Leadership Matters
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By Carmen Klein and Glain Roberts-McCabe

We know those who feel connected to others within their workplace are more engaged and are more likely to stay with a company. Connecting with others is also one of the best ways to learn and grow… through watching, listening, sharing, asking and debating.

At Maple Leaf Foods (MLF), we focus on learning and growing through real work experiences, supported by feedback and coaching. We also continually look for ways to build and support connections as a way to provide on-the-job support. 

In 2013, MLF piloted a peer mentoring program to explore a structured, yet organic and flexible, way of building peer-to-peer connections.

The pilot group
MLF’s Leadership Track is a well-established leadership development program for early talent. High potential graduates are recruited from great universities and are provided accelerated development over the first three years of their career. The lion’s share of development occurs through challenging job rotations that align to each Leadership Trainee’s (LT’s) career aspirations. To date, this has been supplemented with executive mentoring, workshops and webinars.

The program has a fantastic track record for developing leaders for the organization. The LTs are in high demand by the business, and some of MLF’s most senior leaders are program alumni.
Even with this, there was opportunity to be better.

The LTs knew what it would take to get there. It was just a matter of listening to them.
SUBHEAD: Identifying the opportunity

It was felt that there was opportunity to improve the development support to the LTs, so they were asked what they thought. Over the course of many conversations, three core needs emerged:

1. I need support on issues and development areas that matter most to me. This will help me be the best at what I do.
2. I need to connect with others. I enjoy sharing and learning from other LTs at our workshops. I would love more opportunity to do this.
3. I need development that fits my schedule. I am not always able to attend workshops due to business demands. Smaller increments that do not require travel would be make it easier for me to participate.

Current development support provided by the program was missing the bar. What was the best way to build connections that deliver timely support where it is needed most?
After some benchmarking, the program identified its solution. Most of the existing workshops were retired and a peer mentoring solution was piloted in their place.

Peer mentoring at MLF
In partnership with Glain Roberts-McCabe of The Executive Round Table, the peer mentoring sessions were designed as collaborative learning forums where LTs share their knowledge, experiences and perspectives with the objective of providing targeted, timely support for their individual development and workplace challenges.
The sessions are highly participative and the participants provide most of the content, examples and coaching. The program simply provides a light infrastructure, tools and support necessary to facilitate rich discussions.
So how do they work?

They start with the creation of cross-functional peer groups consisting of eight to 10 LTs, the optimum size for this format. The peer groups meet for a few hours every two months, with the option for either in-person or virtual participation. The calendar is owned by the respective peer group; this provides flexibility to schedule around business demands.

Each session follows a light agenda that aligns to the objectives for the program. This includes:
• Leadership & Learning Lab: Each session starts with a deep dive on a leadership skill based on development needs of the group. These are designed to provide a little bit of content and generate a lot of conversation in the form of examples, questions and ideas from the group

• Development Action Plan Spotlight: Each LT has a personal development action plan. They reflect on their progress on these plans, sharing wins, learning and struggles. They also receive peer support in achieving their personal development goals.

• Peer Coaching: LTs volunteer a pressing business issue and are coached by their peers through a problem-solving process using insightful questions, active listening and powerful suggestions. The output is a rich list of ideas and suggestions to put into action.

A trusted and capable MLF leader, typically at the director level, facilitates these sessions. This role is critical to the peer mentoring process, and the facilitators are selected carefully. Note that the emphasis is on facilitation; these leaders are not at the table as experts, but to guide the group through the learning process.

The most crucial ingredient
Many factors come together to create a great peer mentoring experience – the most crucial of these is trust. People need this to feel safe to share, without judgment. The entire experience quickly deteriorates if they do not feel comfortable contributing.

Building and sustaining trust is highly dependent on three group behaviours.

These are referred to as the “Three Cs”:
• Candor: Respectfully share experiences, thoughts and opinions and be receptive to these from others.
• Commitment: Attend every scheduled session and complete follow-up.
• Confidentiality: Maintain conversations and comments inside the immediate group.

These behaviours are considered so important to the quality of the sessions that the group commits to them in writing and may be removed from the group if they break them. Many LTs indicated that this going-in commitment accelerated their trust with the group.

Trust is monitored during each session for each group; most groups require three to four sessions to establish healthy trust levels.

The wins

In the first year since its launch, peer mentoring is exceeding expectations.
Feedback is extremely positive. The collaborative peer-to-peer approach to learning is providing relevant, just-in-time support that is individualized, meaningful and engaging. A stronger community is being nurtured. Workplace issues are being resolved.

Over and above these results, additional wins have been realized:

• LTs are building coaching proficiency before they manage a team. At MLF, this core skill is required of all people managers to build a high-performance organization.

• Senior leaders facilitating these sessions are also honing their coaching skills. They find their role to be engaging and rewarding; it is considered a great return on the personal time investment.

• The collaborative format yields more creative solutions to workplace challenges. And given that the LTs quickly discover their challenges are very similar despite very different roles, these wins are replicated across the group.

• The cross-functional groups introduce LTs to other parts of the business through those who live it every day.

• Strong cross-functional relationships are being built that will continue beyond the program.

Most important, the LTs love this format. They feel empowered to drive their own development and are excited to support that of their peers.

Making us stronger

We are now in the process of exploring opportunities to expand the peer mentoring approach to other groups across the organization.

For a relatively light investment in time, and virtually no cost to the business, these groups are achieving exactly what the organization was looking for: strong, supportive bonds with peers across the company which in turn strengthen personal leadership skills and provide timely support where they need it most.

This will have tremendous payoff for both the individual and for MLF, in the form of greater engagement, stronger performance and continued career growth.

Together, we are growing and getting stronger, person by person, and connection by connection.

Carmen Klein is director of leadership & learning at MLF, with responsibility for the organization’s leadership programs and talent processes.

Glain Roberts-McCabe is the founder and president of The Executive Roundtable and is passionate about the art of leadership and supporting ambitious mid-career leaders.

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