Flat and Happy: How a Mentor Program Helps Build a Destination Workplace

It happens whenever I register for anything. Or attend a networking event.  Or if I’m interviewed for a story. The inevitable question: “What’s your title?” Welp, I had a succession of them early in my career, but I exchanged them 23 years ago to become a career mentor. With January as National Mentoring Month – culminating with #ThankYourMentor day on the 31st– it’s an opportune time to share how an intentional approach to mentorship can inspire team growth and happiness.

When we started our scrappy little agency with eight people back in 1995, our co-founders made the radical decision to eliminate corporate structure. It was a practical step, designed to generate teamwork, but it has proven to be prophetic, given the shift in workplace dynamics. Today Jackson Spalding is a full-service marketing communications agency, with 160 multi-generational team members, three offices in Atlanta, Dallas and Athens, and full-time talent living in eight U.S. cities. But, we still don’t have titles.

A flat structure doesn’t mean no structure. We still have team leads and operational departments. We now have a Leadership Team and an Executive Team.  We just don’t have a seven-layer cake to cut through for career success. Instead, we have mentors.

A mentorship program could be the catalyst you need to swell your preeminence, become a destination workplace and boost your employee retention. Studies show that companies, regardless of structure, that encourage an engaged, strengths-based workforce are the companies that are more productive and profitable. So, how to make the shift? Here are four areas of insight:

Mentor program

Even if your company’s organization is a bit more traditional, implementing a structured mentorship model will undoubtedly benefit the professional and personal development of your team.

  • Consider a mentor program that shifts career advancement away from the team leader to an internal career coach who works on a different team. This system helps customize career paths, reinforce culture, cross-pollinate learning and insure objectivity when it comes to the mentee’s progress.
  • Revamp your review system to measure beyond the job description. Include an assessment that ties to your mission and values and the attributes you expect. This is yet another way to protect your corporate culture and calibrate for long-term success.
  • Encourage “reverse mentoring.” This allows seasoned professionals to stay relevant in a fast-changing, digital world and gives new team members perspective. It will reduce age barriers and stimulate collaboration.
  • Mentor the mentors. Our mentor program is the framework that keeps our culture intact. But mentoring doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Jackson Spalding breaks down the learning with Mentor Small Groups that meet regularly to focus on the skills needed to be an organizational Sherpa.


Take the time to establish your organization’s vision, mission and values. Keep them alive through your words, actions and deeds.

  • Clearly outlining what your company stands for will serve as a rudder that helps everyone in your company make brand-right decisions. This will help you attract young talent who identify with your ideals.
  • Build a recruitment strategy that ties to your values. At Jackson Spalding, we go after the 5Cs: Character, Chemistry, Competence, Confidence and Class. Involve a cross-section of your workforce in the decision-making process. Seek a balance of soft and hard skills.
  • Commit to transparency. Millennials crave authenticity and gravitate to glass-box organizations. But we all perform better if we know the goal and how we’re performing against it. That means regular updates, multiple opportunities for Q&A, and offering the why behind the what. You’ll find it cuts down on the deadly rumor mill, too.

Mindset of entrepreneurialism

Regardless of how long your business has been going, it’s critical to continually evolve and stay open to internal HR innovation.

  • Picture career advancement as a jungle-gym versus THE ladder to success. If you expect people to stick around for a long time, acknowledge that they might want to explore different aspects of their strengths. Corporations like Delta Air Lines generally encourage this sort of cross-functional hop-scotching and see it as a retention strategy plus a sound business practice.
  • Facilitate career development. Organize internal learning opportunities. Jackson Spalding hosts required courses and many elective opportunities to share best practices between teams. A culture of learning creates a greenhouse where ideas can flourish.
  • Encourage problem-solving. Build an environment where anyone can suggest a better way or develop a new idea. That’s how we’ve organically grown profit centers that we never dreamed of in the beginning. Don’t turn your back on a genius idea from a twenty-something.
  • Give everyone access to the ivory tower. Encourage broad involvement in crafting your long-range planning. Planning together keeps all age groups engaged with a stake in the outcome.

Mom support

More than half of American women participate in the workforce. In fact, women out-pace males now in college completion. So, why are more women leaving the workforce after having babies? We’ve found that a few simple ideas can stem the brain-drain.

  • Create a Mom’s Group where working moms can share information. Ours meet monthly, rotating hosting responsibilities. Topics range from sleep schedules to summer camps. Having a circle of support makes juggling work and life less stressful.
  • Designate a space for nursing mothers. Today’s Moms are breast-feeding longer than previous generations. Help make it easy by creating a private space where they can pump milk while staying productive. (You’ll need a place to refrigerate the stored milk.)
  • Consider proposals for flex schedules and work-sharing. I’m still here working fulltime today because JS allowed me to work a four-day week, and later an 8:30 to 3 p.m. schedule when my children were little.

In the mid-80s, Huey Lewis and the News sang that it was “Hip to be Square.” Thirty years later, I’m a believer that if you take these insights to heart, “flat’s where it’s at.” Have you tried other ways to build an engaged workforce?  I’d love to hear your ideas!