The secret link between one-on-one mentoring and building your broader professional network
This post was written by Lauren Trees, a research program manager at member-based nonprofit APQC (www.apqc.org), the world’s foremost authority in benchmarking, best practices, process and performance improvement, and knowledge management.
When people talk about mentoring, they’re usually referring to a personal relationship in which someone shares advice or expertise with someone else. Although APQC has seen a range of different mentoring arrangements in its research, including rotational and group mentorships, pairings remain the norm for most organizations. But just because mentoring tends to be one-on-one doesn’t mean it can’t help employees build their professional networks and engage with a wider range of colleagues.
What we found is that organizations intentionally use mentoring to build ties between employees from different generations, hierarchical levels, and functional areas who might not otherwise meet in the course of their jobs. Many program leaders recognize that, if mentors and mentees introduce each other to their immediate colleagues, then the connections forged through mentoring can create a ripple effect that helps break down internal silos and improve lines of communication between previously disconnected groups.
To capitalize on this, many mentoring programs encourage mentors and mentees to introduce each other to colleagues or host group activities where participants can form new connections.
Tip No. 1: Use events and prizes to expose mentors and mentees to a broader network
The most straightforward way to connect a formal mentoring program to broader networking opportunities is to gather a cross-section of mentoring participants for a group event and activity. The mentoring program at the U.S. Army Armament Research, Development, and Engineering Center is an apt embodiment of this strategy.
One of the program’s overarching goals is to act as a springboard for ongoing networking, not just for the specific pairings but among all mentors and mentees. ARDEC does not want mentees to just learn from mentors, and it doesn’t want mentors to experience only a single mentee. Instead, the organization promotes the idea that everyone in the program is equal and should be learning from one another.
When mentees join the ARDEC mentoring program, they receive formal training on how to network effectively. This includes having mentees develop “elevator pitches,” or two-minute introductory speeches they can use to describe themselves when they encounter potential networking partners. Mentees practice and perfect their elevator pitches during a round robin event where they interview potential mentors and select the ones they most want to work with. ARDEC believes the program has been particularly successful at teaching less experienced employees these critical networking skills.
Key to the ARDEC mentoring program's ongoing success are events called mentoring socials, which it holds every three months during lunch. The events are designed to cross-pollinate current program participants and alumni, foster a team environment, and give mentees a chance to practice their networking skills.
Each ARDEC mentoring social begins with a senior leader or someone outside the program giving a speech about how he/she has been impacted by mentoring. Participants then have an opportunity to mingle and communicate informally with one another. All the mentors and mentees that have gone through the program are invited to the social to hear the speaker, share ideas, network, and build new relationships.
The program also encourages attendees to bring colleagues who may be interested in having mentors, but are not quite ready to commit to the training involved in being an official program participant. This helps the program recruit new mentors and mentees while broadening the pool of potential networking partners at each social.
In addition to formal networking events, ARDEC’s mentoring program uses prizes to encourage further cross-pollination. For example, it organizes a raffle to give participants the opportunity to go to a local coffee shop with someone else in the program that they have never talked to before and chat about things that they normally would not have the opportunity to discuss. These prizes are a fun way to help employees hone their networking skills while building rapport with colleagues outside their normal professional and social circles.
GovLoop Government Social Media and Knowledge Network runs an industry-wide mentoring program for federal, state, and local government. The program focuses its networking opportunities on current program participants, but it uses an event format similar to ARDEC’s to encourage relationship-building beyond specific mentor/mentee pairings.
At the beginning of the GovLoop program, participants local to the Washington, D.C., area are given a chance to meet and network informally during a face-to-face kickoff event. Then halfway through the six-month mentoring cycle, the organization hosts a second event called a mentoring keynote to gather participants and reinvigorate them for the second half of the program. In addition to listening to a speech, attendees are able to network with other mentors and mentees, share information about how the program is going, and learn from one another’s experiences. The culmination of the program includes a final in-person event where participants share stories, celebrate successes, and continue their networking.
The tactic of combining one-on-one relationships with group events has added value to the GovLoop program by exposing participants to both career development support and a broader set of local industry connections.
Tip No. 2: Encourage participants to initiate introductions and connect via communities
Only a few organizations featured in APQC’s research host social events for mentors and mentees, but most have more subtle ways to encourage networking among program participants. For example, some set expectations for mentoring pairs to introduce each other to additional colleagues who can help them with their career or personal development, whereas others explicitly link mentoring to broader employee communities and networks that can provide supplementary support.
Cardinal Health tells participants in its mentoring programs to use mentoring to expand their
professional networks beyond the individuals with whom they are directly paired. Over the course of a mentoring relationship, each mentor is explicitly tasked with connecting his/her mentee to at least three other new contacts who can help support the mentee’s development. This amplifies the impact of the mentoring program and helps spur collaboration and knowledge sharing among parts of the workforce who might not otherwise interact.
Praxair’s approach is less explicit, but the manager of its two-year leadership technical orientation program (LTOP) works with mentoring pairs to identify additional contacts who can help mentees by providing specific expertise. Program leaders also encourage mentees to develop additional, informal mentoring relationships with colleagues they meet through technical lunch-n-learn sessions, technology exchange forums, and the organization’s virtual collaboration platform.
Boeing as a similar strategy that combines one-on-one mentoring with less formal group approaches. In addition to providing technical mentors to engineers who need them, the organization encourages employees to seek informal, peer-based mentoring through its network of topic-based communities. Run under HR’s knowledge management umbrella, these range in formality from communities of excellence—which must formally articulate their goals and how they add value to the enterprise—to less structured communities of practice and online groups. Although the community program and the technical mentoring program are separate, program leaders believe that a great deal of informal mentoring occurs when engineers come together to talk and learn in these groups.
It’s easy for an organization to recognize how mentoring can connect an employee to a colleague from a different generation, hierarchical level, or area of the business. However, it requires more vision to see mentorship as a catalyst to break down silos and build boundary-spanning professional networks. Based on its research, APQC recommends incorporating networking events and opportunities at key intervals in the mentoring process. This will allow you to amplify the benefits of your program and maximize the return on your mentoring investments.