Increasing competitive advantage by implementing a mentoring program

The Link to Knowledge Management

In today’s business environment, organizations are trying to gain a competitive advantage by using many different business management methods. These techniques range from increasing or decreasing headcount, changing the organizational structure to developing self-managed work teams. These particular “solutions” address structure rather than the appropriate transfer of knowledge from one employee to the next. Although the structure of the organization may change the dynamics of how work is being performed, the process by which knowledge is shared (e.g., what tools are being used) within the organization will be the driving factor to determine the magnitude of the competitive advantage that is gained.

So, if we begin to look at how knowledge is managed rather than searching for the optimum structure of the organization, we see that “information can be collected, organized, managed and disseminated, but it will not be considered knowledge unless it’s actionable” (Perez, 1999). Perez describes a five dimensional model for Knowledge Management. The components of this model are as follows: technology, process, context, people, and content (Perez, 1999). Each component feeds the next, making the successful transfer of knowledge in an organization. In summary, if each of these components is effectively addressed, an effort clearly qualifies as a knowledge management project (Perez, 1999). One of the points on this pentagon is “people,” which is essential to the functioning of any project. The effective transfer of knowledge between project team members is a piece of what makes a project successful. You may go as far to say that knowledge cannot exist outside of an individual, or it is only information (Perez, 1999). One of the tools used to facilitate the process of sharing knowledge within an organization is mentoring. “In business and management, the role of natural mentoring has long been highlighted as an important element of learning and career success” (Gibb, 1999). Whether formal or informal, mentoring programs are an important piece to transferring knowledge between employees and thus gaining competitive advantage.

Mentoring Facts

However, mentoring hardly rates as a novel idea. The word “mentor” actually comes from Homer’s Odyssey, in which Odysseus’ son, Telemachus, has a guardian and adviser named Mentor (Jossi, 1997). Defined by Webster, mentoring is “a committed, co-learning relationship which extends beyond just coaching for new job skills to address organization culture, personal development, job satisfaction, career planning, and work-life balance.” Mentoring has been adopted by all levels of our society, from mentoring programs in industry to mentoring programs for children. “Mentoring is seen as an inexpensive way to achieve a number of goals: Create more future leaders in an institution, improve management and staff relationships, meet diversity goals, and replace an aging work force while developing a line of succession” (Jossi, 1997).

According to a study by George Dreher, “professionals who have had mentors earn between $5,610 and $22,450 more annually than those who have not” (Tyler, 1998). Mentoring is a great tool to attract and retain talent (Tyler, 1998). In the early 90s, the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania-based Fuller Company was experiencing turnover rates of up to 20% for their high-potential managers and engineers (Dockery, 1998). As these valuable resources left, so did their talent and experience (Dockery, 1998). In 1995, they piloted the Targeted Employee Development Program (TEDP), which focused on mentor-team programs targeted at potential leaders who are coached and mentored through the development of critical leadership and technical skills and followed by senior management. Within the first three years of the program, their turnover rate dropped to 2% (Dockery, 1998). Thus, mentoring has become a “way of life” within that organization, and keeping their most competitive advantage piece, a trained employee (Dockery, 1998).

Keys to Mentoring Success

Organizations have used numerous methods to implement mentoring programs. Some organizations implemented programs in which protégés were only assigned to one mentor; other organizations assigned management mentors and technical mentors to their staff (Dockery, 1998). How does an organization know which format will work for them? Unfortunately, the answer is not prescriptive. Numerous variables factor into the how successful a mentoring program will be. Two theories that Gibb describes are the social exchange and communitarian theory. The social exchange theory states that since humans are “essentially biological survival machines”; we will spend energy with others when we know that the deed will be reciprocated (Gibb, 1999). The communitarian theory, on the other hand, states that “people act in a pro-social, virtuous way as they are bound by core values, established and maintained by virtue of being members of a community” (Gibb, 1999). Now, this differentiation that Gibb describes is important when selecting the format of the mentoring program. In organizations where the mentoring program will have in excess of 150 people, with few opportunities for interactions or where separated by extensive geographies, a formal mentoring program will fail (Gibb, 1999). However, in smaller organizations where favors are exchanged in a “tit-for-tat” manner, a formal program will succeed (Gibb, 1999). On the other hand, given that the organization reflects the society around it, those with strong communities would benefit greatly from a formal mentoring program due to the values that are externally instilled.

The previous examples display how corporate culture influences implementing mentoring programs; however, other factors also influence implementation. Organizational structure is one such factor, which can influence the forms of mentoring that can be successfully used within an environment. Mentoring may be more easily implemented in a team type structure rather than a hierarchical structure due to the relationships that are established. Finally, our current work environments are increasing in diversity. This increased diversity brings more power to mentoring relationships as a greater variety of information can be shared and more views can be expressed and understood, thus strengthening the organization.

With all of these variables in mind, some ideas are common. First and foremost, there must be secure, strong upper-management support (Tyler, 1998). The mentoring program must establish clear program goals with a limited duration of participation (Tyler, 1998). The mentors and proteges should set specific goals and schedule regular mentoring meetings (Tyler, 1998). Most importantly, the mentors and proteges should not let the relationship stagnate; they should move on if the interaction is not advantageous (Kosan, 1999). The mentor and protégé should “demonstrate confident humility, display curiosity and an attitude of inclusion, and express sincere generosity” (Bell, 1996). “Mentoring, not mentoring programs, is vital to winning the white water business world we live in” and gaining competitive advantage (Bell, 1996).

Eli Lilly’s Women’s Network Mentoring Group

Within Eli Lilly and Company, diversity awareness has been an important initiative. One group developed through this awareness is the Women’s Network Mentoring Group. The Network is a volunteer organization “dedicated to the career advancement needs of women at Eli Lilly and Company” (The Women’s Network Website, 2000). As per the Women’s Network mission and vision statement, the Women’s Network provides a forum for: “(1) creating an awareness of the importance and value of women succeeding in the workforce, (2) discussing issues and concerns that may impact the potential for success, and (3) developing constructive solutions for improving communication between our members and (other Eli Lilly and Company) employees” (The Women’s Network Website, 2000).

One of the targeted efforts of the Women’s Network Mentoring Satellite group is the development of mentoring activities and an increased awareness of the importance and benefits of mentoring. In the past several years, the Network recognized the importance of mentoring and has implemented several different mentoring programs. These programs have included not only mentoring between supervisor and employee and mentoring pairs, but also shared learning sessions, staff meetings, shared learning databases, spontaneous peer discussions and informal lunches.

One of the first steps the Network took was to develop a “Practical Guide to Getting and Keeping a Mentor,” which was intended as a tool for the protégé in selecting a mentor. The guide has six steps. Initially, the guide encourages the protégé to describe why she wants a mentor. The form questions whether the protégé is in need of basic career development, management coaching or specific technical advice, and it asks her to summarize these thoughts. Step two inquires about the needed skills and background of the mentor and how much time the protégé is expecting from the mentor. Again, this should be documented in detail. Step three asks the protégé to examine the options for possible mentors. The list of possible people should include internal and external contacts along with functional and project acquaintances. In this step, she should consult with her Human Resources representative for any options of which she is not aware. “Mentors should be at least two levels above” the protégé … and should be “available, accessible, interested and respected” (Tyler, 1998). Step four includes taking a “test drive.” This encompasses phoning her prospective mentor, giving the prospect all relevant information about her needs, including the fact that she is trying to choose the appropriate mentor and setting up a conversation with each prospect. During the conversation, make sure the prospective mentor is willing to help her succeed however she defines success (Kosan, 1999). The protégé should recognize that she may not always like what she hears, but it may be what she needs to hear (Kosan, 1999). The information gathered during the conversations should be documented. The next step is to identify ways she could help the prospective mentors by being their protégé by listing two or three areas where she might be able to provide expertise. Finally, in step six, the protégé selects the appropriate mentor for her and follows up with all the other prospects on her decision.

One arm of the Women’s Mentoring Network includes the Executive Mentoring Initiative in which select upper-level management were assigned to mentors for a 18-month pilot. Both mentors and proteges in this program have found practical value in these relationships (Dorsey, 1999). Not only do the proteges gain insight into organizational decisions and strategic operations, but also the executive mentor gets honest feedback of how these decisions are understood (Dorsey, 1999). Both parties gain a sounding board for testing new ideas, proposals and plans in a safe environment (Dorsey, 1999). As with many literature references, the lessons learned from this pilot included spending the appropriate efforts on matchmaking the protégé and mentor (Dorsey, 1999). “Like any relationship, there must be chemistry … If there isn’t, not much is going to happen” (Tyler, 1998). When matching mentors and proteges, professional and personal interests should be aligned, thus increasing the potential for connection (Tyler, 1998). Lilly hopes that this program will decrease the learning curve for the newer management members and, as a result, increase our competitive advantage.

Eli Lilly’s Project Management Mentoring Program Initiatives

A represented area in the Women’s Network Group includes the Project Management area. The Project Management area has developed a Projects Management Mentoring Program and has elaborated on the previous guide to define the roles and responsibilities for all positions involved in the program to promote a “mutual mentoring” concept. This has helped define the goals and intentions for the program. This program has increased the avenues for information sharing and has increased the learning within the Project Management organization.

Mentoring in project management components is especially beneficial because of the nature of the work being done and the need to work with both line and senior management. Because of the team organizational structure found in many project management components, project management mentoring breaks the stereotypical “senior to junior” or “teach versus learn” paradigm. Mentoring in the field of project management fosters a situation where each person in the relationship will have the opportunity to teach and learn based on their skills and experiences. This can occur within teams as evidenced by cross-functional mentoring or between teams where mentoring can take place within the functional area but brings experiences from one team to another. Besides the obvious benefits for the protege including observing and interacting with experienced peers, receiving encouragement and having an opportunity for proposals and questions to be asked in a nonthreatening environment, there are many benefits for the mentor as well. As a mentor, one will not only share technical expertise but the mentoring relationship can increase the mentors leadership and interpersonal skills as well as leverage their influence to contribute to their function’s effectiveness. These benefits in mind, the overall effect are one of an increase in the “learning organization.”

Team leaders can realize the benefits of mentoring as well as team members. The effectiveness of influencing without stated authority could be enhanced through the establishment of mentoring relationships within project management components. A new team leader can be mentored effectively by more experienced team leaders within the project management function as well as those in functional line management positions providing resources to the project team. Management or executive sponsors play a role in mentoring and can help to create a mentoring culture within an organization. Proteges develop management skills in mentoring relationships, which make proteges visible to more senior people, thus increasing earning potential for protégés.

Project Management Core Competencies

The Projects Management components at Eli Lilly and company have developed a set of core competencies (Hynes, 1999). A competency is a combination of knowledge, behavior, and skill that is required by individuals for success in the organization. The competency model reflects meaningful organization of competencies; may be organized by content, by role, by position, or a combination. Competency models can be used for a variety of Human Resources processes including recruiting, developing, staffing, appraising and promoting (Hynes, 1999). This core competency model is used as a tool during mentoring relationships to explicitly define the behaviors expected from protégés and helps mentors to guide the protégé to the appropriate actions. The Projects Management competencies include the following.

Scientific/Technical Expertise

Knows the Business—Bringing an understanding of the drug development process and organizational realities to bear on decisions.

Initiates Action—Taking proactive steps to address needs or problems before the situation requires it.

Thinks Critically—Seeking facts, data or expert opinion to guide a decision or course of action.

Manages Risks—Anticipating and allowing for changes in priorities, schedules, resources, and changes due to scientific/technical issues.

Process Skills

Communicates Clearly—Listens well and provides information that is easily understood and useful to others.

Attention to Details—Maintaining complete and detailed records of plans, meeting minutes, agreements.

Structures the Process—Constructing, adapting or following a logical process to ensure achievement of objectives and goals.


Focuses on Results—Continually focusing own and others attention on realistic milestones and deliverables.

Builds a Team—Creating an environment of cooperation and mutual accountability within and across functions to achieve common objectives

Manages Complexity—Organizes, plans, and monitors multiple activities, people and resources.

Makes Tough Decisions—Demonstrating assurance in own abilities, judgments and capabilities; assumes accountability for actions.

Builds Strategic Support—Getting the support and level of effort needed from senior management and others to keep project on track.

Details of the Competency Model

The previous description of the Competency Model gives an overview of each section and item. Below each item is described in more detail as it relates to mentoring initiatives.

Knows the Business

The value of mentoring to increase knowledge of process and organizational realities is obvious. A mentor provides the invaluable link to “how” one operates in the organizational structure. Protégés benefit from the breadth, depth and diversity of experience that a mentor brings to the relationship. Mentoring relationships that are cross-functional provide both individuals with an opportunity to learn more about the organization as a whole. Mentoring can facilitate higher satisfaction with work and the company.

Initiates Action and Manages Risks

Discussion of business situations with a mentor as a “sounding board” can identify potential future issues or problems proactively, thus allowing the protege to initiate risk management strategies or develop appropriate contingency plans.

Thinks Critically

An effective mentor challenges appropriately and by doing so can influence the protege to seek additional data, facts or opinions prior to initiating action or making key decisions.

Communicates Clearly

The interaction between mentor and protege promotes listening skills, appropriate use of feedback skills and interpretation skills. Mentors who are different in style can also add to the communication matrix. Communication with one’s mentor should allow for a comfortable and safe environment in which to present new ideas and propose process changes. A mentor has been described simply as a “sensitive, trusted, adviser” (Bell, 1996). It is precisely that trust which must be built upon to garner the full value of the relationship.

Develops People

Mentoring roles can contribute to the development of others. There are many opportunities in mentoring relationships to address career progression and growth. Mentors can serve as role models. Mentoring goes beyond the role of coaching and addresses personal development, job satisfaction and career planning and work-life balance. All of these are important in considering the individual as a whole.

Builds a Team

If a mentoring culture exists, there is increased likelihood of mentoring relationships established across functions within teams. This can help to create an environment of cooperation and mutual accountability within the team to promote achieving the common objectives. Having cross-functional relationships with individuals with diverse backgrounds including gender, race, age, and culture can often enhance one’s organizational effectiveness.

Manages Complexity

Typically, those that are involved in mentoring activities have a great ability to manage the time, energy, and commitment to their core work, multiple activities, and relationships. The mentor’s abilities to manage complexities can be a positive influence to a protégé who considers himself as a role model. Specific to the pharmaceutical industry, the mentor can be a valuable resource in helping the protege understand the complexities of the drug development process.

Builds Strategic Support

Many times mentoring can provide the protege with a valuable network to utilize in building support for projects or efforts. The mentor’s experiences, previous roles, current position and corporate ties can open a wide array of resources for the protégé who may be utilized in the future career growth and progression discussions.

Thus, mentoring in project management components is a “natural fit” in terms of enhancing both the shared learning necessary for project management areas to be effective and maintain top performance and for increasing the level of competencies needed to achieve the desired results and add value to the organization.

Mentoring Provides a Competitive Advantage

The Women’s Network has facilitated the use of mentoring in the workplace to share knowledge by implementing formal networking programs, as in the Executive Mentoring Program, and informal networking programs, one of which is hosting lunch seminars on mentoring topics. Furthermore, the Network inspired the Project Management area to better define expectations of the mentor and protégé in the project management environment. These competencies address not only the scientific or technical side of the expectations, but also the process and leadership skills needed to be an effective project manager in our business environment. When these skills are discussed and developed through informal and formal mentoring relationships, knowledge flows from the more experienced to the novice. This eventually brings prosperity to the organization as a whole as lessons learned are actually being used! Mentoring helps to “bring a sense of continuity” and can play a key role in passing on valuable, usually unwritten information (Jossi, 1997). Mentoring is a sense of “just-in-time” coaching and the mentoring environment encourages protégés to be responsible for their own career development (Jossi, 1997). Mentoring can retain employees and increase job satisfaction (Jossi, 1997). Although these are just a few of the advantages of implementing mentoring programs, it’s apparent how these items can complement the bottom line, thus increasing the organization’s competitive advantage.


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Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
September 7–16, 2000 • Houston, Texas, USA



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