcome the opportunity to reciprocate, especially if they secretly intend to move on quickly. Paybacks reduce guilt.

Mentoring is not just for young workers. Peer mentoring for all new employees can be very effective. New hires long to know the rules of the informal system. They want to know what is acceptable and what is not.

A peer assigned to answer questions can be more effective than a boss who wears the organization like an old shoe and, consequently, won't think to mention the holes in the sole to a newcomer.

Finally, some frank discussions with HR are in order. What do your recruiters promise, albeit under the gun?

My experience has been that recruiting resembles sorority/fraternity rush more closely than any other activity. Everyone promises whatever they believe will sell the other side and the manager who ends up with the pledges may be endlessly and unpleasantly surprised by what he/she is expected to do.

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