Unlocking Success through Mentorship

Unlocking Success through Mentorship: Insights from the 2023 SHRM Foundation Mentor of the Year

RealHR Founder and CEO Susan Kreeger discussed mentoring in HR with RealHR Consultant Conor Hughes, recipient of the 2023 SHRM Foundation Mentor of the Year Award.


First, congratulations on receiving the SHRM Foundation’s 2023 Mentor of the Year Award. Why did you decide to become a mentor?

With this program, I received an invite from the SHRM Foundation to see if I would be interested in participating. But in general, I like to maintain mentor and mentee relationships because I’ve gotten so much from mentors of mine in the past that I want to pay it forward.

I grew professionally from a place where I didn’t think I could do much and questioned my abilities. Over the years, I’ve realized this is not true, and I know it’s something other people battle with. I want to help empower other people.

Your mentee, Shawn, came to HR from a non-traditional background. In the article by SHRM announcing the award, Shawn mentions that your transition into HR from another career was a connection point for you. Tell us a little about your unique professional background and how it contributes to your work in HR.

I have a very diverse background in terms of career path. I have a very diverse background in terms of career path. I’ve had experience working in finance and worked for many years as an actor, doing a lot of TV and film. Outside of that, I had my marketing firm and worked in sales. With HR, that was the natural blend of all of these and the professional expression of what I loved so much about my time acting.

When I was an actor, I got to be a voice for the voiceless—that was my mantra as an actor. I wanted to tell stories for underrepresented communities and marginalized individuals. It was storytelling. It was human behavior. It was motivation. With Human Resources and people management, it felt like the professional expression of that. It felt like a great fit.

My diverse background helped me gain the skills to understand and interpret different experiences and how skills are transferable. The skills I gained in working in other areas lend themselves well to what I do now, whether motivating employees, displaying executive presence, or coaching executives.

How did you incorporate Shawn’s experience into the guidance you were giving him? 

With Shawn, I leaned in to understand his skills and how they could apply to HR. His background was theological, and people might think that’s very specific and niche. Still, we spent a great deal of time understanding how his experiences lent themselves to what he does now and what skills he can now offer in Human Resources. At the monastery, Shawn did event organization and outreach. He had to understand how to talk to people and have organizational skills. He used many skills that he thought were very specific to that world, but we explored how they apply to other areas. My background allowed me to be able to do that for him.

Have you been a mentee yourself? If so, what was that like, and how did that influence the way you mentor others?

Early on, I did not have a mentor and did everything independently. At a point in my life, I realized that I needed guidance from somebody else to continue growing and getting to the next level. And when I got to the place where I was actively seeking out a mentor, it was very uncomfortable. I felt like I was annoying these professionals that I looked up to, but I realized that I needed to get out of my comfort zone and be vulnerable—I knew I didn’t have all the answers. It was a humbling moment.

Reaching out to mentors was uncomfortable, but it was also fantastic. I had former bosses that I would reach out to and say: I want to grow and develop. Please give me some extra work or teach me how you do things. From there, it grew into reaching out to my professional network and tapping somebody on the shoulder who I never met in person, saying that I would love to sit down and chat for an hour.

Did you meet with many “no’s” when you approach people?

Sure, a few. But more so in that it wasn’t necessarily a direct no. It was a “We’re not aligned right now; I’m not the person you need right now.” And they would help redirect me to someone else. For the most part, people enjoy sharing their knowledge and trying to help others grow, particularly in Human Resources.

Shawn says in the article that you emphasized building a relationship outside of the specific program and timeframe in which you two initially connected—that you saw this as an ongoing project and rapport. What is the arc of a mentoring relationship—what kind of support do you provide early on, and how does that transition as both mentor and mentee advance over time and perhaps throughout a career? 

My philosophy is that mentorship is a long-term engagement. You’re building more than just a professional relationship. Everything is connected in our lives. When Shawn and I started, it was about making sure I was accessible to him. Anytime something pops up, give me a call. Even after three months of the official mentorship, if you want another resume review or want to talk about a position you’re interviewing for, if you’re dealing with something at work and you don’t know how to approach it, I’m here for you. I wanted to make sure I was accessible to him.

Shawn was very receptive to that. Our initial relationship was structured for about three months through SHRM. We would meet twice a month, once with me and Shawn, and then once with others. After three months, we concluded the formal part of the relationship, but we’ve continued the relationship less formally and still talk to this day.

What is the importance of mentorships in HR, and how can we build them into the profession and the workplace?

I have strong views about that. In HR, we know how difficult talent acquisition is right now. Employers are focusing on retaining and empowering their employees. It’s challenging to recruit new talent, and it’s also costly. Investing in your employee’s professional development and growth is one way to address that. Based on exit interviews I’ve done over the past six or seven months, people are leaving jobs for other opportunities where they can grow. If we can help our employees lay out a plan with professional development and career growth, that would reduce the amount of turnover. If a business takes the time to invest in a mentorship program, you provide a pathway for employees to grow within the company. They’re seeing their future here with you, but you’re also seeing more engagement from that employee.

How do you think being remote has impacted mentoring?

Mentorship is more critical now than it was before remote work. In the past, you could organically develop these crucial relationships by seeing people a couple of times throughout the day—you meet at the water jug, or you’re in the break room, and you start to build relationships. But we don’t have that opportunity in the remote workforce, so implementing a more formal, structured mentorship program is even more important. It leads to increased engagement instead of employees feeling isolated while working in silos remotely. Mentoring is something we can do to make sure that we’re still maintaining that human connection. I think it’s important for employers with a remote workforce to invest in this.

And it’s interesting, too, that for so many of our clients who have hybrid or fully remote workforces, I’m seeing that they’re assigning buddies as part of their onboarding process for new employees. For the first three months, somebody will walk them through things and be the person to go to for questions. But there’s no reason to stop after three months, necessarily. That relationship can continue to grow or can be reassigned. Having the philosophy that you’re not alone and have a person to go to is essential.

What role do organizations like SHRM play in encouraging mentoring, and what is up to companies and individuals in that process?

The mentorship program SHRM has right now is a great model for what organizations can build into their own cultures. I sit on the Westchester Human Resource Management Association (WHRMA) board. The WHRMA board has recognized the importance of mentorship and is building out a mentorship program for the local community, which is structured after what SHRM has already been doing.

It would be great to create opportunities for more conversations about the importance of mentorship and highlight some of the benefits people have experienced through a mentoring relationship. We could also point to some data-driven decisions that organizations could make regarding turnover rates and employee engagement when it comes to mentorship programs. How much success is impacted by having critical relationships within the organization, and how we can leverage that for every organization? It would be great to embed the idea of mentorship and sponsorship into workplace culture in general, not just a specific company.

What advice would you give a person starting in HR, to build their career and connect with other professionals to develop a mentor relationship?

It’s important to know that it will initially feel uncomfortable, and that’s very natural. Don’t stop at a no; find somebody else if it’s not the right fit.

Part of the reason I became interested in HR is that I want every single person, every single employee, to feel that they belong and that what they have to say and contribute matters.

As an actor my mantra was to be a voice for the voiceless. And over time in HR, my mantra has shifted from being a voice for the voiceless to empowering others to use their voice and build their future. For me, that’s what mentorship is all about. And touching on something you said earlier, most people like to help other people if they can. And they want to be asked.