Dozens of Harris Bank employees-perhaps up to 45-gather in a conference room. They've taken seats around a handful of senior-level bank executives, who might be outnumbered 7-to-1 at any given table.
When the bell dings, like a starter's pistol, the lower-ranked workers begin flinging questions to the exec in front of them: What should I be doing now to get a promotion? How can I get the right people to notice me? How did you get your job?
It's called "speed mentoring," and there's a reason for the rush: they have only 10 minutes before the bell rings again, prompting them to move-musical-chairs style-over to the next table. "It's similar to speed dating," says Deirdre Drake, a Harris senior vice president and head of human resources, and it is one of the most popular mentoring programs at the $43 billion-asset Harris. "Part of it is because of the fun factor," she says, "but people like it [also] because it gives them a much broader, topical range of information on their careers."
But why the hurry, and why in a group setting? As Harris leaders explain it, speed mentoring is a better way to get workers (both men and women) familiar with mentoring options and to get them in front of more execs outside their departments. Speed mentoring is also just a first step, too, among the mentoring programs and strategies that Harris has ushered in to better help develop and promote talent-and in particularly, promising young women executives-across all divisions of the U.S. arm of Canada's BMO Financial Group.
"Our challenge is to ensure...we reach those key people early in their careers," says Daniela O'Leary-Gill, senior vice president of community and business development in the north Chicagoland region. "It's important to our business...that we don't lose someone inadvertently, that someone slips through your fingers because they didn't get access to opportunities."
Harris' emphasis on guiding women, in either speedy sessions or in 6-to-10 month formal mentoring programs, stems from the top-down example set by Harris CEO Ellen Costello. A strong advocate of mentoring young women since joining Bank of Montreal in 1983, Costello takes a leading role in mentoring up-and-coming managers and encouraging them to gaining a broad range of experiences.
One of her earlier protégés, marketing and consumer strategies head Justine Fedak, credits Costello with providing her guidance on how to map out her career. Fedak, who at age 40 is now the youngest of Harris' 16 top executives, was a public relations/communications staffer at Bank of Montreal when she met Costello while profiling her for a company video on women who "broke the glass ceiling" at BMO. "I recall...she commented on BMO being a great place for women," says Fedak, a Canadian native and senior vice president of the bank.
Costello encouraged Fedak to consider lateral moves as a way to get into faster-track positions if the opportunity arose. That came when Fedak joined the marketing arm in the mid-1990s to learn the emerging art of bringing consumer goods-style branding into financial services under BMO's then-vice president of marketing, Kathie Macmillan.
Fedak today pays the mentoring lessons forward to a few of her direct reports from the examples set by Costello and Macmillan. Costello, Fedak says, used to share with her mistakes she made in order to buck up Fedak during some bad times-like the time Fedak signed off on marketing materials with the wrong 1-800 number. She's now open to sharing that story with her own mentees, even though "at one point you might think that's embarrassing, and make me seem less professional," she says. "But what you do afterward, and how you deal with the situation, that's what leadership is about."