Occasionally, employees ask me how I feel about mentoring programs and usually, my answer is not what you might expect. While I know having a mentor can be beneficial, in general, formal mentoring programs aren’t for me (there are exceptions to this as I’ll explain in a bit). To me, a formal mentoring program can result in a somewhat mechanical relationship that feels forced. Instead, I have found that the best mentoring relationships occur through networking and organically develop to the mutual benefit of both the mentor and the mentee.
Over the course of my career, I’ve had many informal mentors, and I have enjoyed serving in that capacity to others. These relationships developed over time (often many years) and are based on admiration, respect and – ultimately – trust. They were never built on a regular cadence of formal meetings, set agendas or specific goals. When I need advice, I pick up the phone, offer to buy lunch or grab a coffee with one of them. Sometimes I don’t have anything specific to discuss, but we just chat and catch up. It’s this type of networking that has been most beneficial to me, both personally and professionally.
Having said that, I’ve found Caterpillar’s “Reverse Mentoring” program to be a bit different. The Reverse Mentoring program pairs a male executive leader as the mentee with a female employee as the mentor. The intent is to facilitate candid communication on issues such as inclusiveness, gender-bias, transparency and opportunity, and in early 2017, I was paired with Meghan Lundeen, Human Resources Manager in Global Information Systems (GIS).
Reverse mentoring is a great concept, but it isn’t always easy. As the mentee, I am equally responsible for the success of this relationship and must work to ensure it is mutually beneficial. It can sometimes be difficult for a less-senior employee to offer honest feedback on a business practice or decision made by a senior leader, so it was important that from the beginning I created an environment in which Meghan could share open and honest feedback. Perhaps more importantly, we needed to clearly define our roles and do our best to stick to them. I must remind myself that my primary role in our reverse mentorship is to be mentored — to seek advice, gain wisdom and learn from Meghan — and let her mentor me. Our discussion sometimes includes various challenges she is facing, and my natural inclination as a leader is to flip the script and offer her advice and counsel. But listening and seeking to understand needs to come first, followed by a two-way discussion on how the situation should best be handled.
With these challenges in mind, Meghan and I have worked to develop a great rapport. Our conversations provide me with a unique line of sight into the daily experience of a female Caterpillar employee, and I genuinely appreciate her perspective on issues pertaining to the Caterpillar corporate culture and climate. She has helped me be more perceptive and adjust my style to be a more effective leader. While I was a bit hesitant to participate in a formal mentoring program, I’m glad I did, as I truly value having Meghan in my network as a go-to person for advice when I need it. So in the end, I encourage everyone to find a mentor, because whether you prefer a formal program or a more organic relationship, you can always benefit from the sharing of knowledge, experience and expertise.
Vice President – Finance Services Division