How mentoring innovation is driving Zimmer Biomet’s ‘evolution’

HR’s focus on skills this year grew just about as quickly as the function’s fascination with generative AI. And employment experts predict a similar upward trajectory in skills-based hiring and mobility, fueled by employers’ emphasis on arming their workforce with the skills their business needs for the future.

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One global medtech giant joining this skills-centric movement is Zimmer Biomet. The company, which employs 18,000 people around the world, approaches its skills strategy with a heightened investment in mentoring, says CHRO Lori Winkler.

Its Mentoring Connections program, launched in 2021, is open to employees across all levels and is entirely customizable—with mentees and mentors working together to set their goals and aiming to help both parties hone their skills. And participation is not mandated, which Winkler says makes the fact that enrollment has jumped nearly 300% in the last two years all the more impressive.

The focus on mentoring is just one factor that Winkler says has fueled better engagement, internal mobility and DE&I metrics. She recently shared with HRE how Zimmer Biomet aims to deepen these successes.

HRE: What business problems were you looking to tackle with Mentoring Connections, and how has that come to fruition?

Lori Winkler
Lori Winkler

Winkler: Rather than solving a problem, I’d characterize Mentoring Connections as a proactive approach to ensuring that our team members are connected to others from whom they can learn based on experiences, skills, diversity of style and thinking. The program eliminates barriers that disconnected team members during the pandemic and as a result of having a hybrid workforce.

With a focus on growth, Mentoring Connections supplements on-the-job learning and development programs. While the program is structured and runs in six-month cohorts, each mentoring pair customizes their objectives based on what the mentee and mentor are seeking.

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In fact, of our 200-plus mentoring matches this year, seven are reverse mentoring relationships, where the mentee holds a more senior position than their mentor.

HRE: How do you think ZB’s approach to mentoring differs from that of other organizations?

Winkler: We take a thoughtful, organized approach that also allows mentoring pairs to customize their experience. The program is purposely designed to provide growth opportunities and be fulfilling for both mentees and mentors.

Mentees nominate their mentor match based on interests and development needs, and both agree to the match before initiating the mentoring relationship.

Team members choose to participate in Mentoring Connections. There is no requirement for any of our team members to join. Annually, we host a six-month mentoring cycle that we promote through our internal editorial and our HR business partners. We have all levels of the organization represented—from executive leadership team members to individuals who are early in their careers; every region and a variety of functions and roles are represented.

What makes the program particularly special is that our team members want to be in a mentoring relationship; they find it mutually fulfilling. As evidence of this, we’ve seen many mentor relationships continue beyond the program.

HRE: What role has internal mobility played in the company’s employee retention strategy?

Winkler: More than 30% of our team members have worked for ZB for 10 or more years. While internal mobility is a contributing factor, we’ve taken specific actions—focused on our team member experience—that have resulted in ZB’s voluntary turnover rate being below the top quartile industry benchmark.

In the U.S., we recently made updates to certain exempt-level job requirements to consider candidates without degrees who have equivalent experience, where allowed by law. This makes these positions, that previously required a four-year degree, more accessible for experienced talent. We made this change in response to team member feedback.

Our Career Check-Ins are an annual commitment for team members to discuss their aspirations with their manager and develop a plan of action. Throughout the year with ongoing check-ins—which are tracked quarterly—managers provide real-time feedback, help overcome obstacles and help ensure progress to their development plan.

Lastly, we find that our workplace flexibility—the fact that we did not have a return-to-office mandate—truly helps to drive retention. Many roles are not restricted geographically. In addition, our team members seem to thrive in a flexible workplace environment, which has helped significantly to drive engagement.

HRE: You started at Zimmer Biomet weeks before COVID hit. How did onboarding during that time affect your perceptions of the company and its culture?

Winkler: There was a confluence of events that precipitated my employment with Zimmer Biomet. My father passed away in January and I ended a 25-year relationship in February. My life changed significantly leading up to the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

That said, I had the opportunity to meet many of my colleagues, including my direct-report staff, before we were instructed to shelter at home. So, I was able to make those important connections face to face, which helped quite a bit once we transitioned to WebEx meetings. I had been working remotely for four years prior to COVID, so it was not a significant adjustment for me to work from home.

I found the ZB culture to be agile, collaborative and flexible. We quickly mobilized our teams and ensured we stayed connected daily—sometimes multiple times per day—via WebEx or through phone calls. If anything, this experience accelerated my onboarding because I got to know my team members more intimately since we were pretty much “invited” into each other’s homes during those early months of lockdown. The context of the pandemic truly strengthened relationships and accelerated my ability to learn more about the organization.

HRE: What do you anticipate being your greatest HR challenge as we head toward 2024?      

Winkler: The work environment will never be the same. We need to continue to create a culture that focuses on purpose, connection, wellbeing and development—with our team members at the nucleus—and we need to do this, in a large part, virtually.

Creating a sense of belonging, inclusiveness and high engagement must co-exist with the fluidity of work, family and community. This is an evolution for our workforce and HR should be, and must be, at the center of creating and curating the culture.

HRE: Your career has centered on healthcare and medical technology industries. What about being in this field personally resonates with you?

Winkler: Working in healthcare is a noble privilege; we impact people’s quality of life and often save lives. When you work in any facet of healthcare, you are working for a purpose far greater than yourself—you are in service to others—and I find that very rewarding.

I also love the excitement that comes with innovation. It’s more than creating technologies and products, it’s that sense of innovation in everything that we do. And frankly, I’ve had the privilege of working with some of the brightest minds in science and, as a lifelong learner, I find it all fascinating and inspiring.

HRE: What in your personal life or background most influences how you approach HR?

Winkler: I am not a traditionally trained HR professional. I started my career in business operations, which led me to a career in human resources. I am pretty street savvy and I have a bias for common sense and directness, which I bring to my work.

Many of my colleagues are PhDs and I admire that tremendously. That said, I view myself as a PSD—I grew up poor, smart and driven. I think I bring some of that to my work as well.

Lastly, I am a life-long Bruce Springsteen fan and I have an appreciation for how he operates as a leader. He brings his passion and whole self to his work; he understands his audience, flexes accordingly and is a great example of proactive succession planning—as the band had some significant losses over the past decade and Bruce was well-prepared to mitigate those gaps without missing a beat—literally!

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].