„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 HR: consultants do not report to line managers, but engage in discussions with their in-house career advisor. The latter is an experienced colleague, at zeb referred to as a Career Development Counselor, who is available to give advice and assistance, but also candid feedback. Birgit Mentzen, co-initiator of the cultural change, answers four questions about mentoring, mentors and mentees.


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 in consulting and introduced the Career Development Counselor role (CDC) instead. In doing so, we replaced the traditional hierarchy with a network structure. We believe that staff management and development should no longer be in the same hands. As they involve various functions, the responsibility should lie with different roles within the company. A CDC is not a “boss”, but an experienced colleague who acts as a coach and mentor for the less experienced employees. CDCs are sympathetic career advisors, promoters and challengers; they are mentors who know the company well and who leverage their own network to help integrate and position their mentee. 
How are mentees matched to mentors? Who is responsible for this process?
When a consultant joins the company, we help with the initial allocation. We got to know the applicants during their interviews and developed an idea of a good match. Later on, the two of them see for themselves whether everything fits. It is always possible to change your CDC. By completing a specific training, interested Managers can qualify for the role of the 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 number in itself 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 usually need more support than experienced colleagues who might talk to their CDC only a few times a year. While we’re on the subject of speaking, a lot of contact is actually digital because of the sometimes rather heavy travel activity of the consultants and the different office locations. But I also know of CDCs who invite their mentees home for a barbecue—the relationships are often of a friendly nature. There are certainly highly diverse needs and roles in these 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 and objective assessment committees. Evaluators are Senior Managers or Partners who take a comprehensive look at the performance of an employee who is due for promotion. They obtain information from colleagues, interview project managers or other employees and review project evaluations from the past year. The final evaluation is then discussed with the CDC as a basis for defining objectives and measures for the future: In what areas can I improve? What is my next career move? CDCs are also responsible for mundane things such as approving vacation requests and ordering equipment—of course we expect mentees to have spoken to their currently responsible project manager beforehand.