Mentoring Can Improve a Company’s Culture

Wouldn’t it be great to have a seasoned insider who could help you navigate your company’s corporate culture? Would you like a personal coach who would give you practical advice about how to approach a workplace problem? As companies wrestle with ways to keep the “free agent” workforce satisfied, they are turning to mentor programs for these guardian angels.

Before organizations were retention crazy, mentor programs were seen as a nice-to-have, but as they scramble to find ways to develop their workforce, the idea of mentoring is becoming a must-have in the war for talent.

Mentor programs are more than just encouraging senior executives to take newbies under their wings. As we’ve found when working with our clients, a well-planned mentor program can change your culture for the better, while a poorly designed program can create more problems than it’s worth.

Here are some lessons from companies who have started mentor programs:

  • Make a strong business case for mentoring.
    Deloitte & Touche, the accounting, tax and consulting firm, documented the business imperative back in 1993. Half of their new hires were women and almost all of them had left before they became partner candidates…and they didn’t leave to have children. The CEO and partners decided that if they were to grow the business, they were going to have to change the culture.
  • The CEO must be the enthusiastic champion.
    A mentoring program is often viewed as the HR program du jour. Unless there is a strong, credible person at the helm, the initiative will feel like one more add-on to an already full schedule. In addition, if there is a task force, it must be led by someone from the senior team.
  • Design a program that fits your culture.
    At Foley & Lardner, a large national law firm, each new lawyer is assigned two mentors; one who has been with the firm for more than ten years and another who has worked there for a few years. The seasoned person helps them understand the culture and can make introductions, and the other mentor can help them with making presentations and other work-related advice. These two mentors even attend their mentee’s performance review. While in most hierarchies this level of involvement would not be appropriate, it is perceived as supportive in their flat organizational structure.
  • Focus on real issues, challenges and specific areas of development.
    If the program is simply a “feel good” program, there is less likelihood it will be taken seriously. At Johnson Controls, mentees and mentors complete profiles and then are matched by a team of managers and HR staff. The goal is to match the mentee’s specific developmental need with that of a mentor who is skilled in that area.
  • Provide on-going training and other resources for both mentees and mentors.
    Time Warner Cable provides training sessions for mentors in order to understand their role and effectively manage the relationship. They also train mentor-mentee pairs to help them maximize their partnership. Mentees also attend training, to help them make the most of the mentoring experience.
  • Integrate the mentor program with all other development activities.
    The program will be more successful if it is connected to succession planning, performance reviews, 360-degree feedback processes, promotions and challenging assignments, job rotations and other activities. In addition, providing all employees with development opportunities will keep the mentor program from being viewed as elitist.
  • Use a flexible system of accountability.
    Senior managers should have input into the areas they want to focus on in their departments. For instance, there may be a corporate-wide initiative for mentoring women, but the IT department head may also have a special need in his area to create some mentoring opportunities for his technical professionals.
  • Spell out the roles and responsibilities for participants.
    For example, mentors should not get between mentees and their managers or get overly involved in the detail of the mentee’s work. Mentees need to understand that having a mentor doesn’t guarantee that they will get promoted or have unlimited access to their mentor. Johnson Controls uses case studies in mentor training to prevent misunderstandings like these.
  • Make mentor programs voluntary.
    Mandating mentor or mentee responsibilities is doomed to failure. The mentor must be enthusiastic and willing or he/she will do more harm than good. Mentees need to be willing to accept responsibility for their own career and be willing to accept the mentors’ help. If someone wants to opt out of the program, they should be able to.
  • Keep the program flexible.
    Strike a balance between formal events and informal sessions. The benefits of mentoring are found in the private, one-on-one sessions. Too much bureaucracy will kill it.

Joan Lloyd has earned her C.S.P. (certified speaking professional) designation from the National Speakers Association and speaks to corporate audiences, as well as trade & professional associations across the country. Reach her at (800) 348-1944,, or


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