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."

Leadership is also about spotting prospects and their eventual successors, a task that Fedak and other executives say they relish. O'Leary-Gill was once so impressed with a young auditor who helped out on a project that she told her, "Someday, I'm going to work for you."

Mentorship is primarily a teacher-to-student relationship, but at Harris it can also be peer-to-peer, even at the executive level. Judith Rice, 53, took on a mentor three years ago when she joined Harris as the vice president of government relations. You wouldn't think the former treasurer for the city of Chicago and former top aide to Mayor Richard Daley would need hand-holding, but Rice was happy to accept Costello's offer of an executive coach to "work with me on making the transition" from public service, says Rice. "That was a form of mentoring...just to let me know that this culture is welcoming you, and for you get to know people here quickly."

Rice, too, has taken on mentoring roles now that she's been elevated to senior vice president of community affairs and economic development-not just the women at Harris, but also to many community groups and organizations where she can share her experiences as an African-American leader in both the private and public sector.

Fedak also reaches out beyond Harris' walls to mentor women professionals, in particular those working for many of Harris' partner organizations, like the Chicago Bulls. "We have meetings and outings together, to talk about sports marketing for women," says Fedak. Even former Chicago athletes have approached Fedak and Harris to meet with their college-age or young-adult daughters for professional guidance, she says.

Many newcomers to Harris, such as several women who came over from the failed Amcore Bank after Harris acquired it in April, are eager to participate in speed mentoring and other get-acquainted meetings. What many Amcore veterans found was that Harris' mentoring programs, particularly speed mentoring, offered help not just for beginners, but also for many women in the mid- or latter stages of their careers.

"What I love about [speed mentoring] is the diversity of people who come to the meetings," says O'Leary-Gill, 45. "You get everyone from the entry-level administrative assistant...[to] someone at the end of their career looking for a transition."

O'Leary-Gill has been a participant since the speed-mentoring program was launched in March 2009 as a pilot for expanding women's career options, before being shifted to an all-access program that is open to all employees, men included.

"It makes mentoring accessible to our entire employee population," says Drake, and makes them think harder about their potential-and the possibilities.

The Make-up
Corporate Officers: 1,766
Women Corporate Officers: 873
Percent women: 49.4%

Management/Operating Committee Members: 65
Women Management/Operating Committee Members: 23
Percent women: 30.3% 

The Power Players
Ellen Costello, President and CEO
Pamela Piarowski, CFO
Pamela Salaway, Chief Risk Officer
Cynthia Ullrich, SVP, Commercial Banking
Judith Rice, SVP, Community Affairs
Julie Curran, SVP, West District
Barbara Dirks, SVP, Micro-Business
Deirdre Drake, SVP, Human Resources
Justine Fedak, SVP, Marketing
Daniela O'Leary-Gill, SVP, North District

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.