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Out-of-this-world mentoring from an astronaut

About the author

Eric is a freelance journalist who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is formerly a writer and editor at New Times in Fort Lauderdale and The Pitch in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has been featured by  the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

(Thinkstock)

(Thinkstock)

Jeremy Hansen was in his first year at the Royal Military College of Canada when his hero, Chris Hadfield, came to town.

You might recognise Hadfield’s name from his time as commander of the International Space Station. Or maybe more likely, because you’re one of the 21 million people who have watched the “Space Oddity” video he made in zero gravity.

But even in 1995, before the astronaut became commander of the space station, Hansen saw Hadfield as everything he wanted to be: a fighter pilot and an astronaut. So Hansen asked Hadfield for his email address — and he gave it on the spot.

“That meant a lot to me,” Hansen recalled. He later emailed the astronaut to ask him what he should major in during university and got a note back urging Hansen to follow what he’s passionate about. “I assumed he was very busy, so I didn’t follow up until I had something real important to ask him. But having that line of communication was something special.”

Hansen went on to become a fighter pilot, and in 2009 the Canadian Space Agency accepted him as an astronaut. Throughout his training, his mentor along the way was Chris Hadfield.

That kind of long-term mentor bond is rare in business, but research suggests building strong mentor relationships is a major key to success. It’s not just the training that young workers get — it’s also what seasoned employees can learn from the new hire.

Nowadays, many companies have developed structured mentor programmes that pair up the newly hired with the experienced employees, sometimes even assigning multiple mentors to help with different areas of expertise.

But for managers in companies where such programmes don’t exist, it’s crucial to make sure young workers have somebody they can turn to, said Audrey Murrell, associate dean and professor of business administration at University of Pittsburgh College of Business Administration.

Many managers make the error of assuming they are the office mentor for their newbies. Sure, maybe somebody on staff will develop that kind of relationship with the boss, but it’s better to set up new hires with multiple coaches who don’t determine their next raise or bonus.

“As a manager, you are not the only source of mentoring. You have to actively work to provide mentoring for those who report to you,” Murrell said.

Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen trains for his first space mission. (NASA)

Big upside

The benefits of mentoring go beyond just training — research shows a mentor can help new workers adapt quicker to the office culture. In, say, a sales job, a mentor can help walk recruits through the ethical boundaries of poaching customers from competitors.

Since the 1990s, companies the world over have adapted mentoring programmes, but few do it better than IBM, said Murrell, who authored a book about the computer giant’s efforts. IBM’s programme was bred out of an internal survey that showed shortcomings in the training of new employees. In response, the company created resources such as podcasts, telephone directories, and “mentoring cafes” where experienced employees can meet with multiple potential mentees.

Research by the non-profit Catayst showed that everyone benefits from a mentor, although men more than women. Men with a mentor are 93 percent more likely to land a post-MBA job at mid-level or above, while women with a mentor are 56 more likely. Having a mentor also raises a man’s salary by an average of $9,260, compared to a $661 jump for women.

Even in companies with active mentor programmes, few bosses do enough to assure women and minorities are finding good support, said Danielle Moens, owner of the Centre for Balanced Leadership in Merchtem, Belgium. Often they’d prefer a mentor who has gone through similar experiences, but companies rarely take efforts to assure such mentors will be available.

“If you want to build a more inclusive and diverse company, it’s important that people have mentor opportunities with people who are like them,” Moens said.

Companies that develop successful mentor programmes will be more likely to keep talented workers, Moens said. The relationships between the young employees and their mentors will both train the less-experienced employees and and keep them from looking for work elsewhere.

Jeremy Hansen and mentor, astronaut Chris Hadfield, at NASA's neutral buoyancy lab (NASA)

Different types of relationships

Mentor relationships need to develop naturally said Moens. “When they don’t, the company needs to make a mentor is available.”

Fortunately for Hansen, he found his mentor early, and the relationship with his hero Hadfield developed naturally when he started in the Canadian Space Agency. During Hansen’s two-week training programme in Russia, Hadfield made sure Hansen knew he could ask questions and solicit guidance.

Hansen, who’s in line to head to the International Space Station sometime later this decade, is now himself in a position to serve as a mentor. Recently, Hansen had the opportunity to become a mentor himself: a teacher asked if Hansen would talk to a teenager who was doing a speech on space exploration. Hansen spoke with the student by phone and offered to keep in touch.

“It’s not just good for them to have this person to reach out to, but it’s good for me,” Hansen said. “I get to remember where I came from. And it just renews my interest and inspiration to talk to these young people who are so passionate about space.”

Your office may not be planning a trip into orbit, but a mentor programme will still help assure young talent sticks around to see the next frontier for the company.

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