Mentoring: tried and true
Taken from The ISO Youth Newsletter, January - February 1999 (Back to 'In the Media')

Many organizations, faced with the changes in the job market, have rediscovered and successfully adapted the age-old practice of mentoring, long known as the most effective way of transmitting knowledge from one generation to the next.

Marrying experience with youth
Mentoring is a good fit for the Jeune Chambre de Commerce de Montréal (Junior Board of Trade) whose mission is to further the personal and professional development of Montreal's young business people. "Everybody needs to grow into their careers and to talk with people who have experience," explains Marie-Hélène Nolet, president of the jeune chambre, a non-profit organization founded in 1931 which today includes more than 1200 managers, entrepreneurs and professionals who are between 18 and 40 years old. "Everybody's a winner. The mentor shares his or her experience and the 'pupil' gains from the insights of someone who has been through the same things."

Denis Chabot, vice-president of finance and CFO of Sodisco-Howden, a hardware wholesaler, became a mentor in order to share his experiences and be in contact with a young manager. "It's very stimulating; we have the opportunity to discuss not only business issues, but more personal ones as well," he says.

The program is relatively simple. Members fill out a form, indicating their line of work and the mentoring committee tries to pair them with governors - members who are over 40 - who have shown an interest in becoming a mentor, "This is not a program for job seekers," says Pierre Savignac, director of the committee. "Participants must already be established in their careers to be accepted in the program."

Jean-François Léveillé, senior product manager at the Laurentian Bank in Montréal, was paired with Denis Chabot in 1997. "I wanted the contact with someone older, so I could better understand how boards of directors work and discover the most effective way to make allies," he explains.

Since 1996, 40 young people have been matched with more seasoned business people. "The program, which requires a minimum of four meetings per year, puts the participants in contact with someone who has a certain amount of experience and who can guide them," explains Mr. Savignac.

Jean-François Léveillé and Denis Chabot didn't want a formal relationship. "We meet every quarter, usually in a restaurant, and once I attended a board meeting of a cultural organization with him," says Mr. Léveillé. "I didn't expect to be led by the hand. I wanted a friendly relationship and, to date, the experience has been very pleasant."

According to Mr. Savignac, the majority of the sponsors want to further the professional development of the young people to whom they'll be passing the torch. "They feel they're playing a role in Québec society by supporting those who will take over from them. They enjoy sharing the experience, but also learning from the younger generation, especially about new management techniques."

For Mr Léveillé, who would like to one day be a mentor himself, the program is ideal for making new contacts and expanding his vision of things while being exposed to other viewpoints. "It's interesting to see where others have gone. I particularly enjoyed attending a board meeting. We tend to get hung up on certain things, but thanks to the program, we can see that we're not the only ones to have experienced problems."

As for Mr. Chabot, he thinks the program is an excellent learning process. "It allowed me to better understand the young managers with whom I work and to fine-tune certain things that I learned during my own career," he says.

A refreshing approach
In 1987, faced with a lack of future branch managers, the Société des Alcools du Québec (SAQ) decided to introduce a mentoring program. "The program was aimed not only at preparing for the future, but also at developing a corporate culture that was open to this concept," explains Denys Gariépy, human resources management counsellor.The two-year SAQ program is broken up into eight training modules, given by the Bois-de-Boulogne college, in addition to three more technical modules on the product knowledge, information systems and budget management. Each section of the two training modules is followed by a one-week practical apprenticeship.

Not just anybody who wants can be mentored through the program. In 1997, only 34 candidates out of 270 were selected. The human resources department chooses the candidates based on their potential, both technical and interpersonal. On the other hand, when someone is promoted to the position of branch manager, he or she is expected to take part in the program.

Martin St-Onge has been working at the SAQ for fifteen years. Before becoming a branch manager in the Rosemong area of Montréal, he was a cashier-salesperson and replacement manager. "When I was named manager in 1997, I was automatically assigned a mentor. We get together for lunch, hockey games, etc."

As for the mentors, they are selected from among the branch managers. "Over the years, we realized that it was better to choose mentors for their credibility with their peers and their interest in teaching, rather than for their job title," says Mr. Gariépy.

The mentors are expected to observe and evaluate the technical competencies of their protégés during the apprenticeship period. They then become their mentors, for two years, committing to meeting for a meal once a month. Individuals working in the same region are matched up, to make it easier for them to get together.

A mutually rewarding experience
Mahjoub El Hamakani, manager of the Séléction Ville LaSalle branch, has been with the SAQ for 24 years and is Martin St-Onge's mentor. "The program is important in giving the interns a good idea of the type of work we do. We act as coaches and make sure they are as well informed and trained as possible," he points out.

According to Mr. Gariépy, mentoring creates a real relationship of confidence between more experienced workers and their younger peers, facilitating communication and the exchange of ideas. "It's nice to be in contact with someone who's not there to judge us," says Martin St-Onge. "We're not dealing with our boss and that gives us the chance to identify what we lack and need without beating about the bush. Thanks to the nature of our relationship, we often get more out of our discussions because they're not focussed solely on performance."

Invaluable benefits
Mr. El Hamakani agrees. "The program allows me to give back what I, myself, have received. If you have something and you don't pass it on, it's useless. It's a very rewarding experience and we are creating a real feeling of belonging at the SAQ. On a human level, it's invaluable. We meet people and forge bonds with them."

Ideally, the SAQ would like to create a mutual aid network which would allow managers to exchange information and help each other without having to call on their supervisors. "We have noted that people who have been trained since the program was launched are much more likely to be on various committees than others," explains Mr. Gariépy. "They show more self confidence and, at the same time, the desire to contribute more. They seem more aware of the role they can play. These things are very positive and important in the long term."

The impact on the young participants' career cannot be overlooked. "It takes those who have been through the program about 18 months to move to a large branch, where normally it takes about four years. The program makes them not only more efficient, but also more sure of themselves," explains Denys Gariépy.

"My mentor really helped me stand back and look at things with some distance. I wanted to advance quickly, but he taught me to put things in perspective. I don't see my participation in the program only as a chance to advance. I want to improve my knowledge and skills. It's really important to have someone guide us," concludes Martin St-Onge, who hopes that he, too, will someday be mentoring a younger colleague.


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