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Employee Mentorship Program Gets a Reboot

Instead of simply assigning mentors to staff members through an algorithm, PayPal started a new program in 2017 that gives its employees greater choice in deciding who will advise them.


By

Rachel Feintzeig

PayPal Holdings Inc. had a chemistry problem.

The San Jose, Calif., payments company for years relied on an algorithm to match employees with more senior staff serving as mentors. But neither the mentors nor the protégés were thrilled with the setup.

“There was need for the human connection,” said Stefana Hunyady, a senior director at PayPal who oversees the mentorship program. Some mentors complained to her that they felt as if they were preaching instead of having conversations; protégés described their interactions with mentors as cold and felt they couldn’t be open.

Employees—especially women and minorities—value mentorship, according to a new survey, and guidance from the top can help them climb the ladder. But formal programs can be tough to get right, and many companies shy away from them altogether.

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The survey, from search firm Heidrick & Struggles International Inc., finds that more than three-quarters of 1,032 North American employees polled said their best mentors were “very important” or “extremely important” for their careers. The surveyed group worked in a variety of industries—including health care, financial services and energy—and one-third worked in an organization with more than 1,000 employees.

Women and minorities were even more likely than the overall pool of respondents to view mentorship as crucial. Some 30% of female respondents called those relationships “extremely important,” as compared with 23% of men.

But nearly three-quarters of those surveyed said their company didn’t have a formal mentoring program. And 20 executives interviewed by Heidrick were skeptical of such initiatives.

The lack of formal programs could be a detriment to women and minorities. The survey found that minority respondents had fewer mentors early in their career. Meanwhile, men were more likely than women to count top executives as mentors.

The findings echo other surveys. A report from earlier this year by LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Co. found that employees who receive career advice and mentorship from senior leaders are more likely to say they have been promoted in the past two years. But women are less likely to receive this kind of advice.

Women are “not getting enough exposure to the senior levels,” said Mark Livingston, a Heidrick managing partner who co-wrote the search firm’s report. Formal programs would give women and minorities access and opportunities, he said. Plus, such initiatives can help companies recruit and hold on to talented workers.

“Done well they can be a massive competitive advantage,” he said.

PayPal opted to test a new mentoring model this year. Instead of the company simply assigning pairs, employees can sign up for group sessions where one mentor chats with six individuals. If after a few meetings, there is a professional spark, protégés can ask the leader to be their mentor.

Quarterly events on topics like negotiation and balancing work and family are meant to encourage mingling; one even included a speed mentoring session where prospective mentees rotated between prospective mentors for three-minute slots, in search of their perfect match.

“It enables you to test-drive before you commit,” Ms. Hunyady said. “You need to create a community around mentorships.”

Write to Rachel Feintzeig at rachel.feintzeig@wsj.com

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