„We have abolished the traditional line manager role“

Interview with Birgit Mentzen, Head of Personnel Development at zeb

At zeb, innovation is not limited to consulting, but can also be seen in the HR department: staff members do not report to line managers, but engage in discussions with their in-house career advisor. The latter is an experienced colleague, known at zeb as a Career Development Counselor, who is available to give advice and assistance, but also candid feedback. Four questions about mentoring, mentors and mentees to Birgit Mentzen, co-initiator of the cultural change. 


Ms. Mentzen, at zeb, line managers in the traditional sense no longer exist—how did that come about?
BIRGIT MENTZEN: In 2014 we abolished the traditional line manager role and introduced the Career Development Counselor role (CDC) instead. In doing so, we replaced a traditional hierarchy with a network structure. We believe that staff leadership and development should not be in the same hands. As they involve various functions, the responsibility should lie with different roles. Therefore, CDCs are not “supervisors”, but experienced colleagues who stand at a junior colleague’s side as coaches. CDCs are sympathetic career advisors, promoters and challengers, they are mentors who know the company well and who leverage their own network to help position their mentee. 
How do mentors and mentees find each other? Who is responsible for this process?
They arrange it themselves. Any Partner or Manager can become a CDC by completing the appropriate training—and all staff can freely choose their CDC. However, a CDC can only have a maximum of five mentees, as the role demands time and is performed alongside day-to-day work. We currently have 261 active CDCs of which 61 are “fully booked” so to speak; the others have one to three mentees. But the pure number is not necessarily an indicator of the quality of counseling, as some constellations have very specific subject focuses or special demands for support. 
What is the relationship between CDCs and their mentees like? How often do they speak?
That depends on the mentor of course, but also on the mentee. New colleagues often need more guidance than experienced staff members, who might only speak to their CDC twice or three times a year. Talking about speaking—due to the heavy workload and differing office locations, many meetings are held over the phone. But I also know of CDCs who sometimes invite their mentees home for dinner—the relationships are often of a friendly nature. There are certainly highly diverse needs and roles for the pairs.
And do the mentors decide whether their mentees get promoted?
No, when we abolished the role of the traditional line manager, we assigned that task to a neutral evaluator. This evaluator is mostly a Senior Manager or Partner, who informs themselves about the performance of the staff members recommended for promotion. Staff members up for promotion can however discuss the evaluation with their CDC, get their advice and define aims and measures: in which areas can I improve? What is my next career move? CDCs are also responsible for mundane things such as vacation requests and ordering equipment—of course, we expect mentees to have spoken to their responsible project manager beforehand.