Creating a Culture of Mentoring and Development

Peer Practices
Written by Linda Luty

Virginia Means

Chief People Officer

United Distributors

Building and fostering a workplace culture centered around organic mentorship and continual learning is something all HR professionals look to do in their organizations. 

Virginia Means, chief people officer at United Distributors, believes that “leadership is about inspiring and encouraging others by building a positive environment where employees can thrive.”

A workplace culture of mentorship can be a fluid concept. From formal programs to organic mentor/mentee relationships, there is no one “correct” way to integrate this into your company’s culture. There are many ways an organization can structure relationships to drive better outcomes for high-performers and the organization.

Pearls of Wisdom

Means likes to use “pearls of wisdom” when discussing mindsets which can help leaders and individual contributors to learn and grow. 

Some of her favorites? “You only have so many arrows in your quiver, so use them wisely. When using your head to do what's best for your organization, don't forget to have a heart as a leader. Hire people smarter than you. Never stop improving.”

There will always be conflict and disagreements in the workplace “because not everybody agrees every day. And that's a good thing. It helps us move forward. You do have a voice, but be careful how you use that voice and carefully choose the times when you decide to battle.  After all, you only have so many arrows in your quiver,” says Means.

Impacts of the global pandemic will be felt for years to come and businesses have had to make some tough decisions about the future of their workforce, says Means. “So, you’ve made a tough decision and done what’s right for the business and on paper. But as you're communicating those decisions that impact others, don't forget to have a heart.”

Humility is important as a leader, and it takes a lot of humility to hire people smarter than you. But, as Means explains, “The level of the sea rises when you bring on great team members. And if you are creating an environment through your leadership style that really cultivates collaboration, teamwork and innovation, hiring people smarter than you is only going to make the level of the sea rise that will help the team be more successful.”

A little humility goes a long way, and a leader shares the spotlight.”


“When a leader is comfortable crediting others, it might seem a little bit counterintuitive, but being humble takes more confidence than basking in the glory.”

All great leaders possess the thirst for knowledge and growth. The concept of “never stop improving” is easy to understand and is about mindset, says Means. “Seek ways to optimize knowledge and growth in various aspects of your life, whether it's personally or professionally.”

Mentoring is a Gift

The ability to mentor someone and contribute to their career growth is a gift to both mentor and mentee. 

“At United Distributors, we don't have a formal mentoring program, but mentoring occurs in our organization every day. And this runs deep — throughout our culture. We leverage the career lattice concepts in our multiple lines of the enterprise which gives associates the opportunity to be mentored by leaders in various business divisions,” says Means.

Any successful, sustainable initiative needs to be embedded in the culture, so many “mentoring programs” may not have the intended impact, explains Means. “Programs in companies are like muscles in the body. If muscles are used, they tend to get stronger. If not used, they atrophy. Mentoring programs are the same – a thoughtful, nicely designed program will not positively impact your organization unless it is regularly exercised. It’s important that mentoring is not just a reflex – like when the doctor pings the mallet on your knee once a year for your physical, rather it’s best for mentoring to be an instinct – a natural intuition to look for opportunities to develop others.”

“A mentoring culture is a great one to experience because people feel free to ask questions and, as a result, receive valuable advice and coaching along the way,” she continues.

And a solid mentoring foundation is intrinsically tied to leadership development. That’s why United Distributors eschews the career “ladder” in favor of the “lattice.” By creating cross-functional teams of high-potential talent to collaborate and execute critical business strategies for the organization, they offer significant development opportunities and find that cross divisional peer relationships are formed and strengthened.

“The purpose of mentoring is about development. It's about learning; not necessarily teaching, but learning. In an ideal mentoring relationship, both the mentors and those who are mentored grow from the experience,” says Means.

Speaking to what makes their learning and development program different from other organizations, Means explains, “Most organizations call it learning and development. We call ours ‘Performance Optimization.’” By continuing to focus on optimizing performance and developing their associates, United Distributors has created a culture of promotion from within, which signals to internal professionals that they have the opportunity to grow within the company. Through intentional succession planning, most leadership roles are filled from within.

“Sometimes we also look for people to move laterally within the organization, so they can gain development that allows them to be a better leader long term. Seeing the enterprise from a different perspective and learning the vernacular, idiosyncrasies, demands of various business units, etc. All insight which can develop stronger leaders and ultimately, we believe, better mentors,” Means explains.

In closing, Means shares some thoughts on how to create a true culture of mentorship and continual learning: “Your heart needs to be in it to provide others with growth opportunities; by sharing your own experiences so that they don't stub their toes in the same places that you did – or at least they don’t stub them quite as hard….”

“After all, Socrates mentored Plato, Plato mentored Aristotle, Aristotle mentored Alexander the Great and Alexander the Great established the largest empire the ancient world has ever seen.  I don’t think they had a formal mentoring program back then. The point: mentoring has been around for a long time and helped change the world.  

“The bottom line: you don’t have to have a formal program or need to be a genius in order to be a mentor, just be willing to pass on your experience by sharing your time and talent.”


Special thanks to Virginia Means and United Distributors.

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