Mentors make a difference in lives of business community

Mentored employees have better chance of success, give more back to the company

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Jo Miller knows firsthand the wisdom a mentor can impart on a young, impressionable mind.

"When I was just starting out, I had a wonderful mentor who I got to work with and learned a lot from," Miller recalled.

Miller is now CEO of Women's Leadership Coaching, a Cedar Rapids-based organization that helps women advance their careers and learn how to communicate more effectively. As part of her work, Miller travels and teaches workshops three to four times a month instructing others on how to advance their careers.

She tells students who should be a part of their networks.

One of those key people is a mentor.

Looking back, Miller said she gained invaluable knowledge from working with David Rock, author of the book, "Quiet Leadership," which highlights six steps to transforming performance at work.

"One thing that really stuck with me is, my friend and I were asking him why he's so successful, (and he said), 'I always do the things that I know I need to do even when I don't feel like it,'" Miller recalled her mentor saying. "Years later, it's been a big part of me being a success in my business."

For Erwin Froehlich, director of operations at Penford Products, mentoring has proven critical to ensuring employees succeed at the company. In fact, Froehlichhelped initiate the program at Penford a little more than a year ago.

"We've had needs to recruit and hire a number of people," said Froehlich, vice president and operations director.

"A key part of that, you're not done recruiting and hiring somebody once you hire them. You have to on-board them to the organization."

Doing so is not always easy, Froehlich admitted. Coming into a new environment and meeting people with diverse populations, combined with learning a new way of doing things, can lead to difficult situations, he said.

"You want them to succeed. You want to maximize their chances of succeeding here at Penford," he said.

"I worked on establishing a mentoring program like this at a previous employer. I thought this would be a cool thing to get involved in.

"All with the line of site toward making sure that our new hires are successful."

In some cases, mentor-mentee pairs also take time to talk outside the office.

Froehlich's mentee is Erica Schanbacher, a quality assurance manager for the company, and they met for lunch at Cooper's Mill in Cedar Rapids this past Tuesday.

"I think the benefit is just knowing insights of the company, how to handle situations, how to work with certain people and just someone here locally that I can go to, or my boss is away so he doesn't really see what goes on on a day-to-day basis," she said. "And I can ask (Froehlich) questions and he'll give me his advice and his help."

Schanbacher occasionally goes to her mentor with a specific question about what's happening at the plant, or if there is a customer complaint. She asks questions about how the company should respond or approach fixing the issue.

Overall, Froehlich said the company's mentorship program maximizes the chance of having a successful hire.

"From a mentee standpoint, that's a benefit to them," he said. "It makes them more effective in their jobs, makes them more comfortable as an employee of Penford.

"I learn things, I do things different as a mentor. The feedback I've had, (they) feel the same way. It's a learning experience for both sides. At the end of the day who benefits the most is Penford."

Student-to-industry mentoring is in place within the University of Iowa's Tippie College of Business, as well as in other departments on campus.

"It's a lot of work. It is a very, very positive experience, not only for the students but also for the mentors," said Viana Rockel, associate director of the business school's Emmett J. Vaughan Institute of Risk Management and Insurance.

"The mentors come back to me and tell me how energizing it's been to their company to have students involved," said Rockel, whois in charge of student advising at the institute.

"Some keep in touch with students. Mentors help students find jobs and relocate. The thing that we cared most about is (that) it be positive for mentors as well as students."


Four questions

Jo Miller's relationship with her mentor did not end well.

"I met someone else that I approached to become a business partner," Miller recalled. "One of the conditions was not to go with somebody else. My mentor was expanding his business. He had said I was key.

"Being young, I left under a dark cloud so to speak."

They've not spoken since her departure. But despite how that relationship ended, Miller in her courses highlights the importance of having a mentor and a sponsor and how to go about finding these people. A mentor helps you "skill up," she said, and a sponsor helps you move up.

Here are four questions mentors should be asked to facilitate a valuable discussion, Miller noted:

1. Stories Ask the mentor to tell you stories about their career experience. How did you get to where you are today? Was there a time when you failed?

2. Current situations For example, 'I'm dealing with an employee, I don't know how to delegate.'

3. Self awareness Ask your mentor questions that allow you to understand how you are perceived by others. How do I come across when I'm doing public speaking?

4. Skill-building If there's a skill you are working on, build up that skill.

"Going through any conversation with a mentor, if you take one question from each topic, you're bound to have very robust and fulfilling conversations," Miller said.

Penford's Froehlich acknowledged that a successful mentorship program takes dedication.

"If you're willing to do the work and spend the time ... the cool part about it is, once you go through an initial period, some of them drift apart after a while as the mentee becomes more self-sufficient," he said.

"In other cases, the relationship becomes more personal. In other words, they really click not just on a mentor-mentee level, but they click on a more personal level and that's really encouraging too." 

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