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"Mentoring Lessons" with IBM's Brenda Dear

Brenda Dear - Former Global Diversity Workforce Partner at IBM

Brenda Dear - Former Global Diversity Workforce Partner at IBM

Former IBMer Brenda Dear helped to revitalize the multi-million dollar company's global mentoring program by addressing issues related to knowledge management, skill gap closure, and the challenges related to the changing demographics of today’s workforce. MentorCloud CEO Ravi Gundlapalli recently spoke with Brenda about her insights on mentoring and its benefits. 

RG: What does mentoring mean to you?

BD: Mentoring has been a great asset to my professional career. It has afforded me the opportunity to share, learn and of course leverage knowledge among peers from different job functions, cultures and even different generations. Mentoring helped me avoid isolation, which can easily occur when you are inside of a large organization like IBM and I would also add my insolation of working from home. Mentoring provided me the opportunity to remain connected, to stay relevant and to be a valuable contributor to the organization.

IBM is a global organization and having access beyond borders to people helped me to create meaningful networks. Networks I would not have been able to build on my own had I not had mentors. We are now in a Knowledge Economy, and in such an economy organizations have to be able to quickly capture and bridge the knowledge gaps in order to mitigate the knowledge drain that is occurring as older workers are departing the workforce in large numbers. Mentoring for me therefore has been invaluable.

RG: Excellent insights on how mentoring transforms individuals. How does mentorship transform organizations, from your experience at IBM?

BD: Earlier in my HR career at IBM, I found an interesting stretch assignment through a mentor I had in the HR Education department. IBM really focused on revitalizing their mentoring program to continue their rapid growth in the knowledge economy. At IBM, most of the work is conducted in a collaborative structure. They therefore really relied on mentoring to connect people among diverse employee segments, and facilitate the collaboration that is needed in order to not only learn but also apply the new learning and understanding within the organization. Throughout my tenure at IBM, I experienced first hand a strong global mentoring program that helped employees become better equipped not only to be successful but also to preserve the corporate culture.

Founder Watson was big on culture and he wanted it to be strong and resilient, and not be impacted by external forces. As new employees join, having a seasoned mentor helped to facilitate the uniting with the corporate culture. Mentoring was not something nice to have. It helped with diversity of thought since we all come from different cultures, education and backgrounds. Being able to help mentors and mentees stay connected is so critical to the organization, because Mentors are able to detect perhaps when a mentee gets disengaged. Sometimes mentees can get emotionally disconnected, and seasoned mentors can detect that and help mentee to re-engage, re-connect and re-recruit the mentee before the mentee thinks about quitting.

RG: That is such a valuable insight on how mentoring helps reduce attrition of key employees, effecting both top line and bottom line. The cost of replacing a key employee from lost productivity and re-recruitment can be up to twice the employee’s annual salary.

BD: Absolutely. According to a study conducted by the Gartner Group on 1000 workers from Sun Microsystems organization, the retention rates for employees participating in mentoring programs were higher for both the mentors and the mentees. So, the mentor-mentee relationship is very valuable to the organization as a whole.

RG: I get asked this question a lot, Brenda. Value proposition to mentees is easy to understand, but what do you think is the value for mentors? Why do mentors do what they do especially when everyone is so busy these days?

BD: People who don’t understand the value of mentors often ask ‘why bother.’ According to a study by Erik Erikson, people go through critical stages of human development and as we all mature, we actually find greater meaning in being able to give back. So, there is the obvious value proposition. From my own professional experience, it is primarily about allegiance to the profession and also a bit of altruism. So as seasoned employees we want to feel like we are making a difference and giving back to our track and profession, especially as seasoned employees spending 10, 20 years in an organization.

Mentors are also able to sharpen their communication and leadership skills. They can help build the pipeline within the organization to make sure there isn’t that knowledge drain. Mentors can share organizational history and memories, and help mentees find their fit in the organization and grow long after the mentors themselves have left the organization.

RG: Very true. We grow when we help other people grow, and this is a fact. I do know that mentors grow in their career when they share their knowledge and are of tremendous value to people around them.

BD: I agree. Mentoring is a win-win for both mentors and mentees. As we get older, we want to leave a legacy that we were here, and to be able to create a pipeline of talent and to ensure the organization grows and prospers.

RG: Lot of people (investors included) think mentoring is that hazy, good-for-the-heart kind of thing. My research shows that having a strong culture of sharing and learning improves top line and bottom line. Can you talk about ROI metrics or measurable business benefits that IBM was able to attribute to its global mentoring programs?

BD: Mentoring is an experiential learning process. It sets the stage for the knowledge gap to be closed effectively and also increase learning agility throughout the organization. So, when organizations don’t have that learning agility, organizations are slow to go to market. Now we are talking dollars and cents because those organizations who are first in the market are more successful. In the mentoring process, as people learn and then apply those new skills, the company would gain a competitive edge by developing skills as quickly as possible to areas where they are most needed.

IBM is a very large, diverse and matrix environment. For IBM, anything that will increase the speed and learning will also increase agility. That speed becomes the currency for business success because one wants to be able to move quickly.  Additionally, in terms of cost savings, mentoring helps to reduce the cost of recruiting, on-boarding and training new hires. Think about all the money that goes into finding the right kind of talent that will stay in your organization?

IBM of course measures everything. IBM uses data analytics to get the true benefits of mentoring and made sure we can see dollars and cents. When you think about time-to-market and learning agility, both are currency for business success.

RG: Can you talk about a personal mentoring experience, as a mentor or mentee, that remains part of your legacy?

BD: Early in my career I had great mentors who I stay in touch with even now. One of them is a Federal Judge in New Orleans. These are lifelong mentors from almost 30 years ago. I started my career in IT with the govt and then decided to move to HR at IBM. Because I had mentors early on, it was easier to make this shift from IT to HR. IBM had great programs, such as, Job Shadowing, Blue Opportunity, to work with a mentor and facilitate that career shift as opposed to employees having to leave the organization to make a career change. Having that mentor foundation at IBM after spending 20 years in IT was invaluable for my move into the HR profession.

RG: I want to shift gears and talk “Unconscious Incompetence," a term my mentor Dilip Saraf uses to describe how most people don’t know what they don’t know. Without experiencing the powerful benefits of mentorship, it is hard for people to recognize that they need a mentor. I tell people, "Don’t wait for a crisis moment to seek a mentor." What would you say to someone if they ask you, "Should I get a mentor?"

BD:  I would encourage them at all cost to get a mentor, in fact to get multiple mentors, early in their career because potential return on investment of time is invaluable. I think one of the disservices we do in the workplace is that we don’t socialize the positive aspects of the mentor-mentee relationship. [Organizations] don’t understand that we are in a knowledge economy, and because we are in such a knowledge economy, we don’t realize the knowledge drain that is happening.

As an individual, you will do well to get a mentor and to also be a mentor. It is important for success, to be relevant and to make sure you are valuable to the organization and to that profession. Because we want to bring all of who we are into the profession and having a mentor will both professionally and personally help you to navigate the challenges and know what questions to ask and know what you don’t know. We need to socialize the benefits and the gains. So, at all cost get one or more mentors is what I would say [smiles].

RG: The common thread I am hearing is that being a mentor is about seeing your profession thrive from one generation to the next. As a doctor or a teacher or a programmer, you mentor others so the profession continues to exist and grow. This is true with any profession and this is what you owe to your career.

BD: Right. It is about having that passion for your career and wanting to see it thrive. You have to be a mentee and mentor to make that happen.

RG: We talked about how critical mentoring is, but how to build your mentoring networks, or how to be a good mentor or mentee, is not something that is taught in universities. There are clear best practices that can be taught, like everything else we are teaching our next generation. How can a mentee make the most out of a mentoring relationship?

BD: Talking about universities, what we are failing to teach is the whole notion of servant leadership and how we are really called into service. When I think of mentoring, I think about the both ends of the spectrum. It would be win-win situation for everyone.

A mentee must go into the relationship, seeing the mentor as a facilitator and an accountability partner. The mentee should be able to articulate their own vision for their career, and take ownership for understanding their own strengths and weaknesses. Prioritizing their areas they need to improve in is also a key factor to get the best from their mentors. With any mentor-mentee relationship, you have to set ground rules and what the best ways are to get the most of their time together.

A mentor should be able to plant a seed and pass on the desire for the mentee to become a mentor in the future. A good mentor must ensure the right pipeline of talent and create the same mentality in their mentees.

RG: The term "Accountability Partner" you use is fascinating. That is the key since most of us don’t like to disappoint others. Mentors also don’t have a magic wand, so they truly serve as facilitators to accelerate the learning process. Another point is the feeling of gratitude: the more you thank a mentor, the more a mentor wants to work with you. You also use the word "pipeline." Coming from a supply chain background, I agree that we all need to ensure that the supply chain is healthy in order to continue to run and grow our organizations, research labs, universities, government agencies, and more. A country or an organization cannot thrive otherwise if the pipeline is not kept healthy.

BD: Right, that is why MentorCloud is so important. We need to share our knowledge as broadly as possible. We don’t know who and where and when the next genius is going to create that final cure for cancer. So it is incumbent upon us to provide a venue for people to collaborate all over the globe whenever possible. Being able to do so in a virtual space is critical, because speed is everything.

RG: I agree. The world needs to be educated about the power of mentoring, just like IBM had to educate the world about the power of the personal computer. I would love to travel across the world and talk to people about this opportunity.

BD: I agree, and I am going to be on that private jet with you to do exactly that. Tom Watson introduced the iconic slogan "Think." He was all about creating economic value from knowledge; he was so ahead of his time. We are now in a knowledge-driven economy and what you are saying about educating people and socializing the enormous benefits of mentoring is so important. We are so far behind here and MentorCloud is going to give it a huge momentum. I can see that happening.

RG: That comment about Watson is so inspiring. I'm excited to read his legacy.

BD: Absolutely. Learning causes us to "think" and continue to grow. IBM is successful because of the corporate culture and the legacy of giving back, and this is just who we are as IBMers.

RG: Only way we know we have learned something is when we are able to teach it to others. Unlike in school and college, there are no tests in real life. America is ready for a massive revitalization by leveraging the expertise that is already there. Thank you so much for your time, Brenda. I am so inspired by our conversation today. I want to end this with a few questions for readers to reflect on and discuss:

  • Are you doing enough to leave your legacy?
  • Are you doing enough to see your profession thrive after you?
  • Are you doing enough to achieve your fullest potential?

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed by Brenda in this conversation are her own and do not represent that of her former employer IBM.

If this interview was valuable to you, please feel free to share it across social media - links to share directly are below. Also, give us your thoughts on your best practices for fostering meaningful mentoring relationships and/or your experiences with mentorship in the past. Thank you for reading, and check back soon for the next edition of #MentoringLessons!

About Brenda Dear

Prior to retirement, Brenda Dear served as IBM's Global Diversity Workforce Partner consulting with Senior Executives, Recruiters, and extended HR teams. She provided workforce strategies and project management for programs designed to recruit, hire, develop and retain a diverse and highly skilled workforce. She also offered thought leadership and strategic planning to bridge silos, increase knowledge share, and reduce high costs borne from inconsistencies and redundancies.