How to Really Support the New Kid on the Block: Mentoring for Culture

Photo credit: National Education Association

By Hillary Gardenswartz

I felt a little nauseous. I barely slept the night before. I had butterflies in my stomach. I was wearing a brand new outfit, wanting to make a good first impression. I was nervous, excited, confident and insecure, all rolled into one. This was my first day at my new job.

Even under the best of circumstances – having a dream job at a dream workplace – new employees still face many unknowns. Sure, good onboarding programs will arm you with important HR basics; they will also touch upon the mission and values of your organization. You might even be paired with a buddy or mentor to help you navigate some of the essential-but-unwritten questions that come up as a new member of a work community, like what do people do for lunch? Who is best at fixing the copy machine when it inevitably gets jammed? Or better yet, when you have feedback to share, does the “open door policy” that a supervisor talked about during orientation really play out in real life? But organizations can do better in setting up, retaining and ultimately strengthening talent. I believe the answer is mentoring new employees with an eye towards organizational culture.

Up until a year-and-a-half ago, my workplace, the high school at Schechter Westchester, was one of these workplaces that were doing an adequate job at onboarding new employees. New teachers were assigned “buddies” at the beginning of the school year to help address some of the logistical and practical questions of how to navigate systems, machines, programs, etc… If buddies also struck up personal friendships, great, but the expectation of a buddy was to provide answers to any questions on an as-needed basis. Utilitarian. Practical. Short-term. And from an organizational development perspective, incomplete.

We were missing an opportunity to develop employees in two ways: first, to develop new employees more fully within a program that could explore what it really means to be a member of this workplace community, and second, to develop veteran employees as leaders in their capacity as experts and mentors. Furthermore, we were missing a chance to get important feedback from people who were coming in with new eyes and a fresh perspective in a formal, organized safe space in which they could openly channel their ideas.

There was recognition that we could do better for new employees, but what did that mean? In discussion with our principal, my colleague, Dorothy Weiss, and I stepped in starting in the fall of 2016 to answer that question. We decided to focus our Mentor Program on workplace acculturation.

We take it as a given that the new person is hired for their skills and the professional value they will add to the organization. We also know that we are not, nor should we be, the supervisors of this new employee. The mentor space is one of safety, guidance, and support; mentors can judge and give advice, but that judgement should not be tied to employees’ performance evaluation. Being mentored in a new workplace should be seen as a luxury limo ride on what might otherwise be a treacherous, bumpy road. For instance, if someone constantly runs late to meetings, is that because all meetings run long, because people in your workplace are overscheduled, or because it’s hard to say “no”? Getting at the root of those bumps usually has more to do with culture than job performance.

Our program matches each new employee with a veteran employee from a different department. The pairs set aside time and meet weekly to discuss whatever is going on in the workplace at the moment. Conversations range from organizational norms, to advice-seeking, to navigating personal dynamics. What has emerged from these authentic relationships has been a sharpening of skills and practice. Through their dialogue over the norms, beliefs and practices within the organization, the pair organically reflects on their roles and behaviors and starts to think about their own skills and contributions in more concrete ways.

Additionally, we hold group meetings with just the mentors and just the mentees 1-2 times a quarter. These group meetings allow us to focus specifically on each group and suss out common themes and threads, and get to deeper organizational issues. These group meetings have been invaluable sources of feedback for how the new employees are experiencing the culture of our organization, how it compares positively and/or negatively to previous workplaces, and what they might see or do differently if they called the shots. Group meetings also help remove any sense of isolation, emphasizing that all are part of a larger community with common challenges.

Our program is still new and evolving, but our anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that conversations about culture has yielded more thoughtful, engaged practice for both mentor and mentee. Feedback that emerged from our first cycle of the program was passed along in productive and effective ways, and some organizational changes were even implemented. For example, a dedicated space for quiet reflection and work was created as a direct outcome from our group conversations.

Mentoring for culture not only sets up employees for success. It is good for an organization’s bottom line to help recruit, retain, and develop talented employees. And on a big-picture level, mentoring for culture provides an internal mechanism for an organization to continue growing and learning if it has the will to do so.

Hillary Gardenswartz is Department Chair of Rabbinics at the Solomon Schechter School of Westchester and co-creator of the school’s Mentor Program.