American Express, Enterprise and UCB Pharma help high-potential employees succeed with mentoring and sponsorship programs. Whether in-person or online, formal or more loosely organized, these programs help employees shape their personal brand and develop skills crucial to climbing the corporate ladder.

"In general, we find that organically developed mentoring relationships are more effective than formal mentoring programs," explains Ellen A. Ensher, Ph.D., professor of management, Loyola Marymount University. However, she adds, organizations can structure a formal mentor program in ways "that make it look and feel like an organic relationship."

For example, give individuals a choice in whom they partner with and how they are matched. "People don't do as well with the blind-date approach," she says.

Melinda Marshall, vice president and senior fellow, Center for Talent Innovation, advocates sponsorship relationships in the workplace and concurs that relationships, even if developed through formal programs, need to develop naturally.

"Sponsorship needs to take root in a trust-based relationship. That's difficult when management is not able to connect with protégés in a way that is more personal, extends beyond work and bridges gaps that exist because [people generally] find it easier to banter and socialize with people like [themselves]," says Marshall.


Organic sponsorship at Amex

The Pathways to Sponsorship program at American Express began as part of the company's Women in the Pipeline and at the Top initiative, a global effort designed to advance and retain senior women leaders within the organization.

Created to help women build broader sponsorship relationships within the company, the program provides a tailored professional development approach to enable career advancement. The two-year-old sponsorship program has extended into all areas of the company and now reaches beyond female executive development.

Supported by research conducted internally at American Express and externally in the marketplace over the past two years, the company focused on elevating the importance of sponsorship at work and making it an important part of diversity training and development.

"Sponsorship is an intimate relationship that grows organically and naturally over time, and often is a determining factor for career advancement," says Christina Schelling, vice president of diversity at American Express. Further, the company believes that unlike a mentor, a sponsor must be higher in the chain of command, present at talent discussions and within the same organization.

American Express also has formal and informal mentor programs for employees, which it defines as requested, time-bound relationships often established for career advice or guidance. Formal programs form in certain work groups, lines of business or employee network groups.

"There's plenty of room for mentorship programs; it's not something we want to see eradicated," says Marshall. "It's not to be confused with sponsorship ... if you're looking to your mentor to make your career path happen, you're missing the boat. A mentor is really a supporter and adviser, someone who counsels you but doesn't put their skin in the game. Their reputation is not on the line."

Marshall says sponsors help promote their protégés while advocating on their behalf. Sponsors support and protect these protégés because they have aligned their reputation to the employee's success.

For the first group of high-potential female leaders at American Express, "we gave them the tools to develop themselves. They received coaching, information on sponsorship, and how to develop their brand and their professional capacity," says Schelling.

Too much HR oversight can detract from a trusting relationship, cautions Marshall.

"You can't impose [trust] from HR, [but you] can lay the groundwork for it," she says. HR can educate employees to identify potential sponsors and provide opportunities for groups to meet. They can even incentivize sponsorship by building it into leadership performance reviews.

Schelling agrees. "Because we believe that sponsorship has to happen naturally and organically over time, we can set the right stage, but we won't play matchmaker."

HR managers at American Express positioned women into networking opportunities with potential sponsors, such as industry conference attendance and opportunities to be on stretch assignments in certain lines of business with certain leaders. "The idea is that we can plant the seeds to allow sponsorship to grow naturally," says Schelling.

Since its start, 65% of participants in the sponsorship program have been promoted or made strategic lateral moves. Retention for the first sponsorship class was 100%.

The company uses quantitative metrics - such as promotion, advancement and whether representation of the targeted group in executive roles is increasing - to measure the program's success.


Formal mentoring at Enterprise

While many employees at Enterprise easily find a mentor to guide them through their careers at the rental car company, some have difficulty connecting personally with a higher-up. The Enterprise Formal Mentoring Program serves as a "catch" for those individuals who didn't find a mentor naturally during their first year, so that they can still "tap into the system," says Chris Tabourne, assistant vice president of diversity and inclusion at Enterprise.

"It's really about empowerment," says Tabourne. "They start off dependent on mentors and looking for a lot of information. By the end of the 12-month period, they become very independent, even to the point now where they can seek out mentors on their own."

So far over 6,000 employees have completed the program, which was rolled out companywide in 2007.

Mentees are matched through an online system of self-evaluations. Pairs in the voluntary program must meet for at least an hour every month and for briefer sessions every other week. Before they begin, both mentors and mentees attend a full day of training, with additional training three times per year for each group. Every month the partners need to answer a few basic questions about how the relationship is progressing and whether they need additional support.

Through the online platform, HR managers can monitor relationships and provide support if needed.

While HR is hands off concerning meeting content, it does set the stage by training program managers, who are often local HR employees, and mediating issues that arise. "It's about the mentees, because they are the ones that need to do the work. They are the ones that drive the relationship," says Tabourne. Mentees take initiative to set meeting agendas and identify goals and areas of improvement they want mentors to help with.

Enterprise employees that participate in the mentor program have 15% to 20% higher retention rates than those that do not participate. Moreover, mentees speak positively of their experience and often give back by becoming mentors to help the next generation of employees.

Enterprise recently tested a virtual mentor program in one of its divisions to further expand the program to employees it wasn't able to reach before. "We decided to pilot our remarketing division in a virtual program where our mentors and mentees never meet. They talk over the phone for the entire relationship, and it's working out really well. That's one way we hope to reach a larger audience with our program," says Tabourne.


UCB Pharma uses e-mentoring

"The nice thing about online mentoring is, I believe, you get the best of both worlds," says Blaine Palmer, former head of talent development for the global Americas at UCB Pharma. Online programs have a formal structure, but the match itself is organic and only interested employees participate in the program.

Palmer was so impressed by the successful engagement fostered by the eMentorConnect program at his former employer that he plans to implement it for new real estate agents at his current employer, Palmer House Properties, in Atlanta, Ga.

While working for the pharmaceutical company, he worked to develop a new mentoring program to address the generational realities of the workforce.

The company's previous formal mentoring program failed because it felt like a chore, explains Palmer. It was inconsistent and often made poor matches.

"We needed a different modality, but the problem was we needed to do more with less," Palmer says. The company decided to implement the eMentorConnect platform for its 3,600 employees to account for generational gaps.

Palmer says he strived "to help our managers understand how to tie mentoring back to [business] strategy, which really gets to the bottom line results." UCB Pharma was able convince managers it was a need-to-have program by presenting results gathered through a comprehensive tracking system.

Matches in the virtual program are based on self-ratings in core competencies, as well as performance evaluations.

Mentees elect a mentor from three quality matches based on their competency level and communication style - whether they want to connect via email or text or have face-to-face meetings or use FaceTime on iPhones provided by the organization.

"There's actually some personal choice in [the matching], which leads to greater buy-in and a better match," explains Nancy Wolk, principal at eMentorConnect.

Palmer, who championed the program to make sure it ran smoothly, was eager to dispose of the previous system that required HR to pore over mountains of paperwork and make matches for people they didn't know.

"It's so nice because it runs itself," he says. Mentees can communicate with mentors through the platform and peruse resources to help them frame their objectives and meeting agendas. The training is effectively built in to the platform with room for customization; several leaders wrote articles for the mentoring catalogues.

If issues arise, such as a 90-day gap in communication, HR can intervene and either revive the relationship or help pairs find more suitable partners. Online tracking also helps HR determine which skill sets it needs to address companywide or within a specific employee segment.

At UCB Pharma, anyone can participate in the e-mentoring program, which is ongoing. Once a mentee has accomplished their articulated goals and objectives, they have the option to close the relationship and concentrate on other objectives with another mentor. Mentees are permitted up to five mentors at one time to pursue different goals. Also, mentors may also be mentees in areas they need to develop.

UCB Pharma has a separate program for employees in key positions who are identified through employee development for management positions. The mentees, in 35 to 40 key positions, still participate in the system so HR can track their progress, but are separated from the larger population. "We take special interest in [this population] and take time to formally match them with a senior leader, because these are people who will be senior leaders," says Palmer.

The program was launched earlier this year and, since then, two field-based employees matched with inhouse marketing mentors have been hired in the marketing department. A higher-level U.S. director, meanwhile, connected with a colleague in Brussels to learn more about life there and has now accepted a position there.

Palmer firmly believes that online mentoring is a "cost-efficient way to have significant positive impact on employee development, retention, and company culture."



Outside the workplace, HR professionals can access mentors through professional organizations, such as local SHRM chapters and HR groups for specific industries, advises Ellen A. Ensher, Ph.D., professor of management, Loyola Marymount University. People can also use LinkedIn and other networks to find mentors or set up informational interviews.

Peter Ronza, president of Pontifex Consulting Group, suggests connecting directly with career centers at one's alma mater, reaching out to old professors and connecting with alumni.

Local SHRM chapters have similar mentoring opportunities. "If you're a new practitioner or a generalist who needs help with compensation because you've been assigned a comp project for benefits, you can go to your local chapter and they can connect you," says Ronza.

Local SHRM chapters and professional groups also offer networking opportunities through events. In large corporate environments, HR people can team with other specialists in the department or company to learn new skills.

"Sometimes [formal programs] have the best of intentions, but if they aren't supported, they fall apart," cautions Ronza.

Still, he believes formal programs can prove their worth through retention and knowledge transfer.

Ensher also recommends HR practitioners find mentors across different business segments to expand their knowledge base.

"Think about cultivating a whole network," she says. "One of the things that is always challenging for HR professionals is that we get branded as HR professionals and not knowing the business.

"She suggests having a peer mentor for emotional support, another mentor who is one step ahead of you in your career and can give you some just-in-time professional advice, and another resource who may be retired and has more time to spend advising you.

Ensher also stresses that protégés should look for ways to give back to their mentors by showing follow-through. Strong professional performance also reflects well on mentors.

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