Illustration by Aron Vellekoop Leon Illustration by Aron Vellekoop Leon

Two years after landing a job in a call centre, Claudia So was still miles away from the career in HR she had studied for at university. But all that changed thanks to a mentoring program through her employer, Paradigm Quest Inc.

When So began her mentorship, "she wasn't pegged as someone who would become a manager," says Nicole Davey, HR manager at the Toronto-based firm, which provides back-office services for mortgage lenders. But So's mentor, Amy Bruyea, Paradigm's senior vice-president of operations, offered a stream of advice that got So considered for job openings in HR.

At Bruyea's suggestion, So put her hand up for a project to help create a health and safety committee. "When an HR position came up," says So, "the hiring manager recognized, 'She can do this because she went the extra mile on the committee.'" So says Bruyea's help was instrumental in her landing a job as an HR advisor and then a promotion to one of the team leads.

So now is making a far greater contribution to the business in her new role as a manager. And Davey points to other ways the program benefits Paradigm. One is in helping the firm recruit ambitious employees: "When I do my spiel about the company and mention our mentoring program, you can see their ears perk up." Above all, says Davey, the program is a valuable employee retention and engagement tool. Even staff who haven't been mentored value Paradigm's commitment to their careers.

In these cost-conscious and talent-short times—and with employees, as always, wanting more than a paycheque—mentoring is a way to engage your people and speed their ascent to their full potential. If you decide to start your own mentoring program, you can maximize its effectiveness by following Paradigm's lead. That's because the company's program includes smart elements that many such initiatives lack, and because Paradigm has made several improvements to its program over its five years.

The web of mentor-protégé pairs throughout the company helps generate a free flow of ideas

One key to Paradigm's program is that it follows formal procedures. Rather than, say, the CEO casually asking a senior executive to show the ropes to a newbie, Paradigm has employees answer a series of questions about who they'd like as a mentor and why they'd be a good candidate for mentorship. Unlike many programs, Paradigm's isn't limited to new hires. In fact, employees can apply as many times as they want, because the company sees mentoring as a tool for continuous learning. And Paradigm deems the program so important it has made it mandatory for senior executives to mentor (although optional for non-executives to be mentored).

Each mentor meets with the protégé over lunch or drinks at least four times over a four-month term. It's up to the protégé to arrange these meetings and arrive prepared to discuss his career path and current job challenges, and to hear the mentor's guidance based on her own experience.

Paradigm has fine-tuned the program substantially over the years. It has eased the mentor's load by reducing the terms from six months to four and the number of protégés per mentor from two to one at a time. The firm also has limited the mentoring role to senior executives. "We initially allowed VPs to be mentors," says Katherine Gregory, Paradigm's president and CEO. "But we found that some of them weren't experienced enough—and many of them wanted to be protégés themselves."

As well, Paradigm has substantially beefed up the application form. Retention manager Alex Sigouin, now in his third term as a protégé, says the form has evolved from a quick blurb on "Why do you want to do this program?" to an in-depth exercise that includes questions such as "What are your goals and dreams?" and "Detail the most challenging career decision you have had to make." The longer form forces the applicants to think hard about what they want from the program.

In Sigouin's previous terms as a protégé, he focused on gaining a sense of the business as a whole. This time, he's homing in on his current job, so he sought a mentor "who can push me along and show me how to bring my team up to the next level." As Sigouin did during his first two terms, he is relishing the chance to teach as well as learn from his mentor. This, he says, reflects the fact that "Paradigm is a company that's very open to suggestions from any of the staff, no matter what level."

Gregory says this opportunity to exchange ideas on a more intimate level is one of the program's great benefits. "Employees are often the ones with the knowledge of what's working and what needs to be fixed," she says. Creating a web of mentor-protégé pairs throughout the company has helped generate an enviably free flow of ideas.

It has also created emotional bonds that strengthen the connection with the company felt by senior managers and employees alike. Almost three years after So's mentorship wrapped up, she still considers Bruyea a friend and close colleague. And Bruyea continues to offer So guidance and support, long after her formal responsibility to do so ended.

"Claudia has done extremely well in a short period of time, and I couldn't be more proud of her," says Bruyea. "I have all the time in the world for her."

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