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Leigh Lafever-Ayer

Enterprise Rent-A-Car UK and Ireland

HR Director

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HRD Insight: Leigh Lafever-Ayer on Enterprise Rent-A-Car’s women’s mentoring scheme


Many companies are grappling with how to help more women attain senior roles at the moment, especially since the Davies Review shone a spotlight on the shortage of women in the boardroom.

Our approach to the issue at Enterprise Rent-A-Car has been to introduce a mentoring scheme in order to focus on helping women progress through key stages of their working lives.
In fact, this is the theme of our event next Tuesday (13 March) to commemorate International Women’s Day – an event in which Cherie Blair will be talking about the key happenings in her own professional career.
But to understand the rationale behind and the impact of our mentoring programme, it is important to explain how the organisation works.
Our business model, culture and operational ethics are geared to encourage high levels of employee retention. Even though we have only operated in the UK since 1996, for example, the average length of service for directors is more than 20 years, while the average for senior managers is nearly 12.
Several factors contribute to this. The fact that we operate a decentralised model means that graduates coming in at entry level to our management training programme are both given responsibility early on as well as opportunities for rapid progression.
This means that it doesn’t take long before they are running branches as if they were their own businesses, which includes making bottom line P&L decisions. On top of the personal fulfillment that such responsibility brings, employees are also paid out of their own profits – something that creates a powerful incentive to perform.
Grabbing the bull by the horns
Moreover, because we only promote from within, staff are guaranteed to be the ones to benefit as new opportunities arise. For example, following our international expansion into France and Spain, the creation of a single general manager position in the region led to eight other promotions.
The flip side of this policy, however, is that diversity can only be addressed at the recruitment level. But we are currently edging swiftly towards parity in gender terms, with 40% of our graduate hires so far this year having been female.
Nonetheless, we also consider it vital to retain the same proportion of women as they progress through the organisation, and particularly once they reach middle management status – what we call Level II – which is typically when a lot of people start to plan a family.
The problem for us is that, if our female managers choose to leave the business, we can’t just recruit another senior woman from elsewhere. We have to go back to the beginning and grow another one from scratch.
As a result, over the years, we have developed a range of programmes in order to support our female personnel, especially at times when they typically need more flexibility than others such as maternity leave. 
But while these initiatives have been great at encouraging women to return to work after having children, it became apparent that too many females were simply not putting themselves forward for promotion at any stage in their working lives.
This means that it wasn’t possible to promote enough women to Level III and Level IV because they just weren’t applying for the positions. Therefore, we decided to grab the bull by the horns and pilot a one-to-one mentoring scheme with our Level IV directors.
We were aware that women are less likely, in a general sense, to put themselves forwards for promotion than men and that this situation wasn’t unique to our organisation. But the fact that we operate in the retail sector, where hours are longer and the work requires face-to-face customer contact, does bring with it some specific challenges.
Female mentoring
We identified, for example, that women were worried about going after promotion at times in their lives when they found work-life balance issues to be particularly challenging. Because the assumption was that they needed to simply stay put for a while, we needed to address the situation head on.
To this end, we tasked our most senior directors with identifying those women at Levels I and II whom they felt had the most potential as well as the most to gain from mentoring. We chose not to brand the initiative and did not present it as a “programme” because it is meant to be part of senior managers’ day-to-day activities.
As to how the scheme works in practice, the chosen women are teamed up with a director, who does not work with them on a day-to-day basis, to act as their mentor.
Regular discussions take place about what they need to do in order to progress to the next level; what adjustments may have to be made; how they can find solutions to work/life balance challenges and how they can best manage logistical issues that may end up creating false barriers to promotion. 
In overall terms, however, the aim is to encourage women to apply for those internal promotion opportunities that interest them.
The role of the mentors, meanwhile, is to help female middle managers understand that career progression is not incompatible with a family life. By working through problems together, the objective is to try and boost each woman’s confidence in their own ability to cope with more responsibility.
In fact, one participant, who received mentoring during her second pregnancy, was promoted to one of our most senior management positions while on her third maternity leave.
Our goal, however, is to ensure that around 55 to 60 women each quarter benefit from the scheme, which has now moved out of the pilot phase. Over the last 12 months, about 9% of the women involved have been promoted, with seven rising to Level III roles and one gaining a Level IV post.
Lessons learned
Staff retention rates are also very high at more than 95% and our latest employee opinion survey showed that our female workers are now slightly more engaged overall than their male counterparts.
As to lessons learned to date, a key one relates to candidate selection. We found that, in some cases, managers were not putting forward candidates who were ready and able to make the next step, but rather women who were suffering from performance issues and so required a different sort of support.
This meant that we had to reinforce our messaging and communicate our aims more clearly to ensure that the right candidates were being chosen.
Another challenge is that the number of women taking part will always be limited by the capacity at the top in terms of available mentors. But those mentors, in turn, also require advice and support in how best to manage sessions with mentees as well as deal with any emerging issues.
My biggest piece of advice to any organization considering whether to go down this route, however, is to keep it simple. Try to make mentoring part of day-to-day activities rather than carve it out as a special programme and be clear about your selection criteria.
Also ensure that your mentors receive adequate support – it’s a big extra responsibility for them, and not all directors are natural mentors. Our ‘promote-from-within’ culture means that everyone considers people development as their own personal responsibility, but this may not be the case in all businesses.
So focus your efforts on senior managers who have a natural affinity with mentoring or sponsorship and give them all of the help that they require.
Above all, however, make sure that suitable promotion opportunities actually exist for successful candidates. After all, it won’t help morale at all if people are groomed for great things, only to find that there’s nowhere to go. 

Leigh Lafever-Ayer is corporate HR director for UK and Ireland at hire car company, Enterprise Rent-A-Car.
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Leigh Lafever-Ayer

HR Director

Read more from Leigh Lafever-Ayer