Mentoring: How to Leverage the Skills of Your Best Performers

By Phillip M. Perry | December 2, 2019

You’ve spent good money attracting, hiring and training great employees. The result is a highly productive staff. From understanding complex insurance products to helping customers make informed decisions, employee skills are income-producing assets for your agency.

But what happens when your most competent people retire or move on to other pursuits? Does all that expertise go down the drain?

Maybe not. You can capture their talent by having them pass along their proficiencies to other employees.

It’s done through mentoring.

On the Move

Securing your training investment is especially critical today. One reason is the mobility of the nation’s workforce. Because people are more likely than ever to work for multiple employers over the course of their careers, your own staff is always subject to unexpected change.

“You could lose one of your top people tomorrow,” says Randy Goruk, president of The Randall Wade Group, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based consulting firm. “You need to have someone ready to step up to the plate.”

Mentoring can also stem the loss of productive talent as more skilled baby boomers retire. Moreover, younger people entering the workforce are drawn to agencies with career enhancement initiatives such as mentoring.

“Today’s applicants are telling prospective employers they want personal development in their work life,” says Richard Avdoian, an employee development consultant in metropolitan St. Louis. “It’s all part of a changing business environment: As people move more rapidly between employers, they are looking ahead to their next stop.”

Paradoxically, the same mentoring valued by a mobile workforce can also bolster your retention rate. People will be more loyal to your agency when they see you take an interest in their professional development. Another loyalty booster: As employees become more skilled, you will more likely promote from within.

All in all, mentoring can result in a more productive work environment. “Agencies with mentoring programs often end up with more solid succession plans, as well as better procedures for workplace problem solving and conflict resolution,” says Lauran Star, a business consultant based in Bedford, N.H.

Teach Success

So, what specific knowledge and skills can your mentoring program capture?

Top of mind, perhaps, is mastery of the technical details of specific insurance segments. Then there’s the learned ability to tackle claims report processing and to field tough customer questions. Building a book and developing long term relationships are other proficiencies mentoring can preserve.

But don’t forget something equally important: understanding the vagaries of your agency’s culture.

“Workplaces are like playing fields,” says Lois P. Frankel, president of Corporate Coaching International in Pasadena, Calif. “There are rules, boundaries and strategies that have to be employed if players — in this case employees — want to be successful. Most often, these are not things that are written down, but rather things that people learn from observing and working closely with colleagues.”

Not knowing the rules of the game can be dangerous. “New agency employees — and even some seasoned ones — might not realize they are going out of bounds until their careers or reputations have been damaged,” says Alan Weiss, president of Summit Consulting Group in East Greenwich, R.I.

Examples? Weiss offers one: “A mentee might ask ‘Is it appropriate for me to bring up a certain topic at the next employee meeting?'” Getting the right guidance on such a matter is important. “If you fail to speak up about a critical matter at the meeting, you might be regarded as unobservant,” says Weiss. “But if you make the wrong statement, or the right statement at the wrong time, people may feel you lack sensitivity to the work environment.”

Here are some other common mentoring topics:

  • How should a newly promoted individual deal with old friends who have suddenly become subordinates? “While new supervisors cannot hang out with their former peers, sometimes it is not clear what interactions they should have,” says Weiss. “A mentor can help the newly promoted individual sidestep the old familiarities without being rude.”
  • Who are the influential players in each agency’s department? What is the best way to approach each, given their personal management styles?
  • How are decisions made in the agency? Is there a common process by which new ideas are vetted? What is the best way to introduce a new idea without ruffling feathers?
  • How, and with whom, should a mentee network to get ahead? What players have the ears of the top people?
  • What steps should a person take to improve his or her professional stance? Maybe earn a higher degree or a professional designation? Teach workshops? Solve a workplace problem? Mentor others? Great Mentoring

Some mentoring relationships thrive; others wither on the vine. How can your own efforts find a home in the first group? Experts suggest these tips for success:

Establish parameters. “The mentor needs to define the scope of the mentoring relationship — what it is and what it isn’t,” says Frankel. “For example, mentoring might not be advocacy. A mentor who can’t or won’t put in a good word for a mentee applying for a promotion might be willing to help prepare for an interview or provide insight into what a position will require.”

Set goals when appropriate. The most successful mentoring programs center on the individual’s perceived needs. “Rather than make your own interests the agenda, start by asking what the mentee needs,” says Avdoian. Perhaps the person needs to develop a more impressive leadership style, a more authoritative posture, or a more positive attitude.

Are specific goals necessary? Maybe not. “Successful mentoring is often more about creating a safe environment to discuss career issues and explore challenges than it is about doing any one particular thing,” says Frankel.

Sometimes goals are called for. “If you have identified a weak performance area, then a specific, measurable goal will be helpful,” says Goruk. “But if you are just trying to develop your bench strength and prepare people for advancement, the goal might be simply the retention of a quality employee. In this case, the mentor might help the person stay inspired and feel empowered.”

Keep to a schedule. “Decide how frequently you will get together and how long the relationship will last,” says Avdoian. “It’s best to enter meeting times on a calendar. A ‘we’ll meet when we can’ approach never seems to work out because there’s always something else to do.” As for the venue of the meetings, establish some designated area which is relaxing and allows for uninterrupted conversation.

And respect the mentor’s work schedule. “The mentee may think that the mentor will be available at any time for a consultation,” says Goruk. “That’s unreasonable. Map out working parameters before the process begins.”

Discuss privacy. “The issue of confidentiality should be put on the table,” says Frankel. “The mentor should assure the mentee that any shared information will remain private. The mentor might want to ask the same of the mentee to facilitate candid and unguarded discussion.”

Be honest. “Don’t be afraid to say you do not have the answer to a particular problem for the mentee,” says Star. “Take steps to help them find the answer and you will both learn in the process.”

Bonus tip: A good mentor need not be in the mentee’s chain of command. “Although a boss can be a mentor, it’s often more effective when someone who is not in a position to judge performance or make decisions about continued employment provides feedback and guidance,” says Frankel.

How Are You Doing?

Assess the quality of your mentoring effort by asking mentees for feedback. “Periodically seek insight into how the initiative is going,” says Goruk. “If you get a blank stare when you ask, ‘How am I helping you?’ maybe you have not been very helpful. Remember that you are engaged in a process of developing new leaders. If you are not doing that, you are wasting your time as a mentor.”

You should also assess the quality of your organization’s overall business training initiatives. “Start with a 360-degree survey to find out where your mentoring program is now,” says Goruk. “Then redo the survey a year down the road to see how well you have advanced. Identify areas for improvement and encourage mentors to work on them.”

A quality mentoring program will assure your business retains critical skills and expertise. Try to extend the mentoring process to every individual who shows promise, no matter what the work level. Says Goruk: “The further down you can take your mentoring program in your organization, the more profitable you will be.”

About Phillip M. Perry

Perry is an award-winning business journalist based in New York City. Web: editorialcalendar.net

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