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Aagard hopes program will create long-time employees — and perhaps lifelong friendships

The Alexandria-based company decided to upgrade to a more comprehensive and enduring mentorship program. About 40 of the company’s 280 employees are mentors who are assigned up to two new hires for six months.

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Nathan Zierden, left, and Chad Butke partner with one another in Aagard’s mentorship program.<br/>
Contributed photo from Enterprise Minnesota
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Editor's note: The following story was printed in Enterprise Minnesota Magazine, summer 2022 edition. It was written by Amanda Dyslin and is reprinted here, with permission.

ALEXANDRIA — In 2020, Nathan Zierden was hired at Aagard as an intern and assigned a buddy — a more senior employee — to help him gain his footing and orient him to the company and new position.

At the time, Aagard, an Alexandria-based engineering company that builds custom packaging automation systems, paired new hires with current employees for only a couple of weeks. Drawing on that earlier program, and mindful of worker retention and quicker proficiency challenges, Sharlo Meyer, director of human resources and organizational development, says the company decided to upgrade to a more comprehensive and enduring mentorship program.

Zierden appreciated having a “go-to colleague” for any questions that came up as he learned his role in the assembly department. That’s why, when the company launched a more formal mentorship program early this year, Zierden volunteered. The mentee was to become the mentor.

“I liked having a friend at work, someone I was comfortable going to,” Zierden says. “I wanted to be that for someone else as well.”

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The idea that took shape was to have current employees in all departments volunteer to mentor new hires for six months. A critical element to the success of the program was for mentors to receive periodic leadership training.

The program was piloted in late 2021 and formally rolled out in January. About 40 of the company’s 280 employees are mentors who are assigned up to two new hires for six months. Meyer hopes to one day have enough mentors to make this a one-to-one program.

Mentors are empowered to assist with training their mentees and orienting them to the company and its policies. “We know how overwhelming it can be to start a new job, and we want a welcoming environment for them,” Meyer says.

“New hires now have a mentor waiting for them,” says David Lamb, Aagard’s training and recruitment administrator. “The mentor’s primary responsibility is to make the new hire feel at home and build a relationship early on.”

Enter Chad Buttke, who joined Aagard’s assembly team as a new hire in February 2022. Working in the same department as Zierden, they were a natural fit for a mentee-mentor relationship. Buttke says the proximity with his mentor has made it convenient to ask questions, including a lot that pertain to the software used in the department.

Indeed, Lamb says Aagard intentionally tries to pair new hires with mentors on the same work team to improve production efficiency. The mentors also help with onboarding tips and reminders, everything from how to get reimbursed for safety boots and where to go if you break a wrench to reminders about attending afternoon company meetings.

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Aagard builds custom packaging automation systems.<br/>
Contributed photo from Enterprise Minnesota

It’s not just the new hires who benefit from the pairing. Zierden says the mentoring experience has affirmed his own understanding of the importance of processes and procedures.

Aagard reached out to Enterprise Minnesota to assist with Zierden’s and other mentors’ training. Business growth consultant Michele Neale put together a slate of sessions to accommodate Aagard’s vision for the mentorship program, including building on a curriculum she built for the company two years earlier.

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Neale’s sessions focused on social styles and versatility, which includes verbal and nonverbal communication, self-awareness and adaptability to others. Additional sessions focused on job relations and how to approach problems, job instruction and productivity, and time management.

“The mentors and prospective mentors are so eager to learn,” Neale says. “They are very insightful, very engaging. I’m just so impressed with this group.”

Neale praised Aagard for creating a company culture that focuses on employee engagement and satisfaction. Lamb says fostering that culture was a big impetus for the mentorship program. “We work hard to recruit and bring people to the company, and for the most part we do a good job of keeping them, but we wanted to improve.”

Lamb says the company wants people to stay for the long haul, to set down roots and develop lasting relationships at work. It’s too soon to know officially how the mentorship program has affected retention, Lamb says, but anecdotally all signs point to positive.

“The universal comment I’ve heard so far is, ‘Everybody’s so helpful,’” Lamb says. “Some of these mentorships could develop into lifetime friendships.”

Buttke says the experience has been great so far and that he’s also likely to volunteer to be a mentor one day.

“I got enough benefit out of it to want to give back,” he says.

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