By AICC Staff
September 21, 2021
I was wanting to grow my position into more of a leadership role,” recalls Terri-Lynn Levesque, vice president of administration at Royal Containers, “but I had only ever worked at Royal. I wanted to learn more about the industry, about how other companies function. I wanted to learn what I needed to know to take the next step in my career.”
For Levesque and many others, a vital step on the path to professional growth is mentoring—typically, formalized one-on-one relationships between a mentor with experience and knowledge and a mentee eager to learn.
Employees who invest themselves in being mentored develop their own careers while also helping to ensure their company’s forward momentum. And companies that support mentoring programs—whether internal or through industry associations—enhance succession planning as they prepare leaders for the future.
Productive mentoring doesn’t happen just because an industry veteran shares insights with a younger professional. It takes planning and oversight. Otherwise, both mentor and mentee may come away frustrated.
Scott Ellis, Ed.D., owner of business consultancy Working Well, partners with companies and organizations—including AICC—to help oversee their mentoring initiatives. “When it comes to managing a successful mentoring program, the key is to match the expectations of the parties,” he says. “If that isn’t done properly, then both the mentors and the mentees may be expecting the other person to take the initiative. Or maybe there isn’t a match between the amount of time available or the level of effort each party will invest. Clarifying the expectations upfront is very important. As a facilitator, that’s where I spend most of my time.”
Prospective mentees should have a clear idea of what they want and expect from a mentoring relationship. Do they want to learn about a specific topic from a subject matter expert? Are they expecting a short-term relationship, or are they looking for an ongoing mentorship of perhaps a year or more, where there are regular check-ins and specific goals for which the mentor is holding them accountable?
Mentors, too, should be upfront about their own expectations. Are they open to once-monthly phone calls or weekly emails? Are they comfortable discussing broader career goals, or do they prefer answering questions about specific work situations? How much time are they willing to give—and for how long?
Ellis recommends starting with mentorships that focus on specific or specific career goals to help mentor and mentee get to know one another. After a few months of regular discussions, sit down and discuss the relationship, asking, “‘Was it helpful? Was it sufficient? Are we going forward?’ That conversation is important, because endings are very difficult for people in mentoring situations,” Ellis says. “Unless you address an end point or agree on moving forward, they can just drag on. When that happens, either both parties end up dissatisfied or one is satisfied and the other is wondering, ‘How do I get out of this?’”
Nurturing Emerging Leaders
Levesque gained her mentoring experience by being part of AICC’s Emerging Leaders (EL) program, which is designed to provide young professionals with industry training, networking, and leadership opportunities for professional development through workshops, field trips, roundtables, and an emphasis on networking and mentoring.
Levesque found the mentoring element of the program to be especially beneficial. During her time as an EL, she was partnered with mentor Julie Elgin from Oklahoma Interpak. “We clarified our expectations of each other right from the start,” Levesque recalls. “I asked if she was OK with a monthly email and with meeting for coffee during AICC’s spring and fall meetings. Having that understanding of our expectations really set us up for success.”
Elgin was also mentoring another EL at the time, and the three would see each other at AICC’s in-person meetings and discuss some of the challenges they were facing. “We’d have check-in meetings every couple of months, just to see how things were going. Julie was always available,” Levesque says.
Although her experience has differed from Levesque’s, Cassi Malone, customer service manager at Corrugated Supplies Co., says that the EL program has been similarly beneficial for her career.
“I’ve never had one specific mentor from the EL program,” Malone says. “Instead, the program as a whole has been a mentoring experience for me, as I’ve built a strong network of other young professionals that can share best practices. Thanks to my EL network—and the confidence and knowledge I’ve gained from being a part of the program—I have also expanded my network outside of the EL group and have been able to take plant tours, ask questions, and have genuine conversations with some incredibly knowledgeable—and friendly—people that I’ve learned a lot from.
“The EL program has taught me that you need to ask questions and try to learn as much as you can about all of the different processes within your business and how they connect,” Malone adds. “Take the time to have those conversations, listen, and learn from others. That’s going to help you better understand how to improve the overall experience for both your customers and your company.”
Not every employee will have an interest in being mentored or a mindset tuned to professional development, Levesque acknowledges. “They just want to work their 9-to-5.” And that’s OK. There is nothing wrong with having employees who, while dedicated and effective, are satisfied with the status quo. At the same time, Levesque points out, “Companies need to be able to attract, identify, and grow leaders if they’re going to be successful in the future.”
So, how do you identify those employees likely to benefit the most from mentoring? Look for the ones who are already beginning to act like leaders, Malone says. “More than anything, initiative sets an EL apart from an average employee,” she says. “An EL seeks out information and tries to get involved in whatever they can to help improve their company and their customers’ experience. Even the EL group is only as valuable a resource as you decide to make it. It’s up to each specific person to take initiative in the training, building a network, and utilizing the resources they have.”
Keep an eye out for young professionals in the company who are actively listening, learning, and willing and eager to take on more responsibility. “These are the people you want to keep engaged,” Malone adds.
Consider, too, those employees who are already involved in mentoring relationships that might be occurring organically within your company. They may be excellent candidates for the EL program.
For example, even though Malone has worked for companies without formal mentoring programs, valuable mentoring was still happening. “As a kitchen manager at Robert Morris University School of Culinary Arts, I had a wonderful supervisor that spent a lot of time teaching me the ‘why’ behind certain processes,” she says, “including me on particular projects and helping me learn to communicate more effectively with the chefs and faculty we worked with. At Corrugated Supplies, my supervisor is a fantastic mentor as well. He takes the time to help me think through how to solve certain problems, gives suggestions for improving my communication and clarity, and keeps me engaged with projects that help me learn and develop my skill sets.”
In addition, she says, “My co-workers are very knowledgeable and are happy to share information about their processes, best practices, and advice.”
Avoiding the Pitfalls
For companies overseeing their own mentoring initiatives, Ellis has some words of caution. “Not every successful professional makes a successful mentor,” he says. “Folks who are called upon to mentor are usually pretty busy; otherwise, no one would be interested in them. So, they have to be particularly motivated to want to mentor and invest the time and energy required. They also need to want to share the knowledge and insight they have without feeling like they’re giving away their secrets or putting their own careers at risk.”
It is also important that mentors understand the differences between mentoring and, say, teaching or a collegial friendship. Effective mentoring relationships are unlike these other relationships in that they work best when information and guidance flow one way. “Other relationships are supposed to be mutual,” he says, with a natural give-and-take that flows between parties.
That’s not the case when it comes to mentoring. “With mentoring, the mentor is there to support the mentee. As a mentor, you might divulge something about yourself—just like a coach or therapist might—but you never forget that you’re there for the sake of the one you’re mentoring.”
Because of the nuances involved in managing this kind of relationship, Ellis believes it can be helpful to bring in a third party to work with mentors and mentees. “In part, that’s what I do for a living—and it’s a significant part of my work with AICC’s EL program,” he says. “I’m not trying to lead the relationship. I just want the participants to consider things they might not have thought about if they’ve never been involved in mentoring before. If they haven’t mentored somebody or been mentored themselves, they don’t know what can go wrong, how to establish boundaries, and what will help it to be effective.”
Empowering Future Leaders
Malone believes one of the best things mentors can do is to share their vision with the people they mentor and provide opportunities to become more involved. “Include mentees in meetings, projects, and tours whenever possible, so they can listen,” she says. “Just being involved and observing the way particular discussions or projects are handled goes such a long way and helps mold their own skill set. Also, it’s key to listen to their goals and interests and identify ways to help incorporate those within their job function.”
For those seeking to get the most from being mentored, she advises, “Listen, take notes, ask questions, and don’t be afraid to ask to get involved. The worst answer you can get is no, and I think you’d be surprised at how rarely that happens. At the end of the day, initiative is what will set you apart. If you are willing to listen and learn, you will see a lot of value out of mentoring.”
In the end, mentoring—no matter how it’s accomplished—can be a valuable differentiator for any boxmaker. “Retaining good talent is a challenge,” says Malone. “Empowering your young professionals to learn more about the industry, participate in industry networking and training events, and expand their network will be a win both for the employee and your company.”
For information on the AICC Emerging Leaders program, visit www.aiccbox.org/page/leader.
Robert Bittner is a Michigan-based freelance journalist and a frequent BoxScore contributor.