Mentors play a key role in training younger employees

Courtesy of The Kansas City Star

By SALLY MacDONALD OOMS - Special to The Star

The tradition of giving a hand to others within professions is age-old. Today's businesses and industries increasingly are adopting mentoring as an approach to helping the less experienced.

When Geoff Lambright encounters a professional problem, he knows what to do. The audit senior at Deloitte & Touche talks to his mentor.

"I can bring any issue to him," Lambright said. "He's a sounding board."

Since Lambright is up for a promotion this summer, he wants plenty of advice.

"My counselor can tell me how to handle different management situations," Lambright said. "As a manager, my schedule will change. I'll have to know how to manage lots of clients at the same time."

Lambright's mentor -- or counselor, as the company calls mentors -- is audit senior manager Guy Swanson.

Swanson also has a counselor -- a partner in the accounting, tax and consulting company who has guided him for seven years.

Lambright and Swanson go to lunch at least quarterly to talk about everything from minor problems to their industry in general, Swanson said.

There is a formal aspect to the company's mentoring program as well, Swanson said. Swanson evaluates Lambright's performance and helps the younger man set annual goals.

"It's good human resources," Swanson said. "In our business, we don't have a product to sell. We sell our people. If we lose touch with them, we're in trouble."

Jeff Provost, a managing partner for Deloitte & Touche in Kansas City, has watched the mentoring system since the early 1980s.

"I think that having somebody at a level higher than you who takes an interest in your career helps," said Provost, whose mentor is the managing partner for the Dallas office. "They can tell you what challenges they faced, and it allows for a better perspective.

"It's good for the counselor, too. It's good for their development and teaching abilities."

Deloitte & Touche has had the system in place for so long it's a part of the company's culture, Provost said.

"Even during the recruitment and enrollment process, we talk about its importance," he said.

Small businesses

At Major Brands, a wholesale alcohol business, Chief Executive Officer Robert Epsten began a mentoring system with the people in his industry's trade association. Often, a son or daughter of a business associate from another city wants to learn the ropes.

"They might be going to college, and when they come back to their father's business they don't have the credibility they need," Epsten said. "They hear the attitude: `Oh, the kid's back.' Learning in a different location allows them to get experience and transfer it back to their business."

Epsten has his "students" work in every department: warehouse, delivery, purchasing, accounting and display.

He believes in passing the torch as well as the expertise. Epsten is the second generation in the business. One of his sons, who mentored with a wholesaler friend in Washington, D.C., is the third.

Informal mentoring may be the case at smaller businesses, said Don Proffer of Proffer Productions media production.

"In my business, if a young person goes out on a shoot with a person who is older and more experienced, isn't that mentoring?" he said. "It goes on all the time."

Proffer said he learns from his business partner and wife, Molly, who teaches him about writing. Others learn from him.

"I see `mentor' as a kind of buzzword for the medieval term of `apprentice,' " he said. "It's a process that's been going on for a long time."

It's a process he values, he said. For example, one of his employees graduated from technical school in video production. He has a good understanding of software and editing systems, Proffer said. But to put it all to use, he learns from doing. And that requires help from those more experienced.

Mentoring programs

Before Emily Voth started her natural products business, Indigo Wild, she solicited advice from local entrepreneur Danny O'Neill, owner of The Roasterie. Voth said O'Neill gave her about 15 ideas on how to build a business, all of them invaluable.

Now Voth is a new member of the Helzberg mentoring program, founded by retired businessman and philanthropist Barnett Helzberg with several colleagues.

The group is made up of successful Kansas City entrepreneurs whom the program picks to participate. It pairs mentors and students according to their expertise, from financial planning and marketing to sales training and human resource issues.

Since she has seen the value of being mentored, Voth wants to be able to mentor others. Her business has six more experienced employees and nine young employees, most of them in high school.

"In staff meetings, I've made it clear to my older managers how important it is to help our young women working here and how we have to be role models for them," Voth said. "The older ones have varied backgrounds and can give different perspectives."

Voth emphasized the role that praise plays in giving young employees self-confidence. Voth also entrusts them with jobs she thinks will allow them to learn and grow.

She recently spent a day with the younger employees doing inventory. "I tried to explain the why of inventory, then I handed the project to them and said, `Here's my goal.' They came up with their own system and did an incredible job."

Mentoring software

Mentoring is so important to Lirel Holt that he invested in a Chicago firm's development of an occupational mentoring software.

Holt, the founder and chief executive officer of the Carstar Group, said the software is designed to teach apprentices in every trade -- from auto mechanics to landscape gardeners -- how to perform the tasks they'll need for their job, on the job.

It teaches managers how to be mentors and provides tests they must pass before they can use the training system, Holt said.

"The software also teaches mentor managers things such as how to work with people different than themselves -- 20 years younger or from a different cultural background -- and how to put the system into the business," he said.

Mentors study what employees will learn and how to track them in their tasks. Apprentices advance only after they have studied, performed the work and passed a series of tests.

Holt hopes to install the system, called Mentors At Work, in his own business. "It's going to help a lot of kids in jobs do better," he said.

Holt thinks young people too often are mistreated upon entering the work force because they are handed over to a person who doesn't have the time to train them or who views them as an imposition.

In his auto mechanics and auto body industry, he said, almost all the top technicians have gray in their hair. "We know all kinds of technology in our society," Holt said, "but we forgot how to teach our kids. This is a high-tech online system they can use.

"We don't need to be treating these young people badly. It concerns me how our cars are going to run, how our plumbing is going to be replaced and how well our diesel trucks that are roaring down the road are going to be built.

"That's why occupational mentoring is so important. We need these young people learning to do their jobs well."


Helzberg mentoring program (816) 753-7776

Mentors At Work


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