Mentoring: a two-way opportunity

Mikael Bratt, the Executive Vice President for Group Trucks Operations at Volvo Group, the commercial vehicle manufacturer, outlines the value that he and his business are getting from their mentoring program.

What role does mentoring play in your employee development program?

We have several talent development schemes aimed at various levels of our organization. Our division is putting a focus on this, as we are one of the newer divisions within the company, and this gives us an opportunity to develop talent specifically for our operational needs. Mentoring plays an important part in all of this.

Most companies understand the value of mentoring as a tool for creating a strong pipeline of future talent within the business. At a basic level, it is an opportunity to connect with workers and get an open perspective from the ground floor. More broadly, it can help to widen the appeal of a business when seeking to attract and recruit new employees.

Mentoring efforts lie within the production area of our business, where we have “Volvosteget,” a broader training program that we’re running for young workers between the ages of 18 and 22, and we bring in about 400 people each year in Sweden. One key reason for offering mentoring and training at this level is to increase the attractiveness of these kinds of operational jobs, as well as helping to ensure the success of key participants in their future careers. Mentoring is especially important, given the challenges faced in trying to attract talent into our type of traditional manufacturing business, as we are typically competing against high-tech companies and others offering various new economy jobs.

We will run this blue-collar worker program over three years. There is no guarantee of a job for the junior workers as they complete the program, but mentoring helpsto increase the chance of success for the best individuals withinthe scheme, and thus secure a job at the end of the trainee period. From the company’s perspective, the overall aim is to find good people that we can develop into the next generation of employees and plant managers within the business. To this end, we monitor closely to see who has the kind of attributes that are valuable to us: people who are very solid and grounded, and able to cope with stressful situations.

What kind of experience do you offer employees as part of the talent development process?

In the beginning, it’s important that new hires get a breadth of experience in different roles in the factory, so we do a lot of rotation across different parts of the business. And for those individuals that really stand out, we also seek to provide some international exposure across our company. For the organization to get the most out of this program, it’s clearly a question of identifying the right talent and making sure that they grow in the role, which is a process we do in conjunction with human resources.

What do your employees typically get out of these schemes?

The feedback we get is that it’s very much appreciated. It’s a great opportunity for an individual to come out of their immediate work environment and have a discussion with someone other than their immediate line manager. It also gives them an opportunity to discuss things that they might be reluctant to bring up with their supervisor. So there is more of a free agenda in our discussions. As I am a mentor myself, I really appreciate the opportunity to be involved in such discussions, getting a fresh and honest perspective of what is happening on the ground floor. As an executive, this isn’t easy, as you don’t always have these opportunities for a really open and trusting dialogue, so it’s a great chance for both participants.

What do you personally aim to achieve through the role you play in the mentoring aspects of the programs?

I mentor people within the operations function specifically, but also others from elsewhere in the business. My aim is really to act as a sounding board for any individual that we’ve selected for further development. As such, we cover a range of different issues that they face, from taking a long-term perspective on their career development through to practical day-to-day issues. It’s intended to be an open discussion, and from my side to be supportive, and to share my experience with them, whether on bigger career questions or smaller operational issues.

How regular are these meetings, and what else do you do to ensure that they deliver genuine value for all participants?

I think it’s important to have a regular dialogue between the two parties. We run such meetings every six to seven weeks. I also think it’s helpful to have some kind of theme for our discussions. This might be specifically related to employee’s career objectives and setting out a plan for that, for example. The precise topic doesn’t matter too much, but giving a specific theme or subject that you come back to each time helps to make sure that the meetings create long-term value for the individual you’re mentoring. Of course, you must leave space on the agenda for any other ad hoc topics too, but it’s good to have some consistency in these meetings.

Do you also offer mentoring for more senior managers within the business, such as the plant managers you mentioned earlier?

Yes, we are doing this as well. Higher up in the organization, we see mentoring as an essential part of developing our managers, so this is another focus area.

Running one of our manufacturing plants is essentially like managing a small company, so these are key positions in our organization because they include all the core components of a wider business: delivering production targets, managing human resources, controlling operational KPIs, overseeing the flow of work, and all the other day-to-day operations. It’s a very broad and challenging role, but it is also a good springboard to other senior positions in the company. And mentoring is an important development aspect to help them get where they want to be.

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