Paths to WisdomWho is your mentor? It’s a question successful people get asked all the time. From actors to CEOs of major companies to hairdressers, there’s always somebody, or even a few people, behind the success story.

These extraordinary professionals acknowledge family members and friends as being supportive, but the person who mentored, advised and instructed them is usually someone in their own field.

Talk to any successful hairdresser and you will find even though they may have had an amazing experience in beauty school, a supportive family and a spouse who stuck by them through thick and thin, it is their mentor who really helped pave the path to professional success. And smart, successful salon owners know it.

Top salon owners across the country are incorporating mentoring programs into their education curriculum because they’ve seen the results—more confident employees, a more cohesive staff and management who feel empowered. But just like every salon culture is different, so is every mentoring program. SALON TODAY spoke to several owners about their formulas for creating successful mentorships in the salon and found each had a unique approach for promoting positive mentor relationships.

Creating a Program

Mentorships often develop organically from training programs already in place at the salon. Pairing up new talent with seasoned stylists is an obvious way to enhance training; however, the salon owner needs a specific plan in place before adding mentors into the mix.

At Umbrella Salon in San Jose, California, owner Kien Hoang took a structured approach to building his mentoring program—it’s built right into his education and is even a part of his three-part interviewing process. Candidates initially come in for a meet and greet, then move on to doing a hair cut or color demonstration before step three: getting paired up with another stylist, or mentor.

After a candidate is hired, they rotate with a new stylist every four months as they go through the core curriculum at Umbrella (product knowledge, technical skills, color classes, etc.). It takes a year to 18 months to complete the program, but at the end, stylists have a consistency that Hoang creates his salon culture around.

“All stylists service clients similarly across the board, use the same products and color line and get the same education,” he says. “The program keeps everyone—apprentices and veteran stylists—consistent and on the same page.”

And at the end of his program, new stylists have someone to rely on and have built good habits that foster the consistency Hoang strives to achieve at Umbrella.

Candy Shaw Codner, owner and educator at Jamison Shaw in Atlanta takes a less structured, but equally effective approach to creating her mentoring program. Although new stylists just starting out at the salon do fill out a form through the mentoring process, they meet with their mentors on their own time once a week with no specific structure.

“They talk to their mentor about any situation they may have come up—a difficult guest or hair cut, prebooking, retail—anything,” says Codner. And unlike Umbrella Salon’s formal assignment of mentors, Codner’s new stylists and their mentors find each other.

“Everyone who works for us has a two-week trial period. During those two weeks, they gravitate towards certain people. We have an in-house education director who will pair people up if they are sort of lost, but usually they find each other.”

Once a new apprentice is hired, they begin a three-tiered year-long education apprenticeship that takes them from a model program to a protégée program to a junior stylist (note: in Georgia, stylists are not required to go to beauty school, so many salons offer complete education).

Unlike other salons, a new apprentice is not paired up with a senior stylist.

“If we hire someone in January, they will end up mentoring someone new who comes in February,” says Codner. “If you taught the January person something last week, it’s fresh in their mind. A senior person isn’t going to want to teach how to shampoo—they are teaching people at their own level how to be a six-figure hairdresser, not how to fold a towel,” she adds.

Codner has found if she puts a senior person with a junior person, there will be a level of resentment.

“What makes our program vastly different is the newest person trains the next newest person. It keeps a pecking order and keeps things positive. It makes the person who takes on the new hire feel more purposeful and prideful in their job.”

But that’s not the only thing setting Codner’s program apart from others: her system also encourages people to change mentors throughout their career, so a stylist will continue to reach up to those more successful for advice and guidance.

“A $200k hairdresser is not going to be with a $55k hairdresser,” she says. “They know who to hang with to rise up to the next level of mentorship without me telling them. As they go up the ladder, they find a new partner to walk with along the way—someone who is at their level—as some stylists jump over others on their way up.”

Marc Rockquemore, owner of two New Identities locations in the Tampa area uses a structured approach to mentoring that goes hand in hand with his four- to six-month associate program.

Rockquemore prefers to hire top candidates right out of cosmetology school to go through his education. After a three-step interview process in which Rockquemore and his top educators jointly decide to hire an applicant, the new stylist is assigned to work alongside one of the top five or six educators at New Identities.

“Sometimes educators will have a couple associates they are working with, sometimes none at all,” says Rockquemore of the natural hiring fluctuation.

Each month, Rockquemore meets with the educators to go through each associate and how they are doing, forecast when they are graduating and any other issues. However, graduation is not guaranteed—only about 50 to 60 percent of associates pass the written test at the end of each of the four sections of the program. Working with their mentors/educators is key to success. Rockquemore also learned the keeping his educators on the same page is a major factor to a successful program.

“One time we had an educator who had two associates who both bombed and we couldn’t figure out why,” he says. “So with the next associate, we sent her to test out with another person, and come to find out, at least half the info wasn’t covered that the educator was supposed to be teaching.”

Rockquemore discovered the educator was cherry picking what she taught and then adding her own stuff.

“That educator hasn’t had an associate since then—three times in a row a failure—we felt like we needed to get her better grounded on our expectations.”

But out of this problem came a fail-safe solution Rockquemore relies on for consistency.   “When an associate is ready to graduate, I send them to the other location to test out with another educator,” he says. “Then we know everyone is covering the same information at same pace.”

Mentors in Chief

Rockquemore’s strategy of leading and mentoring his top educators is a technique many owners employ in their programs. But there are just as many owners who like to be hands on and mentor stylists right alongside their educators. Either way, leading by example sets the tone for a successful program.

At Jamison Shaw, the chief mentors are Codner, who focuses more on education and her son, Jamison Codner, who helps with numbers and goals.

“Everybody in the salon has a mentor,” she says. “Just because you are senior, doesn’t mean you don’t have a mentor anymore.”

Hoang also acts as a mentor in his salon, right alongside the four other stylists who were chosen and trained for his program.

At Harlot Salon in Venice, California, salon owner and Sebastian Core Artistic Team Member Marylle Koken does all the mentoring to her stylists.

With a special focus on individual strengths and weaknesses, she has found identifying her stylists’ passions helps her make them better employees.

“It’s very important to find out who you are as an artist and build on your strength,” she says. “I want to guide and build them towards the techniques they really want to do, whether that’s cutting, styling, color, texture or something else.”

To do this, Koken has set up workshops every other Monday where she allows her staff to work on whatever they want, but keeps it to only two or three stylists at each workshop.

“In the beginning I worked with more, but it works better with a smaller group,” she says.

The stylists bring in models, rather than mannequins which Koken stresses is important, so she can observe their people skills as well as technical skills. If she witnesses a stylist struggling with a model, she immediately takes them outside for a pep talk.

“I don’t make them uncomfortable, but I don’t sugarcoat it either,” she says. “I tell them right away instead of waiting until the end of the day so they can correct their behavior, and I really see them grow as a result.”

The Personality Factor

Salons are known for behind-the-scenes drama due to passionate personalities that sometimes clash. So how do you create great mentors and apprentice/mentor relationships with mutual respect and minimal theatrics?

The answer depends on a salon’s culture and how the mentorship program is structured.

Rockquemore believes the most successful people in his salon are the ones who know how to manage personalities, but he also tries to pair the right people together.

“If we meet people who need some discipline, we put them with the best discipliners,” he says.“We want to put ourselves in the best position of retaining associates.”

By the same token, he keeps a close eye on his educators and the qualities that make them good mentors.

“I feel like it’s always the people who take ownership and treat the place like it’s theirs,” he says of his successful mentors. “The best are the ones who were once associates themselves and know what to expect out of the person since they’ve been through the program.”

He also finds an attention to detail, low tolerance for foolishness and a regimented work style are other key qualities to a successful educator/mentor.

Although a stylist’s mentors change as they grow at Jamison Shaw, Codner has also identified the traits of a good mentor in her salon’s culture.

“They put their money where their mouth is and walk the walk themselves,” she says. “You have to use your ears twice as much as your mouth and be objective, remove your ego and care for the betterment of the person.”

In her mentors, Codner believes she is creating leaders who will bring up the salon culture and benefit the salon as a whole. And a big part of this is identifying the people who are and are not great mentors.

“There are people who take it more seriously than others,” says Codner. “It’s hard to mentor someone over how to satisfy a client if you aren’t doing it yourself. We do have some people who are not requested to be mentors.”

At New Identities, Rockquemore shares a similar philosophy.

“Mentors must realize the responsibilities they have—they are molding a young person. We want associates to emulate them, which can be a challenge,” he says.

He cites different learning styles as one of the biggest obstacles for a mentor. “Different things motivate them, in particular with Gen Y. Unless you have them explained to you, you walk around beating your head against the wall.”

At Umbrella, Hoang takes a more regimented view of pairing up mentors with new stylists.

“We all speak the same language and are very consistent,” he says. His mentors/educators have a full book with a good client base, are great at customer service and have the ability to educate on the spot about anything from a hair cut to a service issue.

But like Codner and Rockquemore, he has found choosing the right people to mentor is the key to success.

“Some people are really into being a mentor/educator and others are happy to come to the salon, do great work and go home,” he says. “The ones that do want to become a mentor, they see that future and give a lot back.”

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