Human Connection

November 13, 2020 | Human connection Gigi Wood,

There are countless benefits to mentoring in the workplace. When a more experienced colleague advises or trains a less experienced one, it can lead to increased job satisfaction, employee retention and improved leadership skills. For many businesses, mentoring can help create its next generation of leaders who will take the company to its next level of profitability and longevity.

Several studies have illustrated the benefits of mentoring. According to a CNBC/Survey Monkey Workplace Happiness Survey from 2019, nine out of 10 workers who have a mentor reported high job satisfaction. For those who participate in mentoring programs, retention is 20% higher than those who don’t participate, according to a Gartner study. Mentoring programs often encourage participants to determine personal and professional goals, write them down and share them with their mentoring partners. Writing down goals and sharing those dreams with another person increases the likelihood those goals will be met by 70%, according to McCarthy Mentoring.

True mentoring involves more than an occasional coffee date, however. Mentoring requires a commitment of time and energy to benefit the participants. Not only do goals need to be set, but a plan needs to be laid out to achieve them. What’s more, mentors and mentees need to be matched effectively for improved results. Mentoring can require quite a bit of preparation and at times, patience. Employers should weigh those challenges before starting a mentoring program of their own, at least one business leader says. Despite those challenges, many Iowa businesses are finding the long-term rewards, such as increased employee engagement and retention, worth the effort.

Creating the next generation of leaders

Two Iowa businesses have started new mentoring programs in recent years to further promote leadership within their organizations; Principal Financial Group in Des Moines and Metalcraft in Mason City.

Principal Financial Group launched its Global Mentoring Program three months ago. So far, 1,998 employees from 20 countries, or 11.5% of Principal Financial’s global workforce, is enrolled in the program. The program is designed to help improve professional development by cultivating effective mentoring relationships focused on specific goals. The program is open to all employees, and all are invited to participate as both a mentor and a mentee.

As of Oct. 1, employees had invested 2,312 hours into the mentoring program. Its popularity and success can at least, in part, be attributed to the need for human connection in a time of social distancing, said Amy Friedrich, president, U.S. Insurance Solutions and chair of the Enterprise Inclusion Council, Principal Financial Group.

“Honestly, it’s a pretty cool thing we’re trying, and I didn’t know what the reaction would be, and the reaction has been outstanding,” she said.

While Principal Financial Group already hosts several mentoring groups, it’s typically involved smaller groups. The Global Mentoring Program was started after a series of conversations took place about improving inclusion on a global scale at the company.

“Before, a lot of Principal's mentoring programs had been driven by particular communities or particular business areas or something like a women's network or the accounting community or the actuarial community,” Friedrich said. “We’ve had mentoring around a long time, but it really hasn't been this global. It hasn't been this extensive and it hasn't been, ‘Hey, if you're interested in either being a mentee or being a mentor, let's look for that interest around the globe.’”

Connecting during a time of social distancing

The timing has been apt, during an era of social distancing. Friedrich said the new mentoring program has sated the need for human connection.

“It was really a reaction from us to try to say, ‘We feel like these are extraordinary times and we want to give people the ability to connect,’” she said.

Friedrich has taken on two mentees, Ernesto from Brazil and Cody from the United States.

“It's been a point of connection for me that has been, well, I've loved it during this time because I've had felt pretty honestly disconnected at different periods of time,” she said.

Dispelling mentoring myths

The popularity of the program also disproves the myth that mentoring needs to be face to face to be effective, Friedrich said.

“I think there has been, historically, a belief that you have to get together face to face to have these great relationships form,” she said. “What I can tell you is I'm only a couple of meetings in to meeting Ernesto in Brazil, who is delightful. We have found many points of commonality with our families, you know, with our history. I'm jealous of how much he's traveled the world. I would love to know more about that. And we're doing it all virtually.”

Program participants try to meet once a month. Other pairings meet twice a month, some meet once every other month.

“I think the assumption is you're touching base, you're having a conversation probably at least once a month,” Friedrich said. “Most notably, I would say the vast majority have been happening virtually because again, with 20 countries involved, you're doing a lot of managing through different time zones. I have definitely picked up on the fact that people are finding this sort of fun, but a logistically-interesting thing to coordinate, which is good for us, I would argue.”

Principal Financial Group uses a third party to coordinate the program, match mentors to mentees and provide a portal to facilitate interactions. The program will continue for nine months, then leaders will pause to assess it.

Improving employee engagement

Participants can talk about whatever they wish, although a structure is provided, suggesting conversation topics such as shared areas of interest and future goals.

“In the end, what we're doing is saying, ‘what are your life experiences? What are my life experiences? How can we learn from one another?’ That's the piece I think that has been the overriding intention of this, is to create not a check-the-box exercise, not a career development exercise, but a human connection exercise. That's what I love most about it, quite honestly,” Friedrich said.

Principal Financial Group leaders hope the program will result in increased employee engagement, which often leads to improved retention, better performance and a sense of purpose at work.

“People who are feeling more heard, more connected, more curious about one another; they tend to just do a better job and they end up giving a better experience for our customers, a better experience with their coworkers,” Friedrich said. “A highly-engaged population, frankly, just tends to be more effective and efficient. They get more done in the same amount of bandwidth. But they're doing it not because anyone's asking them to do something extraordinary, but because they just feel connected and want to, you know, put in the time.”

Mentoring: Not for everyone

Business leaders contemplating starting a mentoring program should only do so if they’re willing to put in the time and effort, she said.

“If you feel like you're too busy to be a mentor, then my guess is, you probably wouldn't make a great mentor right now. You have to enter into a mentoring relationship understanding that there's probably as much they're going to get out of it as you're going to give to someone else,” Friedrich said. “If you look at it as a way to reach more deeply into your organization to understand what people are going through, if you're looking at it as a point of curiosity meaning you’re going to get access to someone who shares a set of perspectives and life experiences that you don't have, regardless of what your level or position or pay is, if you enter it that way, my guess is you're going to be a great mentor because you're going to assume it's a two-way exchange.”

Mentees should be willing to be in the work, as well, instead of expecting to show up as an empty shell to fill with wisdom. “That mentee has to feel like they know enough, they've had enough experiences that sharing them is going to make you both better,” Friedrich said. “The mentee has to be competent enough that their thoughts and beliefs and past experiences are interesting enough to matter, too.”

University of Metalcraft

At Metalcraft, which produces asset tags, barcode labels and RFID tags for asset tracking, mentoring has long been a part of the company culture. Mentoring took on more prominence two years ago, when the University of Metalcraft was formed to train workers.

“We wanted to develop the next series of leaders,” said Steve Doerfler, Metalcraft’s president and CEO. “Then we wanted to also just create more confidence in our members, even if they didn't want leadership positions, but they wanted to be a better team member and lead projects better. This would help them do that.”

Doerfler said he was inspired to start University of Metalcraft after reading Bob Chapman’s “Everybody Matters” and joining the Tugboat Institute, a group of leaders interested in continuous improvement. One of the principles of the Tugboat Institute is “people first,” he said.

The company university will graduate its first class in January, when the second class will begin. They meet every three to four months for an entire day. Each class is focused on a different chapter of Stephen Covey’s classic business textbook, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” One of the chapters focuses on mentoring.

“We had them read it before the very first class and then each session we review one of those habits in more detail,” he said. “We just keep building, keep building, keep building. One of the habits encourages mentorships. I picked up on that and I encouraged the class members to get themselves a mentor and we talked about what a mentor was.”

Setting personal goals

They started out by writing a personal mission statement that the students review monthly.

“Normally, it's about stuff at home, it's not about work,” Doerfler said. “It's just about how they view themselves as a better person at home, in their personal relationship with their wife or their kids. And it's amazing to hear the stories about how now, they look at things differently. They have better relationships.”

Doerfler, who also informally mentors his C-suite employees, said a good mentor challenges a person’s thinking.

“We defined mentors because it's not a friend, in fact, friends can be your worst mentor,” he said. “You want somebody who's going to be maybe not even a friend necessarily but an associate, they respect you, you respect them and they're going to hold you accountable. And they're going to challenge you. Sometimes friends don't do that.”

Each class, students are expected to make a presentation. The students have been broken up into small groups and before they “graduate,” each group will make a 15-minute presentation to the leadership team on a topic related to the business.

“We really emphasize presentation skills, writing skills, the ability to put together a proposal, draw interest, have a good, solid body of pros and cons, and then make a conclusion and ask for the order,” Doerfler said.

The Metalcraft University classes have given some employees the confidence to apply for and receive promotions.

“I think in general, most of the members had more confidence to say, ‘I'm going after this and if I fail, I fail, I'm fine. I’m not going to look at it as failure, I’m just going to learn from it and keep plowing away,’” he said.

You can’t dream what you can’t see

Back in Des Moines, Susan Judkins, client development director for RDG Planning and Design, serves as a mentor to Sid Juwarker, an environmental project manager/client development specialist at Terracon. The two say there are many benefits to a mentoring relationship.

“Having been on both the giving and receiving ends of mentoring, I see tremendous value in 1) sharing real-world experiences, 2) opening doors to connections and opportunities, 3) knowing that someone believes in you and is a cheerleader for your success and 4) having a sounding board for any topic, any time, and knowing the conversation will be kept confidential,” Judkins said. “It is often said that a person can’t dream what they can’t see, and gaining advice and support from a mentor who has seen much during their career can provide insight into overcoming challenges, achieving goals and even seeing new opportunities.”

An ideal mentor/mentee relationship provides a safe space for honest discussions, Judkins said.

“A mentee can find tremendous value in risking vulnerability to enable guidance towards intended growth and having a champion who sees and soothes worries and celebrates successes,” she said. “It can be very fulfilling to a mentor to have their advice valued and to see a mentee succeed.”

Juwarker described it as a process that involves trust and deep understanding that allows mentors and mentees in a stress-free, conversation-driven environment that allows for goal setting. And he agrees with Principal’s Friedrich, that mentees need to contribute to the relationship.

“Mentors should approach the relationship hoping to take something away and learn from their mentees. The relationship should be symbiotic,” he said.

Before starting a mentor/mentee relationship, Juwarker suggests taking a personality test so the two can determine the best communication styles to use. They should also have planned topics of discussion, bring progress updates to meetings and regularly share the positive impact of the relationship with one another.