Life at Work

Wisdom and a Helping Hand

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 15, 2007

The interns are coming! The interns are coming!

That means it's time to get your mentoring skills all shined up and ready to go.

But how do you know you're doing right by these new worker bees?

It sounds like an easy task: Be their Yoda. Tell them what you think about your industry, their role, the world. But, in fact, your words and actions can create or squash a career. You could send a person running, thinking this is the worst field for him. You could also help mentees get jobs and make their entire careers.

A mentor is an investor in the mentee, said Ben Boyd, senior vice president at Edelman, a public relations firm. "The relationship is not about the mentor or what the mentor wants or needs," he said. "It really is listening and providing that feedback and input."

A mentor also has to be totally trustworthy, so the mentee can talk about leaving the job, hating a boss or asking for a raise. "You need to empower them to excel in their own career and to become increasingly self-sufficient," Boyd said.

Mentoring another employee, through either a formal or informal program, takes time and effort. Human resources approached Boyd about being a mentor, and asked if he wanted to do it and if he had time. Of course he wanted to do it. But as for the time? Not so much. So he was clear with both HR and his mentee, Amy Malerba, that he would do his best but that she would have to be patient. He might not be able to answer her questions right away, but he would always get back to her. "We went into it with eyes wide open," he said.

Setting ground rules keeps mentoring from turning into a full-time job.

When Nancy Palazza, founder of Alternative Employment Specialists in Herndon, agreed to mentor an employee who wanted to move from an administrative position to a recruiter's position, she learned just how much time it took, too. "What I found was that I like to share knowledge, but it's time-consuming and can be draining sometimes," she said. "I think it takes a real commitment on behalf of the mentor to share ideas and spend time."

She said she realizes now that she should have been a little more formal about the process and worked out a schedule. Because she didn't, the relationship was integrated into every day. "It was just kind of a thing that happened during the day," she said, and it took too much time.

The job of a mentor is not to dictate, said Trish Hollar, chief human resources officer for Bowman Consulting in Chantilly. Instead, listen to the mentee's interests, desires, goals and passions, she said. "You need to guide and support the individual. Make suggestions. Explore the thinking of the mentee. But do not tell them what to do."

The relationship should be more of a partnership. One of the greatest things about mentoring, said Jennifer Cortner, president of EFX Media in Arlington, is when the relationship changes so that the mentor goes to the mentee for advice. "It ends up being two-way versus a one-way experience," she said. "Everyone I've mentored has been a connection for me."

Speaking of connections, if there isn't one, it might be best to step away, Hollar said. "Get to know them on a personal level and connect. If they don't connect, you may have to reconsider." Because who worse to spend your spare time on than someone you just don't get? Or feel inspired to help?

Boyd's mentee at Edelman chose him because she saw a good connection. "Early on, I had this unique notion that Ben is so great and organized, I'd really like to emulate him," Malerba said. She is organized and detail-oriented, but she wanted to be with someone who also is good at strategy, a skill she saw in Boyd. "I thought, 'Of all the senior staff, who is the most like me?' "

The relationship worked -- for both of them. On the same day last week, Boyd received an award for being a great manager, nominated by the junior staff, while Malerba got a promotion. "He advised me on the promotion and salary discussion," Malerba said. "I felt so much more comfortable going in to the review having met with him prior."

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