Few brands are more iconic in this country than Ford Motor Co. The global automobile manufacturer headquartered in Dearborn, Michigan, put its first car on the market in 1903 and turned a profit almost immediately. Today the global company is the fifth largest auto manufacturer in the world with nearly 200,000 employees across the globe.
Ford’s leaders attribute their ability to weather recent economic turbulence in part to the company’s strong corporate culture where mentoring plays a key role in spreading values and breaking down silos that can disrupt innovation.
While many companies have mentoring programs, Ford takes a different approach than most, said Gale Halsey, CLO and director learning and organization development at Ford headquarters. Rather than the traditional model, where elder experts guide the next generation of employees as they find their footing, Ford views mentoring as a two-way opportunity. “Reverse mentoring can be a very powerful learning experience,” Halsey said.
Most of the formal mentoring programs are driven by regional leaders, or by one of the company’s employee resource groups, or ERGs, comprised of employees who share similar characteristics working together to build networks and provide professional development to their members.
ERGs Mentor the Next Generation
Steve Lewis heads the Ford African Ancestry Network, or FAAN, one of the original ERGs at Ford. The group was established in 1994 to help members become better people and better employees through personal development and networking and now has more than 2,500 members. A key component of being a part of FAAN is the opportunity to work with a mentor, Lewis said. FAAN members introduce the program to new employees during onboarding and host regular lunch and learns to spur conversations and create networking opportunities.
At the end of each session, the hosts ask if anyone is interested in having a mentor. Sometimes employees will have a particular manager in mind as their mentor, and other times FAAN leaders will help connect employees with someone one-to-two salary grades above them so they can grow together over time.
The mentor will then meet with the mentee to get to know them and make a mentoring plan that may include development needs, establishing a career path, and helping them build a stronger network.
Mentoring From Afar
Other mentoring programs are led by corporate leadership teams to link high-potential employees with executives. These programs pair employees from different divisions or regions as a way to help both participants develop their network and expand their understanding of the business. Halsey for example is mentoring Irene Tang, HR director for Ford Asia Pacific in Shanghai, through a leadership program called COMPASS that is designed to foster local talent, particularly in Asia Pacific’s emerging markets.
The two were paired in 2013 when Tang took an entry-level HR management position supporting an IT team. Initially it was only meant to be an 18-month mentorship to help her develop her leadership development skills, but the two continue to work together today, meeting monthly via phone and WebEx, or whenever Tang faces a challenge and needs support. They met face-to-face for the first time in April. Despite never being in the same room together, Tang said she has come to rely on Halsey. “Gale as my mentor not only gives me advice and coaches me on work related issues, but she also gives me advice on personal matters,” she said. Tang now has three mentees of her own.
Working with Tang has helped Halsey in her own career by giving her a more global perspective on her leadership style. Tang is not a native English speaker, which made communication difficult at first, and caused Halsey to be more aware of the language barriers that exist across the employee base. As a result, she has focused on ensuring all training materials and communication receive natural language translations and that leadership training programs address the unique cultural differences managers need to be aware off. “Our leaders make decisions that have a global impact, and they need to have a global perspective.”
Jose Yanes, sales director for Ford Mexico in Mexico City has had a similarly positive experience as a mentor in Ford’s Mentoring Circles Program, which began in 2013. The Circles program is a yearlong mentoring relationship that pairs several high potential employees with a single senior level manager to work together on skill-building and goal-setting.
Yanes is leading his third circle, which he begins by first interviewing each potential mentee one-on-one to understand their career path, goals, and expectations for the program, and to set expectations for their participation. “I look for will, commitment and the ability to communicate,” he said. Then he brings the group together for monthly meetings. Two weeks prior to each meeting, Yanes sends everyone an agenda that usually include readings and an assignment to bring a story related to a specific aspect of leadership in which they didn’t do their best. In the meetings they share their stories and discuss strategies to improve performance in the future. “We learn more from these kinds of stories than from sharing our successes,” Yanes said. Every session ends with a “feed-forward” discussion about what they will cover in the next meeting.
Like Halsey, Yanes also found the mentoring experience to be valuable to his own development process. The mentees challenge him to be a better leader, he said. “It’s not what I say that influences them, it is what I do.” It caused him to become a better communicator, and to work harder at building trust with his people. It also helped him in his relationship with his own boss, who has a more emotional approach to leadership and was recently struggling to convince the sales and marketing team to embrace a new initiative. He turned to Yanes for advice on how he might sway them, and Yanes talked with him about how to listen to their concerns and discuss the project in terms of what is best for the business rather than any one leader. “It worked,” he said. “He was able to convince them and now they are aligned on the best route to take.”
This kind of reverse mentoring is common at Ford, Halsey said, noting that CEO Mark Fields regularly meets with new employees and often talks about the lessons he learns from the next generation. “Everyone has something to teach or an experience to share,” Halsey said. And while Ford doesn’t measure financial returns on mentoring programs, Halsey’s team believes the mentoring culture at Ford helps drive engagement, retention and productivity. “Our ROI is knowing our people are learning from each other and that our leaders understand the employee experience,” she said.
Sarah Fister Gale is a writer based in Chicago. Comment below, or email editor@CLOmedia.com.