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VM: Can you tell more about that?

MS: In manufacturing, it can be a hard sell to focus on career development. There are always orders to go out, so we started out as a pilot program. The results were so good people could see real business results. It became seen as much less of an “after school program.” It’s real work, and it changes the company.

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VM: What was this mentoring program like at the beginning?

MS: When we first offered mentoring, we knew that in our company culture people might be hesitant. In that first group, we tapped people to participate. The CEO and the HR leadership team talked about who might benefit from or be influential in the program and hand-picked that first group.

VM: How many have been through the mentoring program?

MS: Close to 200 people have participated; we’re just about to start our ninth program this summer. There are generally seven to 15 pairs per session. And some people have mentored multiple times, four or five times. Others who have been a senior mentor advisor come back to mentor again.

VM: What’s a senior mentor advisor?

MS: These are people who participated and were active and helpful and then server in an advisory role in subsequent mentor program sessions. They check in separately with each mentee and mentor in groups every couple of weeks. “How is it going? What are take-aways? How are you feeling about the capstone project?” “What is something you have done you think everyone would benefit from?”

VM: How does the program work?

MS: The program is 12 weeks long. We start off each session with one day of training for the mentors. Questions come up such as, “What do you do when things are not going right?” and “What if your mentee does things differently from how you might?”

Then, the whole group, mentors and mentees, are all trained together. Midway through the training day, we announce the pairings. So the whole group has gotten acquainted.

Mentor and mentee decide how they will work together. During the 12 weeks, the mentee commits to and completes a number of activities: “meet-and-greets” and “ride-alongs.”

VM: What is involved in “meet-and-greets” and “ride-alongs”?

MS: The meet-and-greet is a meeting with someone in the company—like an informational interview—where the pairs become acquainted and learn something about each other and their work.

The ride-along is where a mentee participates in a work activity in a different department, such as attending a meeting or observing a sales call.

In the beginning of the program, we’re a little bit more prescriptive with meet-and-greets. We tell the mentees, “You need to have a meet-and-greet with someone who has done the program before,” which we find eases nerves. We’ll also direct them to have a meet-and-greet with someone on the leadership team and, in some cases, someone in a different location than them.

A ride-along can be anything, but it needs to be outside the scope of your normal work. It might be attending a meeting that your mentor is running, sitting in on a job interview, going back on the new-hire plant tours to see what you pick up this time around, and we even had a mentee travel to Brazil for an audit trip with their mentor—though that type of ride-along is, of course, not so typical!

VM: Does the program eventually become more flexible?

MS: As the program goes on, mentees choose their own activities and we just tell them how many. Some do all meet-and-greets; others keep up a blend of the two. This allows each mentee to use the structure of the mentoring program but gear it specifically toward his or her own career interests.

After each activity, mentee and mentor talk about it. This a safe space to share questions and observations.

At the end of the program, each mentee makes a 10-minute capstone presentation to the executive team on a process or procedure that can be improved to the benefit of the company and employees.

The whole time, the senior mentor advisor continues to check in periodically to see how the relationship is going, recommend activities, suggest how to deal with problems, etc.

VM: What happens afterward?

MS: Every time we run a group, it just so happens that we see at least one participant change jobs, get promoted or be transferred within six months after the program ends. They have learned about other areas of the company or managers have discovered them.

I did the mentoring program the first time we offered it and now am in a leadership role in my department.

This is a high visibility program; it builds executive visibility. The company leadership team meets people and learns what they can do. We call it a “talent surfacing program.”

Company management becomes visible and approachable, as well. In each group, we make sure to include a signature executive. Someone gets paired with him or her. It takes the edge off—maybe that leadership team person isn’t so scary!

Some participants repeat the program, but in a different role. After being a mentee, they learn and grow and come back as mentors. We call them “boomerang mentors.” They’re paying it forward. Some people mentor multiple times.

VM: It sounds like there is learning on both sides, for mentor and mentee.

MS: Career development is too often miscategorized as something that is only important for early-career professionals. Some of the most exciting career development stories we’ve seen occurred when someone with years of experience in our company and industry participated in the mentoring program as a mentor.

We have had countless mentors make the jump into formal management roles after building up their confidence through mentoring. We’ve seen a senior manager who thought he would retire in the role he was in who participated as a mentor and two years later joined the company’s leadership team as a vice president. There have been people we were sure were ready to leave the company who turned over a new leaf after discovering their mentoring capabilities.

Barbara Donohue is web editor for VALVE Magazine.

Michaela Stickley is assistant director of human resources at A.W. Chesterton Company, headquartered in Groveland, MA.