• November 2020

Mentoring Gains Momentum

Sioux Falls businesses see the benefits of mentorship programs

By Dirk Lammers
Greater Sioux Falls Chamber of Commerce

When Farmers Business Network (FBN) launched a mentorship program earlier this year to pair emerging talent with more experienced employees, the ag tech company realized it already had robust resources within its organization to foster professional development.

FBN simply needed to provide the conduit to get the right people connected, says Kira Dylla, the company's senior manager for learning and development.

"The feeling was, hey, we've got a lot of great experience, perspective, know-how, all of those kinds of things," Dylla says. "We should really be utilizing our own assets and our own experience and expertise to help build and develop our workforce."

Kira Dilla "We should really be utilizing our own assets and our own experience and expertise to help build and develop our workforce."
– Kira Dylla, Farmers Business Network

FBN is one of numerous companies across the greater Sioux Falls area embracing mentorship as part of a strengthened community effort to help those needing guidance. Mentorship pairs a person seeking to gain skill and knowledge with an adviser, establishing the mentor as a coach and role model to boost the mentee's performance and professional development.

Sioux Falls boasts a rich history of mentorship through the efforts of such organizations as Lutheran Social Services, Junior Achievement and The Community Outreach, but a greater community need persists. A January 2020 Augustana Research Institute study commissioned by Rotary Club of Downtown Sioux Falls found that although more than 1,800 mentors are actively engaged in mentoring relationships, more than 1,000 additional youth mentors are needed to meet demand and reduce the size of wait lists. In addition to youth mentors, there is also a need for adult, senior and other types of mentors.

The Augustana University study provided Downtown Rotary with the research to ground the creation of Sioux 52, a collaboration between the City of Sioux Falls, the service club and area nonprofits and businesses. The bold initiative seeks to amplify the importance of mentorship in Sioux Falls and its surrounding communities by bringing together 52 nonprofits and 520 businesses to add 5,200 new mentors by 2026.

Helpline Center is serving as the clearinghouse to connect potential mentees with community mentoring programs from myriad businesses and organizations. Some examples of programs include TeamMates, a school-based, one-to-one mentoring program serving grades 3 through 12, Safe Families for Children, a Bethany Christian Services program helping single mothers, and SCORE, an SBA-backed program serving entrepreneurs and small business owners.

Internal programs develop employees

Raven Industries, a Sioux Falls-based diversified technology company, has embraced internal mentorship programs in some form for eight to 10 years, but it formalized Raven's efforts in February, says Jennifer Schmidtbauer, the company's director of talent development. Their three-prong program matches new leaders with existing Raven leaders, invites employees seeking professional development to submit requests for mentors and establishes an 18-month leadership immersion cohort that pairs managers with company executives.

Raven's new-leaders program issues a mentoring playbook, provides an hour of training for both the mentor and mentee and makes sure that both parties are committed to putting in the time and effort to lead to success, Schmidtbauer says.

Jennifer Schmidtbauer "We can be that resource for them if they may be struggling with how to move a conversation along," Schmidtbauer says. "Or if they're looking for other resources that they might suggest for their mentee, we're there to help with that."
– Jennifer Schmidtbauer, Director of Talent Development at Raven Industries, Inc.

"One of the things we do is if you are looking for a mentor, we have a questionnaire and a conversation to really find out what are you hoping to get out of the relationship," she says. "And I also think it's really important to think about personalities and making sure there's a good fit there."

Once Raven's mentors and mentees begin meeting regularly, program leaders check in at one-month and three-month intervals to make sure the pairings continue to work. For the mentors, program leaders offer additional assistance from a professional development coach.

"We can be that resource for them if they may be struggling with how to move a conversation along," Schmidtbauer says. "Or if they're looking for other resources that they might suggest for their mentee, we're there to help with that."

In the Sioux Falls School District, which is the community's fourth largest employer, a district-run mentor program funded by the South Dakota Department of Education pairs new teachers with instructional coaches to improve effectiveness and boost employee retention.

Instructional coach Nancy East provides guidance to 18 Sioux Falls teachers with less than three years of experience. East makes regular visits to the classroom of Melanie Morford, a first-year instructor who teaches biology to English learners at Washington High School to observe 15 to 20 minutes of one of Morford's lessons. The pair will then sit and talk to reflect on common questions such as, "What's going well? And in that, where do you see evidence of student learning?" and "Is there anything you would change if you were to repeat this lesson?"

East, who taught physics at Roosevelt High School for nearly two decades, says instructional coaches make clear that they're not evaluative and are there solely to help.

"We do not talk to the principals about what we see in the classroom," East says. "We are completely separate."

Morford says she appreciates the feedback and notes that because she teaches the same content for five sections, she can make immediate adjustments to better serve her students. Receiving feedback can be difficult in any job, but she urges mentees to recognize that the goal of a mentoring relationship is always to help.

"It's really important to understand that the relationship is not about, 'You're doing a bad job' or 'You're doing a good job," Morford says. "It's about where you're at and how can we go forward and make it better."

Melanie Morford

Mentoring builds community and workforce

Sioux 52, which was introduced in January by Sioux Falls Mayor Paul Ten Haken, takes a broad view of mentorship, linking mentors to a wide range of opportunities to serve students, seniors, new immigrant families, at-risk youth, former inmates, entrepreneurs and new business owners.

BryAnn Becker Knecht, the Mayor's Office communications coordinator, has experience as both a mentee through EmBe's Women's Leadership Program and as an alumni mentor for Augustana University students. She says one-on-one connections can improve our community one person at a time, and the opportunities are open to anyone.

"The beauty of this is it's a communitywide initiative and anyone can participate," Becker Knecht says.

The Sioux 52 Mentoring Initiative is a perfect fit for Downtown Rotary's 300 members, most of whom are business leaders, says Tony Burke, an LSS disaster response project manager, training and support coordinator who's leading the club's efforts. Sioux 52 exemplifies Rotary's principal motto of "Service Above Self" and aids the business community by:

  • Engaging employees, providing opportunities for skill building and improving retention
  • Developing a future talent pipeline by preparing young people for college and careers
  • Strengthening community understanding, one relationship at a time

Such efforts also contribute to the community's workforce development efforts, Burke says.

"When we talk about workforce development, a lot of times we focus on trying to bring people back to South Dakota," he says. "However, there's a population in South Dakota that are very capable to work and need support. They need somebody to come alongside them."

Downtown Rotary's first-year goal is to recruit 200 participating businesses by July 2021, asking companies to embrace mentoring and inspire employees to participate by offering such benefits as flexible schedules or paid volunteer time off.

Mentoring advocates say any business can create a program regardless of size or budget.

Employees stay invested and engaged

Burke says the research for Sioux 52 shows that businesses get a more engaged workforce and a greater morale boost by investing in their employees' personal and professional development. Nobody embarks on a life journey alone, he says, though the help and guidance we receive is not always formally classified as mentorship.

"We are all in our community understanding that we've all had mentors in our lives," Burke says. "We may not have called them a mentor, but it's about somebody that's come alongside of us to help us in times that are tough, help us in times that are good, help us make decisions or help us just be able to be heard."

Dylla points out that mentorship programs don't have to be cost prohibitive.

When Farmers Business Network launched its pilot program, coordinators focused on building a sustainable framework rather than spending a bunch of money on extra resources. To better ensure success, program leaders instituted a blind selection and matching process, limited pairings to six-month commitments and trained mentees to drive the program by setting their own goals, Dylla says.

FBN's 10 mentees indicated in their final survey that being blindly selected from a pool of some 30 candidates boosted their confidence and thus made them more committed to the program. Many of the mentor-mentee pairs continue to meet informally, but FBN is sticking with the six-month timeframe it set on the formal relationships as that limit makes it easier for potential mentors to commit, she says.

The company also used its diversity to its advantage. FBN is both job-function diverse, with engineers, data scientists, crop marketers, HR administrators and IT techs, and geographically diverse, with a corporate headquarters in San Carlos, California, its largest office in Sioux Falls and other locations across the globe. That diversity allowed program leaders to pair mentors and mentees cross-departmentally, helping to expose employees to the company's other business units and proving the psychological safety of not having to pair with someone within their own department, Dylla says.

One of the pairings connected a data scientist who sought to better understand FBN's business operations with a business expert, who wound up benefiting from learning another aspect of FBN's operation.

"It really ended up being … this great knowledge exchange between two people," Dylla says.

Schmidtbauer says one of the keys to success of Raven's program is that it asks mentees to be specific about what they want to get out of their mentorship so the mentor can help them reach those goals. The aim is to establish a personal and professional relationship based on trust so both mentor and mentee can be vulnerable and share candid conversations. Part of the expectation is set in Raven's six team-member values, which include humility and authenticity.

"We've already set the expectation that for both the mentor and the mentee that you'll be vulnerable and you'll share, and this is a safe space and we're going to be real with each other," Schmidtbauer says. "I think that emphasis on being genuine and authentic also gives us some really nice results."

Sioux 50

About Sioux 52

What is the Sioux 52 Mentoring Initiative?
Sioux 52 is a universal connection point for our community's mentoring efforts. It is not an organization, but rather, it is a movement to fill a mentoring gap felt by well-established nonprofit organizations in the greater Sioux Falls region.

Why is the Sioux 52 Mentoring Initiative important?:
Sioux 52 is a universal, widespread, significant and long-lasting commitment to mentoring in our area — asking individuals to give a little time to help make our community better, one relationship at a time. It is a way to put more people on the path to success through one-to-one or one-to-many relationships.

If my business joins the Sioux 52 Mentoring Initiative is there any cost to my bottom line?:
No, there is no direct cost.

As a business, what are the benefits of encouraging mentorship?:
There are three key benefits:

  • Engages employees, providing opportunities for skill building and improving retention
  • Develops a future talent pipeline by preparing young people for college and careers
  • Strengthens community understanding, one relationship at a time

Is the Sioux 52 Mentoring Initiative only adult mentors mentoring youth?
Previously served on the YPN Steering Committee and Issues Management Council, board liaison to the Business Leadership Council, and graduate of Leadership Sioux Falls class 25.

Community involvement: No, Sioux 52 connects businesses and mentors to youth, adults, families, and senior mentoring programs.

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