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Mentoring By Minorities For Minorities: The Organizational Communication Support Program.

This paper presents a case study clan organizational communication support program for African American employees at Dow Corning and Dow Chemical Corporations. It was initiated and piloted by a chapter of the National Organization for the Professional Development of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE). The Organizational Communication Support (OCS) program is unique in that most mentoring programs are initiated by the employer to help support minority employees, whereas this project represents a minority professional organization volunteering to help other minority employees up the corporate ladder.

Introduction

Mentoring is an important part of organizational socialization and career development. As it occurs naturally in an organization, it is an important form of informal supportive communication that occurs between a senior organizational member (the mentor or support person) and a more junior organizational member (the protege). The support person takes a paternalistic interest in the protege's career and offers advising, coaching, and counseling to enhance career development and success for the protege. This is an important type of informal organizational communication that provides support and socializes the protege and increases his/her organizational and career success [6]. Studies indicate that mentoring leads to increased performance, faster promotion rate, early career rate of advancement, greater upward mobility, higher income, job satisfaction, and perceptions of greater success and influence in an organization [4,9,14]. Mentoring relationships have an even greater positive impact on career success for blacks than for whites [1].

In addition to mentoring support, other types of interpersonal supportive connections exist within organizations, such as sponsors, guides/coaches, and even peer-pals [10]. Researchers [2] have explored these dimensions of communication support and found that in addition to mentoring support, less intensive support from peers also facilitated successful career development. Such relationships are particularly valuable when mentoring and coaching types of relationships are not readily forthcoming.

Studies suggest that minorities might not always have equal access to mentors. Minorities are frequently left out of mentoring relationships with the dominant members of an organization's power structure who could provide needed career advice [7]. Thomas [11] suggests that cross-race mentoring is rare because of racial taboos and awkward complications. Cross-race proteges are treated differently by mentors than same-race proteges due to cultural stereotypes [12,13].

Both cross-race and same-race mentoring relationships provide career support. However, for minorities same-race relationships provide more psychosocial support in terms of trust and attachment. Same-race relationships also have shorter and easier initiation periods, provide a greater sense of identification, increase levels of intimacy, enhance the balance in work life and social development, aid in grappling with the issues of inclusion and professional identity in early career phases, and help to frame and navigate the bicultural minority experience. Such relationships must frequently cross the traditional boundaries of hierarchy and area specialization, but they are valuable as they serve to increase the number of minority proteges who receive career support.

Development of the OCS Program

A professional organization of African American chemists (NOBCChE) initiated this project by forming a task force to facilitate the introduction of gifted young people into corporate life. The team was comprised of NOBCChE members from Dow Coming and Dow Chemical, representatives from corporate Human Resources, and an external consultant in the field of organizational communication and mentoring. The fact that all team members were involved in the design and implementation of the program led to high commitment and satisfaction. The team typically met bi-monthly to design, develop, and implement the program. Planning expenses were shared, and facilities were provided by the parent companies. The orientation session, workshop, and evaluation session were always held off-site with expenses paid for by the outside professional organization. Top management in both parent companies was regularly updated on the progress of the program that became known as the Organizational Communication Support Program (OCS). The O CS program was to supplement, not replace, the existing activities of the organization. The importance of supervisor/employee relationships was to be continually stressed throughout the program so as not to threaten the existing relationships and power structure of the organization.

Orientation Session. With corporate support to conduct a pilot project of organizational communication support, an orientation session was held for potential participants -- both proteges and support persons. The format included social opportunities, discussions, and brainstorming opportunities. Participants were asked to prioritize criteria for corporate success as well as set goals for the proposed OCS program. In addition, expectations of the proteges and support persons were also obtained. These discussions between potential proteges and support persons helped both groups to take ownership of the program and led to better understanding and future relational development.

Workshop Design. One month after the orientation session, a pilot of the day-long OCS Workshop was tested on eight proteges and seventeen potential support persons. The workshop structure was designed cooperatively by the entire OCS team with the external consultant developing the communication and mentoring curricula for the workshop. The workshop focused on integrating the needs of the African American employees with the latest research findings regarding mentoring and communication support. An attempt was made to take the best aspects of formal, planned mentoring programs and combine these with the informal elements of the more successful, naturally occurring mentoring-like relationships. The resultant program was to provide communication support to minority professionals who would otherwise not have the opportunity to obtain mentoring or supportive relationships. Formal mentoring programs, while generally not as career enhancing as informal mentoring relationships, can benefit most groups typically exclud ed from the informal mentoring relationships. Formal programs need to model as closely as possible the natural, informal process of mentoring -- creating an environment in which people will naturally gravitate to each other [3].

Developing Intra-racial Support Connections. Support connections were promoted throughout the workshop by providing opportunities for potential support persons and proteges to get acquinted and to begin the partner selection process, e.g., seating at meals, personal profile introductions, and cluster groupings. Peer connections were also fostered during the separate training sessions of mentors or proteges. When support persons worked together to clarify their role as helpers, they helped each other in the process. When the proteges worked as a separate group, they realized that they were not alone and began establishing important collegial peer connections. Support connections were further promoted by explaining the importance of all types of supportive relationships for career success. The continuum of types of support roles (from mentors to peerpals) available within the OCS program was explained to demonstrate that there are many types of supportive connections that can help an employee accomplish career goals in addition to mentoring in the traditional sense. The goal of the program was explained as providing a support person for the protege without the underlying connotations and stereotypical view of the perfect mentor. The support person would be a respected, credible, successful member of an organization who would assume some responsibility in facilitating the career development process for a less experienced member. Depending on the dyad, the support person might function as a peer pal, a guide, a coach, a mentor, or a sponsor. The benefits of all types of supportive connections were discussed, including a discussion of the benefits of same-race mentonng.

Improving Participants' Supportive Communication Skills. The workshop focused on improving specific communication skills that contribute to a supportive climate and that are particularly important for proteges and support persons in developing effective career development relationships. The training consultant worked alternately with each group. Support persons role-played giving constructive feedback to proteges that would enhance career development. Proteges engaged in role-play activities to develop their skills in receiving constructive feedback. Proteges also discussed personal career development strategies.

Empowering the Participants. The participants in this program were encouraged to customize and individualize the program to meet their unique needs. Using the information gathered during the earlier orientation session, cluster groups of proteges and support persons worked together to discuss criteria for success and to share goals and expectations of the OCS program. Then the proteges and support persons were separated and alternately participated in a structured brainstorming exercise to prioritize the selection criteria for choosing a partner. When proteges and support persons were brought back together, they shared their partner selection criteria and program goals. Participants were then provided with a dyadic goal setting form to be completed after pairing to clarify the expectations and norms of each supportive dyad.

Establishing the Dyad Partnerships. After the workshop, each participant completed a biographical sketch to share with all other participants to assist in the pairing process. Each participant was given six weeks to interview potential dyad partners; then each ranked their first, second, and third choice of partner. The Planning Team then made the final pairings, taking both the wishes of the protege and the support person into account. The resulting dyads each were composed of partnerships in which each person was paired with either his/her first or second choice.

An escape clause was provided to all program participants. Provisions were made to de-couple dyads that were incompatible. Requests to de-couple a dyad could be made to the Corporate Human Resources Representative (one from each company) on the Planning Team. Once a decoupling would occur, each former partner would be free to reselect a new partner or drop out of the program completely. However, no requests for de-coupling were made.

Six months after dyads were assigned all participants were invited to a feedback meeting to discuss the effectiveness of the dyads and to suggest any changes that were needed in the dyads or in the program. Feedback from this meeting was used to institute some mid-course corrections in the program.

The Evaluation Process

The evaluation component of this program contained two parts, a pretest administered prior to dyadic pairing and a post-test conducted one year later. The immediate goal of this evaluation was to gain information to modify the pilot program before conducting a full-scale OCS program. The long-term goal was to determine the effect of communication support on participant competency and success.

Pretest information was obtained by having participants complete two surveys, one during the orientation session and one at the onset of the training session. The first survey (Criteria for Success) was designed by the planning team based on the success competencies provided by the parent companies. Participants rated themselves along 50 organizational skills. The second survey (Organizational Communication Support) was designed by communication researchers to assess the amount and type of communication support received from mentors, coaches, and peers [5]. A year after the pilot program had begun, participants were mailed a questionnaire containing a program evaluation form and the two surveys (Criteria for Success and OCS) as posttests. A month later fifteen participants were interviewed by a researcher not involved in the program design.

The results of the evaluation section of the questionnaire showed very strong support for the program and for recommending it to other minority professionals. In general the participants most liked the fact that support persons and proteges were trained together so that they could get to meet potential partners and to understand each other's perspectives. They also liked the fact that participants were empowered to adapt and structure the program to meet their own needs and goals. However, expectations between support persons and proteges were not always clear, which resulted in some confusion and disappointment as to the exact nature of the role of the support person. Support persons sometimes cast the protege in a subordinate role and did not always see how they personally benefited from this relationship. In addition, some of the dyadic relationships were less successful due to vast differences in career specialties.

Comparison of means scores on the Criteria of Success instrument were encouraging because proteges reported an increase in 21 of the criteria of success after participati ng in the OCS program. No such change was reported by the mentors. The mean scores on the Organizational Communication Support instrument did not show any consistent positive or negative changes in perceived communication support.

Participants also felt that the evaluation session six months after the pilot program had begun was a very important reality check which allowed for discussion of common problems, suggestions for program changes, and clarification of relationship expectations. However, the session needed to be more action oriented to fix specific problems within dyads.

Interview data revealed that dyads typically met once a month for about an hour during the workday. These meetings were casually arranged and somewhat loosely structured with the support person serving most often as a professional "guide." Both groups enjoyed the relationship, felt that their expectations had been met, felt that the support person provided valuable information to the protege, and wanted the program maintained. Dyad success was attributed to having an open trusting relationship in which people had similar styles and got along well. Setting mutual goals early in the process and having similar job functions were also cited as reasons for successful dyads.

The proteges felt the support persons were in fact "supportive" by being good listeners, acting as sounding boards, providing reinforcing comments, providing materials, talking to the protege's boss, helping to set career goals, assisting in supervisor progress reports, showing how to take initiative, advising on how to deal with negative feedback, answering questions, advising who to talk to, and generally being there when needed. The proteges benefited by being introduced to important people, obtaining political know how, having a sounding board, receiving constructive feedback, developing career plans, learning people skills, and developing a good relationship with their support person. Proteges reported many career oriented as well as psychosocial types of support.

Support persons expressed that they had gained friends as a result of this program, and they felt the dyads were successful because the proteges were open, committed, interested, maintained a positive attitude, took constructive criticism/advice, and did not demand too much. The mentors described these relationships as "uplifting," "gratifying," and "satisfying." Mentors enjoyed observing the protege's discovery processes, sharing their expertise, and helping other minority professionals. Support persons reported mostly receiving psychosocial benefits from these relationships.

Participants suggested that dyads should be matched within similar professions or specialties to ensure common interests and goals. Dyads should meet more frequently with clearer procedures for requesting such meetings. Support persons should be trained in goal setting to provide preliminary goal clarification within the dyads. More group reviews are needed during the process in which mentors and proteges can check perceptions with each other and adjust goals.

After analyzing the results of the pilot questionnaire and interview data, several changes were made in the program design. The initial workshop was altered to focus more clearly on the benefits of mentoring for the support person and to add sections on career development and mutual goal setting. Also, more attention was given to matching dyads based on career similarity. The program as described in this paper contains these revisions and modifications.

Recommendations

Based upon our experience with this very exciting and successful organizational communication support program, we offer several suggestions for implementation in other organizations:

Mentoring by minorities for minorities. The volunteer efforts of the minority professional group (NOBCChE) were a major ingredient of success within this program. Such an approach reduces dependency on the majority corporate structure that allows for both increased freedom and responsibility.

Focusing on Mentoring plus. The fact that this program was organized around a continuum of communication support ranging from peer-pal to mentor de-emphasized the importance of mentoring per se and acknowledged help from many types of relationships. This in fact reduced the pressure on the relationships to form the "perfect mentor-protege relationship." In addition, peer-pal relationships were encouraged among the proteges and among the support persons, strengthening further their organizational relationships.

Involving all of the Team. The minority group sponsoring the project involved the corporation, the outside consultant, and the participants in all aspects of program planning. Oftentimes, this increased the length of time needed to reach consensus; however, it led to shared ownership and pride in the program by all involved and reduced threats to established lines of authority.

Providing a Mutual Selection and Escape Clause. Both proteges and sponsors were consulted in the selection of dyadic partners. In addition, both parties knew that they could "escape" the dyad if it was not successful, and both parties knew the success of the relationship was their responsibility.

Providing Orentation and Communication Skills Training. Both groups of participants went through orientation and training programs. These programs were helpful in acquainting the participants with each other, setting mutual and realistic goals and expectations, and learning important communication skills for effective mentor/protege relationships.

Evaluating and Re-designing. The belief that nothing is ever perfect and can always be improved guided the efforts of the Planning Team. Constant feedback, evaluation, and redesign kept insuring that the program would better meet participants' needs.

Conclusion

The program worked and continues to work. Both of the chemical companies have sent letters to the supervisors of the program participants, commending them on their participation and encouraging them to continue. One of the companies has even formally integrated the minority initiated OCS program into its own formal corporate mentoring program. In the short term, the dyads continue to support each other in their career development; the participants at all levels have very positive attitudes toward each other and the corporation in general; information flow across all levels for minority employees has improved; and proteges have obtained an enhanced understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. For the long term, it is hoped that the assessment instruments will show increased communication support and increased success competencies for program participants.

Biographies

Susan Kogler Hill

Susan Kogler Hill has over 25 years experience in the field of Communication as a teacher, researcher, and organizational consultant. For the past 10 years, she and a team of researchers have been investigating mentoring and other forms of communication support and their impact on career success. In 1990, Dr. Hill teamed up with her co-author George Gant to develop the exciting mentoring program outlined in this case study. Dr. Hill has published a book in the field of interpersonal communication and has published numerous articles and chapters in communication focusing on mentoring, support, and power-gaining strategies. Currently, Dr. Hill chairs the Communication Department at Cleveland State University. She received her B.A. and M.A. degrees from Bowling Green State University and her Ph.D. from the University of Denver.

George Gant

For 35 years, George Gant worked in industry in a variety of technical, managerial, and human resource roles. He currently serves as a consultant focusing on creating the Ideal Human Organization. In 1990 he lead an inter-company team of managers in the development of a unique mentoring program for early career African-American employees. In 1997, he quantified and adapted this process to improve the skills and employee satisfaction of women in corporations. Positive changes resulted at the 95% confidence level. In 1998 he co-authored a booklet on mentoring and other developmental support processes which received the Athena Award for excellence in mentoring publications. He holds Master degrees in chemistry and business administration and completed the PMD for executive managers at Harvard. George has several patents and publications.

References

(1.) Alleman, E., I. Newman, H. Huggins and L. Carr. "The Impact of Race on Mentoring Relationships," International Journal of Mentoring, 1(2), Autumn 1987, 20-23.

(2.) Bahniuk, M.H., S.E.K Hill and H.J. Darus. "The Relationship of Power-Gaining Communication Strategies to Career Success," Western Journal of Communication, 60(4), Fall 1996, 358-378.

(3.) Chao, GT., P.M. Waltz and P.D. Gardner. "Formal and Informal Mentorships: A Comparison on Mentoring Functions and Contrast with Nonmentored Counterparts," Personnel Psychology, 45, 1992, 619-636.

(4.) Dobos, J., M.H. Bahniuk and S.E.K. Hill. Power-Gaining Communication Strategies and Career Success," The Southern Communication Journal, 57, 1991, 35-48.

(5.) Downs, C., with S.E.K. Hill, M.H. Bahniuk and D. Rouner. "Mentoring and Communication Support Scale." In R.B. Rubin, P. Palmgreen and H.E. Sypher (eds.), Communication Research Measures: A Sourcebook. New York: Guilford Press, 1994, 230-233.

(6.) Hill, S.E.K., M.H.Bahniuk and J.Dobos. "A Model of Mentoring and Other Power-Gaining Communication Strategies and Career Success." In L. Thayer (ed.), Organizational Communication: Emerging Perspectives III. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Co., 1994, 213-227.

(7.) Kalbfleisch, P.J. and A.B. Davies. "Minorities and Mentoring: Managing the Multicultural Institution," Communication Education, 40, 1991, 266-271.

(8.) Kram, K. E. and L.A. Isabella. "Mentoring Alternatives: The Role of Peer Relationships in Career Development," Academy of Management Journal, 28, 1985, 110-132.

(9.) Noe, R.A. "Women and Mentoring: A Review and Research Agenda," Academy of Management Review, 13(1), 1988, 65-78.

(10.) Shapiro, E., G. Haseltine and M. Rowe. "Moving Up: Role Models, Mentors, and the Patron System," Sloan Management Review, 19, 1978, 51-58.

(11.) Thomas, D.A. "Mentoring and Irrationality: The Role of Racial Taboos," Human Resource Management, 28(2), Summer 1989, 279-290.

(12.) Thomas, D.A. "The Impact of Race on Managers' Experiences of Developmental Relationships (Mentoring and Sponsorship): An Intra-Organizational Study," Journal of Organizational Behavior, 11, 1990, 479-492.

(13.) Thomas, D.A. and C.P. Alderfer. "The Influence of Race on Career Dynamics: Theory and Research on Minority Career Experiences." In M.B. Arthur, D.T. Hall and B.S. Lawrence (eds.), Handbook of Career Theory, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989, 133-158.

(14.) Whitely, W., T.W. Dougherty and G.F. Dreher. "Relationship of Career Mentoring and Socioeconomic Origin to Managers' and Professionals' Early Career Progress," Academy of Management Journal, 34(2), 1991, 331-351.
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Author:Kogler Hill, Susan E.; Gant, George
Publication:Review of Business
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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