Mentoring’s Long Reach

Tags: Education & Careers

A mentor's advice and attention can make a world of difference to professionals trying to rise to the top of the logistics field. Here's how three companies in the industry help their employees scale new heights.

Mentoring can change lives. Just ask Karen Liu. At a job interview 13 years ago, import manager Liu was so nervous she could barely speak. Born and raised in China, Liu was new to the United States, and had little confidence in her English skills or her knowledge of American business practices. She was sure she had flubbed the interview.

But her soon-to-be boss Kathy Hogan — who now runs Primary Freight Services, a Rancho Dominguez, Calif.-based third-party logistics provider she founded with her brother, John Brown — saw that what Liu lacked in self confidence, she made up for with industry knowledge. In China, Liu worked in logistics positions for an electronics manufacturer and a freight forwarding company, so she was well-versed in import and export functions. Hogan felt that with a little mentoring, Liu could be an excellent asset to her team.

"When I met Karen, she had little experience in the American work environment," explains Hogan. "But her answers to my interview questions showed she possessed an understanding of the logistics industry that is not easy to find. I went with my instincts and hired her."

Today, Liu is the vice president of import operations for Primary Freight, overseeing a 10-person staff in three different U.S. offices. She credits her transformation from nervous neophyte to company leader to the mentoring she has received from the brother-sister entrepreneurial duo.

"At the interview with Karen, I was so nervous and out of my comfort zone that I did not present myself very well," Liu explains. "At any other company, I don't think I would have gotten the job. John and Kathy gave me an opportunity, and it changed my life."

The first stage of Liu's mentoring involved accompanying Brown on sales calls to the firm's Chinese clients. The visits served a dual purpose: the clients enjoyed being able to speak with someone in their native tongue, and the meetings introduced Liu to American sales tactics in a familiar environment.

Hogan and Brown also recommended reading materials to help round out Liu's business knowledge, and sent her to Dale Carnegie Training seminars, which "taught me how to approach and interact with people in a professional manner," she says.

Hogan also worked closely with Liu to improve her communication skills. Although Liu was fluent in English, she struggled with the idiosyncrasies of business jargon and email communication. "My English was purely translated from Chinese, and that didn't always work," Liu explains. "Kathy would review my emails and suggest improvements. Gradually, I learned what made sense and what didn't."

Eventually, the confidence Hogan and Brown displayed in Liu's abilities came to fruition, and today Hogan calls Liu "one of our best employees." For her part, Liu is putting the mentoring she received to use with the employees who report to her.

"I want to share what I learned from John and Kathy with the people on my team. I try to guide my staff to do things the right way, but I want them to know how to handle mistakes and what to learn from those experiences," Liu says. "Kathy and John did not micromanage me, so I don't want to do that to my staff."

MAKING MENTORING WORK

The fact that the mentoring experience has come full circle for Liu is not lost on Hogan. Primary Freight strives to provide an atmosphere where employees learn from management and one another — an approach that is not just good for morale, but also for business.

"Providing a nurturing environment for employees helps them grow, but also helps our company grow," Hogan notes. "Mentoring has helped us keep turnover low. We started the company with five people 12 years ago, and those people all still work for us."

Mentoring is one of the best ways to help businesses foster an inclusive feeling that promotes loyalty, says Diane Cooper, professor of counseling and human development services at the University of Georgia. "Organizations should strive to instill a sense of belonging and fulfillment in employees," she explains. "Mentoring relationships can help achieve that."

How best to promote mentoring relationships? Stand back and let them occur naturally.

"You cannot dictate a mentoring relationship. Both parties must want to be involved," Cooper says, explaining that formal mentoring programs are not always necessary for businesses to help employees grow and develop.

"Creating an environment where mentoring can occur is key," she says.

Cooper's comments reflect the mentoring philosophy at AB Transport, a Cedar Rapids, Iowa-headquartered logistics and transportation company started in 2001 by Shawn Leonard. The company views mentoring as a natural and essential part of everyday operations.

"Passing on knowledge has always been important to me," Leonard says. "It's our mission to mentor employees so they learn and succeed."

AB Transport employees' mentoring experience begins on day one. The company provides a two- to three-day "basic training" orientation program for all new hires. Because the company recruits new employees from all backgrounds — and often fresh out of college — it is important to make sure they receive a basic understanding of the logistics sector, says Leonard.

After that, employees fall "organically" into an atmosphere where everyone is a mentor. "When we hire a new employee, everybody helps out and teaches them the ropes, answers any questions, and deals with problems or issues," Leonard explains. "It is a team effort."

MAPPING OUT SUCCESS

James Rutledge, who joined AB Transport 18 months ago and is now general manager, confirms the wisdom of the company's approach to mentoring.

"When I started here, I didn't know my left from my right, but within months I understood exactly what I was doing," Rutledge says. "All the company's operations were clear to me because of the mentoring I received from my colleagues and managers."

Once employees are up to speed, the company maintains that mentoring spirit through weekly one-on-one meetings. Employees set up meetings with their managers, create the agenda, and lead an open discussion. As a result of these meetings, employees and managers devise an individual growth and development plan.

Another way that AB Transport fosters an atmosphere of team mentoring is by having its managers forgo private offices. Maintaining an open physical space translates into an open environment where employees and managers feel like they operate on the same team, Leonard says.

"If I'm hiding in an office, I can't mentor employees as easily or be there to answer questions and fix mistakes," adds Rutledge. The set-up also promotes an efficient office and provides everyone an opportunity to learn all aspects of the overall business.

For Rutledge, the company's training approach — which stresses timeliness and attention to detail — has also rubbed off on his personal life.

"We are in an expedited business, so it is extremely important for us to be on time and make sure that our jobs are done according to plan," he says. "I've taken that approach now in my own life. I am more focused on my goals, and I am never late."

In the multifaceted world of logistics, it can be easy to overlook the importance of mentoring — but that mistake could cost your company dearly, says Herb Cohan, senior vice president for AIT Worldwide Logistics, a transportation firm with locations in 37 cities around the globe.

"A company's people are its most important assets," Cohan says. "If you don't have people who care about what they do, and you don't care about them, your turnover rate is going to be high." For him, mentoring is a big part of getting people to care about their jobs.

At AIT, mentoring has become second nature, says Cohan. The company's open-door policy means anyone can drop by Cohan's office to seek advice and counseling. He also frequently conducts impromptu group mentoring sessions, gathering together eight to 10 new recruits to share with them the history of the company and the passion that has driven the firm to success.

"These meetings create a foundation for communication in a team-building environment, while enforcing AIT's core values," Cohan says.

A 24/7 RELATIONSHIP

As someone who has mentored many individuals throughout his career, Cohan advises people to find a mentor who is truly committed and available at all times. "If a person is acting as a mentor for the purpose of putting it on their resume, get rid of them," he cautions. "Find someone who is available to you any time, seven days a week."

That anytime-anywhere mentoring is exactly what Cohan has provided to Lorri Fairchild, who independently owns and operates AIT's Detroit office. Fairchild first met Cohan in 1989 when she was a cargo account executive with United Airlines. Detecting her entrepreneurial spirit, Cohan eventually recruited her to manage AIT's Detroit branch.

"Herb has always been available to talk with me anytime, day or night," says Fairchild. "I may not always get the answer I want to hear, but I trust it will be an honest and sincere answer based on years of personal and professional experience."

Fairchild also credits Cohan's "balanced and objective" input with helping her to become a better decision maker, learning to trust her instincts, and understand the importance of listening to both sides of an argument.

"You've got to know in your heart that you are giving employees everything you can — your knowledge, your time, your passion, and your experience," Cohan notes. "That's what makes a great mentor."