Corporate Mentoring: Shattering the Glass Ceiling
By WILLIAM J. HEERY., Partner Harris
Heery & Associates

"Members wanted to join a club for important and influential decision-makers. Membership brings high visibility, good possibility of future employment and numerous perks and benefits. No women or minorities need apply."

If you are like most of us, this ad should offend your sensibilities and your reaction is probably that something like this could never happen in 1993. Unfortunately, it is a condition which still affects corporate America. The constituency of management, for the most part, remains a private club for white males.

Eliminating the Glass Ceiling
What is most surprising is that if you examine the ranks of middle management, the numbers of women and minorities are at an all time high. In most consumer product companies, women represent the predominant group in their marketing department and virtually every company has some form of aggressive minority recruiting program. These individuals are well educated and recruited from some of the country's best MBA programs. They work hard and aspire for the same success everyone does. Everyday they play a significant role in the process of their organization. Yet their absence from meaningful senior level decision-making positions - the glass ceiling as it has come to be known - is nothing new. Everyone agrees this invisible barrier exists, but the question remains how to best eliminate this barrier.

The answer, we believe, lies less in conscious racism or sexism, but rather in a flaw in the entire process of mentoring - perhaps the primary vehicle for movement into senior management. As mentoring has traditionally occurred, a senior-level executive identifies with and, in a way, adopts a promising junior within the company (He reminds me of me) and takes him under his wing. This mentoring takes the form of guidance, counsel and, in many cases, access and exposure to the kinds of positions and assignments that allow the desired management skills to develop. It is essentially, an assisted evolution, preparing the anointed for eventual club membership in the senior ranks.

Women and minorities have not benefited from this kind of mentoring for two reasons:

  • Few senior white executives have identified personally with minorities in the middle management group of their company. They fail to see a reflection of themselves in these individuals. In many cases, the problem is exacerbated because the senior manager doesn't have a great number of minorities (if any) in his sphere of social acquaintances.
  • The issue with women is different, but results in the same net effect. A senior executive is often concerned that the mentoring of a younger female might be viewed as having a less noble motive than the promotion of a capable person with great potential. It leaves the well-intentioned executive open to more questioning and scrutiny than is comfortable. "Why", asks the person, "should I endure the jokes, innuendoes or the appearance of impropriety, either a home or at the office." "When in doubt," he says, "don't."

Corporate Mentoring Programs
Mentoring will always be an important avenue to the executive suite but the rules of the game must be changed if women and minority men are to be included. If a company is truly serious about developing diversity within its management corps, mentoring must be taken out of the hands of the individual executive and made part of a planned and thoughtful program that accomplishes the long-term goal. In short, corporate mentoring. Under a corporate mentoring program, extremely high potential individuals are recruited with the expressed purpose of joining this program.

They will understand that they will be provided with the exposures and developmental assignments to prepare them for senior management. Their itineraries will represent the experiences most valued by the company and will help to have those skills prized most at the executive level. The path at each company may be different. In some organizations, a tour of duty internationally will be an important credential; in others, sales or operational assignments are a prerequisite to upward movement.

The program, directed by a committee of the corporation's most senior management, will select the participants and structure the itinerary. The participating individual is expected to perform to their potential in each assignment to continuously validate their participation. It is a tacit contract between the corporation and the participant - "You perform and we'll manage your development into our senior ranks."

As to be expected, there will be attrition in each group, as certain individuals either are unable to meet the performing requirements at a given level or are no longer willing to accept the rigors and demands that the program will impose on them professionally and personally. The corporation always has the option of reassigning this person to a position to commensurate with their abilities and interests and allow them to develop in a traditional way.

Broadening the Executive Group
Conversely, the corporation has the option of adding individuals to the program who have joined the organization in other ways and demonstrated that they merit inclusion. Corporate mentoring programs are not meant to be exclusionary but rather to broaden and diversify the upward based future executive group. There are several advantages to mentoring programs beyond the primary goal of bringing women and minorities into senior executive management roles.

  • It removes some of the politics and charges of individual favoritism that can be debilitating to an organization. It should as well ease the difficulty of succession planning by developing a pool of well qualified individuals for the company to consider.
  • It removed the stigma that can occur if a single mentor's chosen protege fails to live up to expectations. Because a committee of senior executives is involved in the selection and shares in the periodic evaluation, there is broader authorship of each participant.
  • It becomes a powerful recruiting tool to attract highest potential individuals - "the best and the brightest" - from the graduate business school campus or from within industry. Corporate mentoring programs also serve a defensive purpose. It will allow companies to retain more high performance people because the individual will have less uncertainty about their future with the company. These individuals should therefore be more resistant to outside executive recruiting where the reward may be less apparent and the risk may be far greater.

There are several key elements that will ensure a successful corporate mentoring program as I outlined in the following four points:

  • The program must be sanctioned by and directed from the highest management level to have credibility within the organization. This will make certain the program stays on track and isn't diffused or sabotaged. Not everyone in the organization will support the notion that a select group should move through the system on a special track. Management must support the program but also realize that inclusion into this select group can be earned by other employee outstanding performance.
  • In the case of minority participation, this should not be viewed as an affirmative action program where standards are often lowered to accommodate numerical goals. Instead, these participants should be selected on the basis of extremely high potential and ability. Remember, the goal here is the executive suite and not a soft, but highly visible management position.
  • There should be regular monitoring and evaluation of the program and it's participants. And a continued social interaction. This is particularly important in order to maintain the priority of the program, but also to continually identify and reinforce senior level expectations to the participants. In this way, corporate values and goals are communicated and continued.
  • The programs must be viewed as a long-term effort that pays dividends over time.

The idea of corporate mentoring is based on the idea that if you ask any CEO about their career most will tell you that while they certainly worked hard to get where they are today, there were also one or two instrumental people in helping pull that individual through the company system. But the traditional mentoring system, even where it still exists, is a stacked deck against women and minorities.

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