The State of Corporate Mentoring: Interview with Dr. Lois Zachary

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At Twomentor, we share bi-weekly thought leadership from phenomenal executives and social entrepreneurs focused on: a diverse skilled workforce, social impact entrepreneurship, mentoring cultures, sponsorship and elevating women in STEM careers. This week, I am thrilled to share incredible gems of wisdom from a woman I admire greatly. Dr. Lois Zachary, president of Leadership Development Services LLC is an internationally recognized expert on mentoring and has been cited as “one of the top 100 minds in leadership” today. You’ve likely seen mention of Dr. Zachary’s books, or read her quotes, in The New York Times, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Inc.magazine, T&D, Leadership Excellence, The Chronicle of Higher Education, or other business and leadership news outlets. We had dinner recently in Washington DC and an enlightening conversations on how the field is evolving:

Julie Kantor (JK): First of all, thank you for being a mentor of mentors and all you have built! I’d like to speak with you about then versus now. What is the current state of corporate mentoring from your perspective?

Dr. Lois Zachary (LZ): I believe that mentoring continues to expand and deepen its reach, especially globally. More and more organizations are adopting a strategic rather than a programmatic approach to mentoring. The payback on an organization’s investment in mentoring is huge. Here are just a few to keep in mind:

1. Mentoring drives recruitment of future talent.

2. Mentoring contributes to increased retention rate of talent.

3. Mentoring breaks down silos and expands knowledge within the organization.

4. Mentoring promotes inclusion and promotes opportunities for everyone to learn and benefit from the diversity within an organization.

5. Mentoring helps ease job transition and avoid common pitfalls – ensuring continuity of competence in times of changing roles.

6. Mentoring contributes to promoting a more connected, engaged, aligned and productive workplace.

JK: Well said. For so many companies I speak with the question has been ‘have to have’ or ‘nice to have.’ Lois, How would you define a mentoring culture and please share about your book on the topic…

LZ: This is a great question for me since I’ve spent much of my career working with organizations to create and grow mentoring cultures. I’ve even written a book about it! In Creating a Mentoring Culture (Jossey-Bass) I’ve provided step-by-step guidance, practical advice, stories, and included reproducible forms and tools to speed the process along.

The presence of a mentoring culture is an indicator of organizational vitality. Mentoring becomes so tightly woven into the fabric of organizational life that it seamlessly informs the way business is accomplished. At its best, a mentoring culture enriches the vibrancy and productivity of an organization and the people within it. It also creates a continuum of expectation that raises the standards and consistency of good mentoring practice.

JK: As I shared, a lot of companies are focused on their more senior executives and building sponsorship initiatives. Many have shared with me that they are skeptical or shying away from mentoring… What are your thoughts?

LZ: Even if a company doesn’t have a formal mentoring program, informal mentoring is always in motion. I believe that when it comes to developing more senior executives, it is not a case of “mentoring or.” Rather it is about “mentoring and.” As I mentioned before, there are compelling strategic advantages for embracing mentoring. I don’t agree that companies are shying away from mentoring and if they do, it is temporary due to changes within the company and the need to deploy budgets elsewhere.

JK: I couldn’t agree with you more ”mentoring and”! What has been the most fulfilling aspects of building your company the last couple of years?

LZ: We are fortunate to have so many fulfilling aspects to choose from. Notably, our work has expanded globally (and so have our frequent flyer miles!). We’ve enhanced our mentoring training programs by including modules that enhance mentor and mentee skills in recognizing, leveraging and bridging differences. Lisa Fain has come on board as Assistant Director and added her expertise in diversity strategy and cross-cultural competency to our work in promoting effective mentoring.

The Center for Mentoring Excellence’s success is built on team creativity, collaboration and commitment. Our mutual fulfillment stems from working with each other and with clients who share that spirit. At the end of the day what matters most to us is facilitating the development and growth of our clients (individuals and organizations). We feel it is a privilege to serve them and all of us find it very fulfilling.

JK: What are some common mistakes you see companies make when it comes to mentoring?


1. They fail to get buy-in and commitment to mentoring (and nurture it) from senior leaders and program participants. The secret to success is communicating the WIIFM (what’s in it for me) case for all those engaged in or touched by mentoring. Without doing this critical work, it is hard to have a mentoring leadership pipeline and champions.

2. Companies look for a quick fix. I call this the Keeping Up with the Jones’ Syndrome. “Other companies are doing it so we need to get ourselves a mentoring program.”

3. They neglect to do the strategic work needed to align their efforts with business outcomes. The result is fuzzy program goals, the consequence of which unfortunately is fuzzy outcomes.

4. Sometimes organizations fail to clarify what they mean by mentoring and how it fits into the pantheon of development opportunities. This is an important distinction to make because people come to mentoring with different attitudes, assumptions and perceptions about mentoring programs. These drive their expectations.

5. Failure to monitor and measure is more common than you might think and contributes to lack of compliance and accountability. How and when you monitor and measure is part of the planning process not just the implementation phase.

The bottom line? A mentoring culture doesn’t evolve on its own. It is a demanding master and takes work and tending. Paying attention to the eight hallmarks of a mentoring culture that I address in my book: accountability, alignment, communication, demand, value and visibility, multiple mentoring opportunities, mentoring education and training, building in safety nets ensures individual and organizational success.

JK: What about matching people with mentors — this seems to be a stumbling block for so many…. thoughts?

LZ: I am glad you asked because lack of thoughtful pairing is a major stumbling block to mentoring success. When organizations fail to make thoughtful pairings, the results are often disastrous. You need to start by defining criteria for making your matches. Next, determine who will make the matches. Then, be sure to discuss what happens once the match is made (action steps). Decide what happens if the match you’ve made doesn’t work out (more action steps). Finally, detail each step you will take in sequence from selection to final pairing.

JK: For new people building technology platforms and joining the field today, any sage advice or potholes to avoid?

LZ: I don’t know about sage but here are some thoughts. Think well into the future when you create/buy your mentoring platform. Remember what works well today may be “old” tomorrow. Don’t be pennywise and pound foolish. Keep the end-user in mind. Safeguard user confidentiality. Choose your platform carefully to make sure the demands of the platform work with and align with your business culture. Make sure you have personnel to manage, maintain and mine the platform you choose.


Dr. Lois Zachary is president of Leadership Development Services, LLC, a Phoenix-based consulting firm that specializes in leadership and mentoring, and director of its Center for Mentoring Excellence. Her innovative mentoring approaches and expertise in coaching leaders and their organizations in designing, implementing and evaluating learner-centered mentoring programs have been used globally by a wide array of clients, including Fortune 500 companies, government organizations, educational and other institutions — profit and nonprofit. Dr. Zachary received her doctorate in adult and continuing education from Columbia University, Teachers College. She holds a Master of Arts degree from Columbia University and a Master of Science degree in education from Southern Illinois University.

Julie Kantor is CEO of Twomentor, LLC, a high impact training company focused on talent strategies for a diverse workforce. We value mentoring cultures, building diverse sponsorship initiatives & an entrepreneurial mindset. We have experience working with Fortune 500 Companies, SMBs, Universities and offer facilitated (and fun) mentor + sponsorship training, Mentor Road Trip™ Flash Mentoring, best practice strategy and keynote speaking. Plug in to our unparalleled network in the entrepreneurship & STEM ecosystems to drive change.

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