This post was written by Lauren Trees, a research program manager at member-based nonprofit APQC, the world’s foremost authority in benchmarking, best practices, process and performance improvement, and knowledge management.
If an organization wants to attract and retain in-demand talent, it needs to provide employees with meaningful learning opportunities at every stage of their careers. Classroom and virtual training are great tools to fulfill development needs, but too much training can become expensive and disruptive to workers’ daily schedules. An increasing number of organizations are supplementing formal training with workplace mentoring programs as a way to decrease time to competency, boost employee satisfaction and engagement, and prepare younger workers to take on additional responsibilities.
Earlier this month, I shared 4 reasons to support workplace mentoring along with some common mentoring benefits revealed by APQC’s research. This post shifts gears slightly to highlight one of the organizations we featured in the study: Praxair Inc., a global industrial gases company with approximately 27,000 employees headquartered in Connecticut.
Mentoring in Praxair’s Leadership Technical Orientation Program
Praxair positions mentoring as a key component of its workforce development strategy. It offers a number of mentoring initiatives to accelerate the development of employees’ technical and engineering skills and strengthen their soft skills in areas such as leadership, collaboration, innovation, and communication. Some mentorships are structured and long-term, whereas others are more flexible in order to accommodate targeted learning needs and allow employees to experiment with new disciplines.
One of Praxair’s flagship mentoring opportunities is built into a two-year leadership technical orientation program (LTOP) designed to expedite the development of new hires in the organization’s operations, sales, and business development groups. In addition to exposing participants to an extensive technical training curriculum, the program pairs each new employee with a more experienced mentor who can provide hands-on support and guide the mentee through the learning process.
New graduates are selected for LTOP through Praxair’s employee recruiting process. During the first year of the program, participants receive technical training and work on a variety of individual and team projects designed to build their technical, leadership, and teamwork skills.
During their second year, participants are assigned a work location and a sponsor who helps them hone their technical skills on the job. At the same time, HR assigns each participant a mentor who supports hard and soft skills development and provides career path insights and guidance.
When pairing mentors and mentees for LTOP, HR tries to connect people from the same location to better facilitate face-to-face meetings. Ideally, mentors should work in the same business unit as their mentees and support similar technical applications in order to ensure that they can address mentees’ immediate job development needs.
In addition, HR works to match mentors’ backgrounds with mentees’ long-term development interests. To optimize pairing, HR also interviews mentees regarding their career goals, the qualities they are looking for in a mentor, and their identified areas for development.
Mentoring pairs begin their relationships by sharing their professional goals and identifying common interests or values that link them together. They then decide on specific development goals the mentee will pursue and expectations regarding how frequently they will meet, how accessible they will be to one another, and the nature of the support the mentor will provide.
As part of this initial planning process, participants are required to have career-related discussions with their mentors and complete structured career development plans. This helps ensure that mentees have actively considered the paths they want to take through the company and are developing skills that align with their career ambitions.
Ideally, each LTOP mentoring pair meets either virtually or in person for two to four hours per month. When a pair is split geographically, the organization arranges periodic face-to-face meetings supplemented with phone calls. HR provides a series of templates to help mentors and mentees clarify the objectives of the mentorship and plan and document their meetings. HR also helps pairs find additional contacts who can provide ancillary expertise as necessary.
Mentoring pairs use quarterly review meetings to track progress, verify professional growth, and set new challenges. Ultimately, the success of a mentorship is assessed via the mentee’s achievement of established technical milestones and project results. “The LTOP process requires participants to not only demonstrate both tacit and explicit knowledge of Praxair’s products, services, and processes, but also their ability to apply that knowledge by successfully completing each technical project and assignment,” said Jordan.
Mentoring relationships officially last one year but are frequently maintained afterward. Eventually, the mentoring relationships are redefined as participants evolve into colleagues, peers, and/or friends.
Results and next steps
According to Praxair representatives, mentoring through the LTOP program has significantly reduced the time it takes for recent science and engineering degree graduates to become fully competent in high-profile, technically demanding, safety-intensive positions.
LTOP graduates tend to be quickly assigned to higher-visibility projects, with the organization ultimately seeing improved business results. Mentees finish the program feeling confident they can work independently and navigate their way through the organization. The program also supports succession management by helping the company deepen its pipeline of employees with the skills required to replace technical leaders who are nearing retirement.
Feedback also indicates that mentors reap their own benefits from the relationships. Some long-tenured veterans are exposed to innovations and new ways of working through the LTOP curriculum, and others receive valuable reverse mentoring to help them automate their processes and improve their spreadsheets. The organization encourages mentors who have good experiences to share their stories with colleagues in order to generate positive buzz and help recruit additional mentors into the program.
While continuing LTOP and formal mentoring for new hires, Praxair is planning to expand its informal early- to mid-career mentoring initiatives and add mentoring opportunities for potential up-and-coming corporate fellows.
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