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Your Executives Don't Know Everything: 4 Ways to Mentor Senior Employees

Suzanne Lucas

Founder, Evil HR Lady

When I was a child, it never once occurred to me that my parents didn't know everything. I mean, sure, they didn't understand what it was like to be in high school (because they were "so old"), but they obviously knew how to handle car repairs, when to see the doctor, and how to handle my rebellious siblings. (I, of course, was perfect.)

Then I became an adult—and learned that most of adulthood is just winging it.

Children have a whole group of people assigned to them to help them succeed—parents, teachers, older siblings, cousins—but adults either need to figure it out themselves or seek out their own mentors. The working world reflects this progression: Companies have all sorts of mentoring programs and succession planning programs for entry-level to middle management employees, but once you make the senior team, everyone kind of abandons you.

It's the equivalent of saying, "Hey, you're an adult now! You're on your own."

But it's time for that to change. It's expensive for a company to lose an executive—replacing a senior leader comes with a long recruitment phase and can cost up to 213 percent of the employee's salary—and yet, we don't worry about their retention and development.

Think about that for a minute—HR is in the business of helping employees succeed, but we see executives as already having succeeded. If you're the new CFO, how much help do you really need? Well, actually, a lot.

Here's how HR can better meet the development needs of senior staff:

1) Understand what motivates senior employees

First, it's important to understand that senior executives have goals and dreams just like the shiny new grad in that entry-level role. In fact, many of them are craving mentorship.

Global executive search and talent advisory firm Egon Zehnder recently polled 1,275 senior execs on their professional development. More than 30 percent of the execs said their companies were not helping them achieve their professional potential and 72 percent stated that they would welcome more help from their companies.

Another study from the firm looked at what motivates executives, and personal growth and development ranked at 45 percent—tied for second place in the list of motivators.

2) Make sure they receive feedback—positive and negative

While it's absolutely true that some senior people believe they walk on water and get angry if anyone says otherwise, most people want to know how they can improve. Don't let your CEO skip his annual review from direct reports, and encourage your board to give feedback to the CEO. This information helps a person grow, even when they are at the top of the ladder.

3) Provide professional coaching

A great HR person can often provide professional coaching herself, but when you get into the senior levels, it might be best to find an executive coach. It's easy to hook your junior accountant up with someone more senior for mentoring, but it's not so easy for the higher levels. A few executive coaching sessions are far cheaper than turnover at those high levels.

4) Encourage a stronger role in company culture

Sometimes, the need for more development comes down to a stronger involvement in company culture in general. Beyond a specific management role, involving execs in culture exposes them to new challenges and learning opportunities. The senior HR person should encourage the senior team to focus on making the company a better place. Remind them that they can make a difference through simple things, like treating employees fairly, complying with laws such as FMLA, being an example of a great manager and introducing fun events or team activities.

Whatever you do, don't assume that an executive has all of the support he or she needs. They're just humans, too.

Photo: Creative Commons

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