You're My Hero

How to be a mentor to your employees

Years ago, Chris Talarico vowed that if she ever owned a business, she would not treat her employees the way her former employers had treated her-often insensitively, authoritatively and without regard for her professional or personal development. Today, the 35-year-old entrepreneur owns two employment agencies in West Reading, Pennsylvania--Chris Talarico and Associates Inc. Employment Services and Reliable Personnel Resources-which she runs with the help of 13 staffers. Despite the passage of years and her busy schedule, Talarico still takes her old vow seriously. She emphasizes teamwork and having fun on the job: The boss has been known to reward hard work by sending her whole staff on an all-expenses-paid trip to a day spa or by whisking them off in a chauffeured limousine to Atlantic City, New Jersey, where each employee receives $100 to spend as he or she chooses.

Talarico also believes in acting as a mentor to her staff, guiding their professional development and even taking a hands-on approach to personal problems. When an employee needed an apartment fast, Talarico was on the phone that same day, helping to find her a place to live. "We work like a family here," Talarico says. "I feel that if I work with each person, the team will benefit and, ultimately, the business will grow. Also, helping others can enhance my own skills."

For young entrepreneurs immersed in the daily frenzy of trying to build a business, mentoring others may seem like a frivolous use of time. Besides, aren't mentors supposed to have a few silver threads in their hair and plenty of experience under their belt? Not necessarily, says Chip Bell, senior partner with Performance Research Associates Inc., a Dallas international consulting firm that helps businesses create an environment of learning and loyalty. Entrepreneurs of any age can mentor-that is, help employees to learn. Far from being a time-waster, effective mentoring can give a growing business a competitive edge. Consider it an investment of time and a way to create a solid foundation for the business.

"We are in the middle of a major war for talent," says Bell, the author of Managers as Mentors: Building Partnerships for Learning (Berret-Koehler Publishers Inc., $16.95, www.bkpub.com) and co-author of Beep! Beep!: Competing in the Age of the Road Runner (Warner Books Inc., $24, www.twbookmark.com). "Mentoring is a critical ingredient in every manager's recipe for survival in a fast-changing world of enterprise. It is the most crucial managerial [skill] needed to corner the only market that matters: talent." "Research has shown that mentoring has a major impact on retaining talent," adds Bell. "It is also one of the key things employees are interested in having as part of their employment agreement."

Mentoring involves four key ingredients, according to Bell. They are:

  • Humility, or relinquishing efforts to control everything. It's indicative of a leader who is devoted to learning, not feeding his Napoleon complex.
  • Inclusion, or listening intently to employees to discover the feelings behind words and responding in a way that acknowledges those feelings.
  • Generosity, or giving the gift of advice and feedback conveyed with a passion for learning and concern for the learner, without expecting anything in return.
  • Freedom, or pushing the relationship beyond the boundaries that are normally expected. "Mentoring is an honor," Bell says. "With the exception of love, there is no greater gift one can give than the gift of growth." Talarico's mentoring strategy touches employees daily. Every morning, she sends e-mail messages that are inspirational or acknowledge achievements. She regularly collaborates with individuals to set and evaluate goals, and she provides outside training to enrich staff members. Once each quarter, the group also goes off-site to set goals and recap what has happened over the past three months. In addition, Talarico requires that, as part of the learning process, employees give something back to the community: Everyone is expected to be periodically involved in a volunteer project.

"Mentoring my staff is the most fulfilling part of my job and gives me the greatest sense of happiness and achievement," Talarico says. "I've found that if young people have personality and drive, you can mentor them to out-perform people with 20 years of experience." That's the kind of investment that will soon pay off monetarily and personally.


Pamela Rohland is a freelance writer from Bernville, Pennsylvania

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