By Robin Madell

While the mention of mentorship has become almost ubiquitous in the workplace, it’s uncommon to receive a behind-the-scenes look at a successful program. Recently, we had a chance to take an inside look at how one company is using their mentorship program as part of a broad array of talent management initiatives that help to develop high-potential employees, both male and female.

Sarah O’Hare, vice president of human resources for Freudenberg-NOK Sealing Technologies (FNST), championed the concept of a mentoring program at her company back in 2006, specifically because she believes mentoring is an integral strategic element of corporate talent management programs. “Mentoring helps companies grow and retain talent, fortify their succession plans, and amplify their cultures of continuous improvement,” says O’Hare.

Complementary corporate initiatives for talent development include leadership, diversity, and cultural training, as well as ongoing program and process courses and curriculums. Additionally, the company offers some employees opportunities to explore foreign and cross-functional assignments, and supports their pursuit of graduate degrees.

Within this mix, O’Hare says that mentorships and sponsorships are crucial to FNST’s efforts, because they involve outreach to individual employees whom management has identified as having strong potential for growth and advancement. Cross-functional teams select these employees and invite them to participate in the mentoring program. “Our mentoring program is founded on the belief that continuous improvement and new opportunities must be present in every employee’s career in order to keep them engaged and challenged,” says O’Hare.

How It Works

The mentoring program at FNST is a formal guided program built around employees’ talent development needs, and it involves specific time commitments and project deliverables. FNST’s mentor pairs generally speak at least twice a month and meet in person on a quarterly basis. In addition, there’s a formal kick-off event, a mid-year check-in by the program leader, and a wrap-up session to conclude the year.

The company also encourages sponsorship opportunities as a component of mentoring, though the sponsorship part of the program is less structured. In general, sponsorship relationships are developed through the initiative of an executive and an employee and are individually structured rather than corporately structured.

Whether mentorship or sponsorship, FNST has instituted a company policy to help both mentors and sponsors overcome the obstacle of limited bandwidth: mentors, sponsors, and employees are empowered to take time during the work day to pursue projects, conversations, and initiatives related to developing these important relationships.

“We don’t want these relationships to be extracurricular,” says O’Hare. “They are part of work and must be accepted as work by our leadership. We work hard at FNST to instill this concept and ensure that people who are engaged in these kinds of activities understand they can pursue them during their regular work day.”

Case Studies

How can mentoring help with talent development? O’Hare shares a few firsthand examples of how FNST’s mentorship program, along with its sponsorship component, helps employees navigate uncharted professional experiences and establish boundaries that they have not considered in the past.

Heidi, one of the company’s GenX directors, is a 40-year-old working mother—and a no-holds-barred go getter. Heidi recently shared with O’Hare that when she first became a manager, one of her employees was having serious personal issues. Since Heidi is an expert at risk management, her immediate response was to dive in with both feet and put together a personal action plan for the employee, making specific recommendations about how she could solve her problems (i.e., call an attorney, contact banks, etc.) Though Heidi admitted to O’Hare that it didn’t feel quite right as she was doing it, she resorted to her natural talents and strengths to try to help her subordinate through some uncharted management territory.

When Heidi spoke to her mentor about this situation, he immediately raised a red flag and counseled her that the more appropriate management response was to provide this employee with the phone number to the company’s Employee Assistance Program, and keep detailed personal information out of their professional relationship. O’Hare summarizes how the mentorship program helped steer this high-potential manager back on track:

“In the absence of experience, I think we all default to our natural tendencies,” says O’Hare. “In women, this generally means we resort to our experience as collaborators, caretakers, and problem solvers. The mentorship program helped her navigate a tight space between working with employees as a manager as opposed to a female manager.”

In another case, O’Hare hired Melanie as an HR analyst in her department. Melanie was sitting in a smaller, administrative-type cube doing her work. Her mentor told her she needed to secure a larger space more befitting of an employee who was managing important research and analysis for the organization. It was a detail that O’Hare had missed, but her mentor hadn’t. HR modified Melanie’s workspace, and the perception of Melanie’s role within the organization radically changed.

What about sponsorship? O’Hare describes Heidi as someone who completely “gets” the sponsorship–career advancement connection. As such, Heidi set up an informal sponsorship with the global director of her organization because the director had specific, strategic knowledge that Heidi wanted to gain, and specific visibility she wished to achieve. Heidi approached the director on her own initiative and asked if he would sponsor her, allow her to attend his leadership team meeting, and allow her to attend important business meetings as well.

Heidi’s enthusiasm and thirst for learning about the business and her global division drove her efforts to engage a sponsor herself. “This is an important point,” emphasizes O’Hare. “Heidi spent time looking at her career and assessing what skills and opportunities she needed to push ahead, and then sought out sponsorship from the person she thought could best deliver this to her. She created her own opportunities for sponsorship and advancement by embracing self-promotion and understanding her capabilities, but also by acknowledging that sponsorships and the experience they deliver are critical in the work world.”

O’Hare concludes that the company’s mentoring and sponsorship program is key to ensuring that their potential and high-potential employees have what they need to succeed, and that career coaching and talent development is personal and targeted to the individual. “We have already spent a tremendous amount of time recruiting them,” says O’Hare. “Now that they are here, we need to spend an equal amount of time ensuring that they feel valued, capable, excited, satisfied, and heard.”