Serious Leadership: IBM Builds a Successful Mentoring Program

Dec. 1, 2005
The mentoring program within IBM’s Integrated Supply Chain organization helps future leaders identify short- and long-term goals and develop new skills.

Mentoring is not coaching. Coaching, be it on the playing field or factory floor, focuses on immediate tasks and tactics for quick results. The focus of mentoring should be guidance; using experience to help an individual succeed in the company and in life.

"Mentoring is more personal than coaching," says Patricia Lewis-Burton, vice president human resources, Integrated Supply Chain, IBM (Armonk, N.Y.). "For coaching, you can have someone external come in and identify the skills a person needs, or evaluate what has to be done. With mentoring it's more of a dialog and establishing a certain comfort level."

IBM's Integrated Supply Chain has about 19,000 people, located in 61 countries. It accounts for about half of IBM's revenues, thus identifying and moving leaders through its managerial ranks is critical to the company's success.

A phrase mentors at IBM use is that an employee should look left and right when selecting a career path, meaning he or she should get out of his or her comfort zone and look around for opportunities. Basic to the Integrated Supply Chain group is to have people work across many silos, the specific jobs needed to create a truly integrated supply chain.

When seeking employees to be mentors as well as for employees seeking mentors, "we encourage broad participation throughout our total population," says Lewis-Burton. "We encourage employees to identify people they would want to have as a mentor - role models from whom they can benefit."

While a laundry list of attributes for being a mentor is difficult to construct, Lewis-Burton offers these tips to people seeking a mentor. "We tell them to look for leaders with broad backgrounds and experience in the supply chain functions," she says. "And we ask them to think about the attributes of successful leaders to whom they can relate."

It's about personality
While most people stick within their functional organization to find a mentor, IBM does offer a diversity of constituencies for role models. "There has to be some natural affinity around the mentor and mentee," says Lewis-Burton. "And the people doing the mentoring have to have a passion for doing it."

That passion includes a desire on the part of the mentor to develop future leaders. The mentor must also have the ability to listen and provide advice.

"There are different mentoring scenarios," she says. "Some are specific to a single situation where the mentee is seeking advice on a specific career opportunity, for example." For this kind of mentoring, the mentor must be prepared with pros and cons of a specific job, and the mentee must be prepared with what he or she wants to accomplish. It's not the openended discussion that might revolve around broader topics.

To develop its program, the Integrated Supply Chain uses a team of key leaders from across all of its functions. These people have taken on the mission of working with and developing future leaders and have designed specific programs around leadership development.

"We view this as a company best practice," says Lewis-Burton, "not something that should be left to human resources alone." She says the program is embedded within the way the group does its business—using a team of functional and line leaders to drive the mentoring program.

Programs that work
An important part of the IBM mentoring program is a new shadow program, rolled out about a year ago. This program allows any employee to sign up to shadow an executive for a day.

"We have a database of participating employees willing to be shadowed," explains Lewis-Burton. "Hundreds of people have participated to see what a day-inthe-life of an executive is really like."

Another part of the program focuses on moving talent across the functional silos of the Integrated Supply Chain. The program uses a database that functions like a global talent exchange. "The database helps us identify employees and managers and match them to opportunities we consider highly visible within the organization," says Lewis-Burton.

Under its broad definition of mentoring, the Integrated Supply Chain group also partners with various universities around the world to work on real-world problems and issues. In a sense, because of its high visibility on college campuses, its mentoring of young workers begins before people are actually hired.

"While we focus on the 0-5 population [new hires to people who have been with the company for five years], the programs we offer are used by everyone," says Lewis-Burton. "In the leadership program employees go through a number of rotations in each of the functional units of the supply chain before they are assigned to a more 'permanent' position."

For the mentor, finding time to work with people is always a challenge. And that's where the passion to help others comes into play says Lewis-Burton who mentors 15 people herself. People who care find a way to carve out the time.

"We've learned that mentoring is an important retention tool for us," she says. "It's important for us, as leaders, to be visible with this population [future leaders] and for them to know we care and take leadership seriously."

10 Tips for Successful Mentoring

Experts say there are nearly as many ways to mentor as there are people willing to help and encourage young people seeking careers. Here are a few tips on just about everyone's list:

  • Have patience
  • Know what needs to be done
  • Listen actively
  • Encourage change
  • Show respect
  • Lead by example
  • Be available
  • Develop people, not jobs
  • Be honest
  • Provide opportunity

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