Group Mentoring A Cost-Effective Option

By Eve Tahmincioglu

Nov. 23, 2004

Chubb Group of Insurance Cos. is about to take the next step in helping women navigate their career paths–mentoring. But don’t expect a traditional one-on-one mentor/protégé formula. The firm plans to experiment with so-called group mentoring.

    The Warren, New Jersey, insurance firm has had a networking and education program called Chubb’s Partnership for Women in place since 2001, offering its 500 members opportunities several times a year to connect with higher-level executives and learn from invited speakers about everything from financial matters to career development. Now, company officials want to add a formalized mentoring program.

    While some women within the partnership had traditional mentor-mentee relationships, they were informal and had little structure or focus, says Pat Key, vice president, tax counsel and a founding member of Chubb’s Partnership for Women. When she considered her options, she realized that a typical mentoring program, where someone is responsible for connecting a mentor and mentee, would be time-consuming and too pricey for her limited annual budget of $8,000 for all of the partnership programs. Key decided that the best way to go was mentoring groups, also known as mentoring or coaching circles, where women from varying ranks are thrown together to learn from one another.

Easy to implement
    Chubb plans to start a mentoring group pilot in January involving six to seven individuals per group who are all volunteers. At first, Key plans to limit the total number of groups to seven and to have a woman who has been involved with the partnership to monitor the group’s progress. The meetings will take place once a month and will be held at a conference table or during lunch so that all the members of the circle feel like they’re on equal footing, instead of a manager behind a desk preaching to her mentees. Examples of topics include networking, work/life balance, how to brand yourself, realizing how you look, act and sound to others and creating successful plans, Keys says.

    The cost for the new program: zero, other than the time the participants spend together. “I wanted to make sure this would be inexpensive, uncomplicated and easy to implement,” she says.

    It’s difficult to put a number on how many firms have adopted or are looking to adopt such mentoring soirées, but anecdotal evidence suggests they’re on the rise. “I do see an uptick in group mentoring,” says Elaine Yu, director of advisory services for the nonprofit research firm Catalyst. “The idea of mentoring has been out there for a while. Now I think companies are thinking about different ways to do mentoring, and mentoring circles are one of them. They try different things to fit the needs of employees.”

    For the group setting to work, Yu says there must be a commitment among leadership, clear expectations on the part of mentors and mentees, and clear objectives. Before starting a group mentoring program, she says, everyone must be trained on role-playing and guidelines on behaviors that can be exhibited.

    While some companies want to avert the lengthy matching process, throwing individuals together randomly might not work for all firms. Yu says that in a corporate culture that’s more casual, the random approach might work best; but a more structured, staid environment may benefit from some forethought about the group participants and how they’ll jell together.

Pool was dry
    One firm that has taken group mentoring from a pilot project to reality is Budco, a marketing services and distribution outsourcing company that works with GM and Disney. The firm began holding mentoring groups for its new hires, no matter gender, in 2002. But it wasn’t the cost that turned this Highland Park, Michigan, firm on to the group format; it was the company’s limited mentoring pool. While one-on-one mentoring is a staple for the firm’s career development program for more seasoned staffers, having one mentor for every mentee regardless of tenure would have been impossible. “Our mentoring pool was running low,” says Katrina Belanger, manager of corporate training.

    It’s never too early to concentrate on career development for employees, she explains, adding that the group mentoring program is mandatory.

    Groups at 850-employee Budco typically consist of four mentees and two mentors. They are trained as a group and then meet twice a month for the first three months, and once a month for the second three months. The participants are from totally different parts of the company in order to indoctrinate new hires into the overall Budco culture, not just the subculture in their particular business unit, Belanger says. “Within our company, you have the information-technology department working with the contact center and the warehouse and the distribution area. It’s important to help employees get an understanding of the different roles and departments. The group setting helps with that,” she explains.

    So far, the groups have been successful as far as turnover goes. The cost per employee for the meetings when taking into account 10 hours of meeting time is about $275, says Paula Biskup, Budco’s director of corporate communications. In 2003, Budco began to require that all new hires participate. At that time, the turnover among new hires was at 2.2 percent; so far in 2004, it has been 0.5 percent.

The real objective?
    The Mentoring Co., a firm that developed its own trademarked Mentoring Circles™ process in 1993, has worked with Hewlett-Packard and Coors, among others. The company uses storytelling in its mentoring circles, where participants share their successes and failures. “We believe storytelling offers greater impact than giving advice,” says Mentoring Circles president Julie Manhard. The circles include 14 to 16 participants who meet over a nine-month period. The cost is about $55 an hour per employee. While the group dynamic is gaining acceptance, some workplace management consultants warn there can be pitfalls.

    “I think the objective is good to put a mentoring program in place, but do it the way it should be done–a private one-on-one experience,” says Alan Weiss, president of Summit Consulting Group., a organizational development firm based in East Greenwich, R.I. “You’re missing the real objective here, which is individual development tailored to the individuals.”

    Some reasons Weiss believes group mentoring can falter:

  • The groups tend to be dominated by a single personality.

  • Learning is uneven and there is consequent repetition.

  • Oftentimes, there’s no one accountable for making sure the group is successful.

  • Feedback is seldom candid and frank.

    For others, however, the group concept holds promise. One of the big benefits for Chubb’s Key is that the group setting will take some of the pressure off the mentor and mentee. For example, she says, if a lower-level employee eats with her mouth open, it might be hard for the mentor to point that out directly to her. As a group, a higher-level manager could mention how eating with your mouth open during a business meeting is not appropriate without mentioning a particular individual.

    The bottom line is getting employees to embrace mentoring. “Some people look at it as the big ‘M’ word and aren’t open to formal mentoring arrangements. I think the group format is less threatening, more social and flexible,” she says.

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