Making Mentoring an Organizational Value: A Look at the FDIC's Mentoring Program

by Barbara Suddarth

While relatively unheard of 25 years ago, mentoring programs have begun to play a role in a wide range of organizations-- from professional associations and educational institutions to non-profits and private corporations. Some of these organizations have promoted mentoring as a way to orient or train new employees. Others have used it as networking tool, or even as an informal means of succession planning.

At the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the impetus for creating a mentoring program grew out of a concern for employees who did not have access to the same developmental opportunities as colleagues who worked at higher levels in the organization. Many of the organization's cultural norms developed out of an emphasis on detail, accuracy, and hierarchy; important traits, considering the corporation's role as the largest federal banking regulatory agency. However, individuals who did not come up through the ranks as bank examiners, particularly those who entered as administrative professionals, sometimes found it difficult to advance without understanding the unwritten "rules." Former Chairman Donna Tanoue launched the corporation's pilot mentoring program in 1999 as a Diversity Strategic Initiative; a designation that gave the program instant visibility and credibility. After a successful pilot, the mentoring program was adopted as an annual corporate offering with a maximum of 100 pairs of mentors and mentorees.

While this was certainly a promising start, there were also potential barriers to overcome. The corporation's 5,500 employees work in eight regional offices and over 90 field offices across the United States. This added logistical and geographic challenges to an already-complex set of factors that would shape the program's beginnings.

A corporate task force developed the program in concert with a contractor, Diane Rhodes of Impact Training Systems, Inc., to create a flexible answer to the challenge of distance. During intensive two and-a-half-day orientation programs led by the energetic Rhodes, 50 pairs of mentors and mentorees work together at corporate headquarters to learn sound principles of goal setting, time management, career development, and effective mentoring relationships. After agreeing on an action plan, they then spend at least an hour per week working toward the mentoree's goals. Pairs who are co-located meet in person, while pairs who work in different geographical locations meet by phone, video teleconference, and e-mail.

"Some people were initially skeptical about the long-distance aspect of the program," Program Administrator Joanne Blyden admits. "But overwhelmingly positive evaluations from both the mentors and mentorees proved that distance is not a hindrance as long as the pairs have formed a strong working bond and are willing to invest the time to work together over their year in the program. Despite some of the logistical issues that we faced," she continued, "we have benefited tremendously from tangible support from the very top of the organization from the very beginning," Blyden said. "Our Chairman set the tone by funding and publicly endorsing the program, and as a result, many of our executives and managers came on board. We could not have asked for finer or more consistent support."

While many organizations confine the role of mentor to higher levels of employees, the FDIC chose not to impose such restrictions. "Many of our mentors are from higher-graded jobs," Blyden says, "but this is not always the case and, interestingly, we have found that people from all levels can succeed as mentors. It's not about titles or salary," she clarified, "but knowledge, skills, and experience."

From the program's beginning, career counseling has played an important role in its success. Mentorees are strongly encouraged, though not required, to meet with one of the FDIC's career counselors through the corporation's Career Management Program. The counselors offer a wide range of confidential career services- from assessment of interests, skills, preferences and values, to help with action planning, and coaching for networking and interviewing. Blyden, too, works largely within the role of a coach- both with mentors and mentorees. "Like the career counselors," she said, "I give them ideas, guidance, suggestions, encouragement - anything to support their efforts."

Now in its sixth year, the FDIC's mentoring program has successfully matched 600 mentorees with mentors and continues to draw considerable interest each year during the enrollment period. Mentors volunteer for their roles while 100 mentoree applicants are chosen by lottery. Mentors and selected mentorees provide brief written profiles describing their career interests and interpersonal styles, or developmental goals in the case of mentorees. All prospective participants take these into account before submitting their top choices for a match, in rank order. Blyden and her staff then facilitate a matching process that takes many factors into account, including mentorees' interests and goals, compared with mentors' knowledge and abilities.

In discussing the ingredients in a successful mentoring relationship, she observes, "Mentors have to be willing to give of themselves and to consistently take the time to help their mentorees. I'm convinced that mentors can teach anyone anything as long as they're willing to invest the time. Mentorees," she continued, "need to drive the relationship. They have to take responsibility for setting and focusing on their goals. They need to be receptive, but they can't just sit back and wait to be spoon-fed," she added. "In short, both parties must be active participants, but the mentorees' initiative is the major vehicle for change."

In looking back over her tenure with the program, Blyden describes the sense of satisfaction that the role has brought to her work. "I have seen tangible growth in people as a direct result of their experience as mentorees and as mentors," she observed. "When both mentors and mentorees are committed to working together and have organizational support along with the insights of career professionals," she said, "amazing things can happen."

Barbara Suddarth holds an M.A. in Counseling from the University of Maryland at College Park, and a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from Penn State University. She also completed the two-year post-doctoral Clinical Program on Psychotherapy Practice from the Washington School of Psychiatry. Barbara is a licensed psychologist and National Certified Career Counselor (NCCC) with over 10 years of experience in assessment and career consulting. She serves as senior counselor and program advisor to the Career Management Program at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation through a contract with the Career Development Leadership Alliance (CDLA). She also maintains a private psychotherapy and career counseling practice in Silver Spring, Maryland. She can be reached at BarbaraHS@Hotmail.com

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