“Leveraging the unique skill sets of our employees and allowing them to bring their ‘whole self’ to a volunteer experience has proven to be a win–win for all. Employees are proactively seeking mentoring opportunities while mentees are benefiting from our community outreach. Patty is spot on that providing a Project Based Mentoring experience is the way to go.”  Susan Warner, Vice President of Worldwide Communications, MasterCard

I’m often asked about the benefits of starting a mentorship program in a corporation. While writing Teach to Work: How a Mentor, a Mentee, and a Project Can Close the Skills Gap in America, I had the opportunity to interview dozens of corporate leaders who have implemented or guided their corporate mentorship programs. I have also had a 35-year career in business, coupled with two decades of hands-on experience working directly with youth and creating a mentorship program. Given these experiences, I can say this with confidence: a corporate mentorship program is not only beneficial; it has become one of the single-most important programs in the entire corporate culture. I’ll give you the reasons why.

1. Mentorship Programs Give the Corporation a Soul
It is no secret that Millennials prioritize a corporation that gives back: a corporation that places value on community service and “doing good.” Millennials will go so far as to choose one company over another for the sole reason that they are proud of where they work. But this viewpoint is shared by far more people than Millennials.

Corporations that want to appeal to the upcoming workforce and future leaders must understand that their image is more than strictly a profit center.  Their actions demonstrate their value systems. What footprint will the corporation leave on society? How many people is the corporation helping? Does the corporation have compassion – does it have a soul?

Mentorship programs make it clear that a corporation cares. Mentorship very publicly states, “we want to help our community.” Not only do corporations see job applicants seeking such a message, they will also find employees asking to be involved in these types of endeavors. A culture shift unfolds as employees share stories about their own community efforts, and quite frankly, these often supersede the stories about a corporation’s products or services. You see, it feels good for employees to talk about their compassion that their company has for the community. It gives your company human qualities both internally and externally. It gives the company a soul.

2. Mentoring Builds a Pipeline of Employees and Applicants
Once you see that the mentor/mentee relationship can impact a student (and mentor) for a lifetime, you can also see why every company that creates a mentorship program experiences an upsurge in employment applications. The corporation, through the mentor, has built a pipeline of future employees. And these young applicants not only become familiar with your company and its offerings, they begin to have an idea of what it takes to be a corporate employee. Why? Because in the project based mentoring scenario, they have worked through real-world problems with the guidance of a seasoned employee, and they have learned about the critical analysis, grit, and confidence needed to overcome a challenge. And when the students see that they can relate to this seasoned employee, they start to think about what they can do to follow in his footsteps. They envision themselves working for your corporation.

The corporation will also find that relationships with the schools and non-profit mentorship programs improves beneficially. You can bet that the school’s career guidance officers will remember that corporation when it comes time to directing applicants. You now have a team of corporate employment ambassadors. You may also find that the guidance officers are even picking up the phone to tell you when there is a particularly skilled student. What is the value of having dozens of scouts looking for skilled employees on your behalf? Start by counting how much you save in recruiting costs.

3. Mentorship Programs Build a Corporation’s Culture
Mentorship programs, more so than random charitable endeavors, can further a corporation’s culture, morale and corporate purpose. “Employees want to be part of something that is bigger than a company. The business culture is internally based, but the philanthropy is external. That volunteer ethos provides something more than a quarterly return on earnings . . . it stretches employees beyond their day-to-day job.” —Rick Luftglass, former director of The Pfizer Foundation’s education volunteer programs.

In a 2006 Harvard Business Review article, “Strategy and Society: The Link Between Competitive Advantage and Corporate Social Responsibility,” Michael Porter and Mark R. Kramer, global experts on competitiveness, urged companies to steer clear of disconnected charity work and to link corporate volunteer activities to strategic competitive goals. The authors praised Microsoft for its partnership with the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), an effort to address shortages of information technology workers. Microsoft’s $50 million, five-year initiative included financial and product contributions, along with employee volunteers who visited the schools to assess needs, help with curriculum development, and create faculty development institutes.

Today, companies report that having robust volunteer programs introduces another dimension to company life, bringing a broader sense of purpose to the different layers of the organization—from entry-level staff to the CEO. Employees report feeling happier and more satisfied with their jobs. Teamwork can improve as a result of volunteer programs, and more fulfilled employees show better job performance. Higher morale, improved employee productivity, and better retention can result.

4. Mentorship Programs Create Better Corporate Leaders
Through mentoring over the years, I have witnessed some incredible changes that occur due to the mentor/mentee relationship. Not only do students start to turn on lightbulbs and think about their purpose in life, I have seen countless mentors have similar life- and career-changing results. One of the ways a mentor can grow during a mentor/mentee relationship is that mentor will develop new leadership skills through the intergenerational relationship. When an adult mentor is paired with a young person from a totally different generation – specifically, a youth who is about to enter the workforce – world-view perceptions are expanded bilaterally, and the professional is pushed to think about his potential impact on the next generation. What one does with that responsibility is a test. It often leads to a new self-awareness and leadership growth for an employee.

  • Mentorship Programs Create More Confident Employees
The mentor will also build confidence through the mentor relationship. When that professional enters a classroom, the students’ attention is focused and they will inevitably want to know how they can follow in that professional’s footsteps. The mentor’s stories of missteps and successes, of how he has solved industry problems, will be more relevant than any book the students have in front of them. This is not only an opportunity to create a real-world impression; it is also an opportunity to leave a legacy: an unspoken, yet motivating message that says, “If I can, you can.” There are few, if any, occasions a professional will experience such a significant impact on another. This leaves an employee walking away with a new confidence.
  • Mentorship Programs Teach Character
Mentorship also teaches character. Tim Kautz and James J. Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, researched what they call non-cognitive skills, such as character, motivation, and goals, which are considered extremely valuable traits in the labor market today. Their studies suggest that “character” is a skill, not a trait, that its development is a dynamic process that can be taught, and that non-cognitive skills (social skills) are as important as cognitive skills. Lastly, they conclude that successful educational interventions should emulate mentoring environments.

From my experiences, character-building is one of the most critical byproducts of a mentoring relationship. One of the greatest responsibilities a mentor takes on is an obligation to be a model of good character to his mentees. By being reliable, doing what you say, demonstrating honest discourse, and providing unwavering support, a mentor demonstrates qualities that his mentee mimics. As part of this process, a mentor might reconsider his own personal and moral inventory, particularly when he is looked up to and observed.

  • Mentorship Programs Create Better Collaborators
Yet another important trait that arises when mentoring is collaboration. As the mentor leads an intergenerational dialogue through obstacles, difficulties, or new strategies, all the while the mentor is fostering learning. The mentor expands his own communication skills by honing new ways of presenting complex ideas – simply. In addition, the mentor must exercise new levels of patience and tolerance while a mentee absorbs new skills. The team led by the mentor is learning how to work together toward success. Developing collaborative skills, and leading the group, contributes to nuanced management skills. And those are in high demand in the workplace.
  • Mentorship Programs Teach Perseverance
And another critical trait taught by project based mentoring is perseverance, a/k/a grit. Both the mentor and the student witness how a hypothesis and plan shifts during the project’s execution. Where the mentee experiences frustration and negativity, the overarching goal might well need to be revisited or modified. The steady hand and experience of the mentor is on hand to stay the course and offer motivation. During these challenging times, the mentor and mentee explore how to be critical thinkers, and how to re-shift the trajectory toward new outcomes. It is at the final presentation and oral defense that the team revisits their difficult pathway, and the importance of their perseverance. These lessons not only highlight grit to the students, but they will also give the mentor new rigor and insight into perseverance to bring back to the workplace.

5. Mentorship Programs Retain Employees and Keep Retirees Engaged
Mentorship programs have proven to retain valuable employees, and to keep the reticent retirees engaged with the company. Dick Streeper, coordinator for the 3M–St. Paul Public Schools partnership, has been instrumental in matching employees with students. After thirty years with the company as a lab manager, and now as a retiree, Streeper has served thirteen years as coordinator, connecting thousands of 3Mers with students.

Streeper said science innovation companies complain that they cannot find enough potential employees with competencies in the sciences and math. 3M’s school involvement can help fill that gap. Streeper says that what keeps him returning year after year is the idea that “If I can be a facilitator to guide students on their pathway, that is worth its weight in gold and that is why I keep doing this.”Not only has Streeper illustrated the value that mentorship programs can have to corporations, he has illustrated a new way that corporations can honor and value its retirees. According to Streeper, 3M’s community involvement:

  • Demonstrates that 3M cares and is committed to the community where it is based
  • Lifts up “employees’ souls” through helping others
  • Is a great lab for employee leadership development—they learn governance, negotiation, and how to interact effectively with others
  • Portrays a positive example of corporate citizenry
6. Mentoring Builds Goodwill in the Community
Finally, when a corporate employee or reticent retiree heads out in the community to mentor our students, that employee becomes a corporate representative. There is an immediate impact at the school and at the homes of the mentees that provides the message “this corporation cares. They sent a volunteer to talk to our students about their future. They want to connect with, and improve, the community.”

This goodwill goes a long way in the community, and is arguably better than any paid campaign or commercial. It gets people talking. As the students speak with peers and parents about the projects they are developing, a lasting, positive message is left with everyone within earshot. And as the students go out in the community to implement their projects and business plans, the community impact grows exponentially.

Moreover, these students will never stop being that “advertisement” for the corporation. When a mentor is there to create a life-changing moment for a student, that moment will never be forgotten. As Chris Gardner, the author of the autobiography The Pursuit of Happyness, which was followed by a film of the same name, once told me, “I want to talk to you, Ms. Patty. Let me tell you something, you are not only changing the lives of these kids, you are changing the lives of their kids. These kids latch on to people they know they can trust, they can look up to, and that are giving them something they are not getting otherwise.”

Chris’ comments were very meaningful – as were the comments of the hundreds of students I have been blessed to mentor and see blossom. But I know I am not the only one changed and humbled by the mentorship experience. The students are, as well. And they will never forget that you – and your corporation – were instrumental in redirecting their lives.

Mentorship relationships, and in my opinion, project based mentorship programs specifically, which I teach and detail in my book, Teach to Work: How a Mentor, a Mentee, and a Project Can Close the Skills Gap in America, offer so many advantages to a corporation’s purpose. These mentorship opportunities change lives. Your employees will be happier. Your impact on the community will be greater. And the corporation will undoubtedly change the lives and future careers of students. I consider that a win for all.

This post originally appeared on HR.com.

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