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DEI Strategy: Building an Efficient, Effective & Supportive Mentorship Program

Reciprocity and cross-gender pairings for the win

Woman writing on a white board for another woman
Photo courtesy of ThisisEngineering RAEng

There are so many benefits to mentorship in the workplace that it’s actually hard to find a reason why every employer doesn’t have a plan in place. Both employees, the mentor and the mentee, get measurable positives out of the relationship, and the many advantages to the company include the formation of a leadership pipeline and retention of top talent.

What is mentorship?

In the workplace, a mentor is an experienced employee who serves as a guide to a younger or less experienced worker. The overall purpose of a mentor is to help mentees achieve their professional goals. Along the way, a mentor can teach a variety of business and life skills, too. These might include the ability to make well-thought-out decisions and learn how to challenge assumptions based on traditional thinking.

Read more: How Diverse is Your Mentorship?

What makes a good mentor?

Like any good teacher, a mentor needs to have excellent listening skills, patience, and the ability to provide honest constructive criticism. If you’re looking for a mentor, either for yourself or as a possibility in your mentorship program, there are additional traits to seek out:

  • A mentor should have life experience as well as business experience; they must be quite a bit further along the career path than the mentee.

  • The best mentors have themselves been mentored. They personally recognize and support the benefits of such a relationship.

  • They have both the time and willingness necessary to fit mentoring into their schedule. Mentoring tends to be a long-term commitment, and while meetings may be as infrequent as once a year, usually they’re more often. 

While the mentor is someone who is usually much older than the mentee, that doesn’t mean that peer-to-peer mentoring shouldn’t occur when the opportunities are there. When mentees are in a group, under one mentor, peer-to-peer work can offer diverse points of view and sharing of perspectives.

The person being mentored has a responsibility to the success of the relationship, too. They must be willing to do the work of ascertaining their professional development and career goals, be willing to take feedback, and then take action on that feedback in order to make progress.

Read more: How to Find a Mentor in the Age of #MeToo

Mentoring needs to be efficient to be effective

Mentoring is an additional task for a busy executive. In order to make it work without being overly burdensome, the mentor should set clear boundaries and expectations.

That means the mentor needs to make it clear that the mentee should, for example, be on time with regard to meetings and completion of any action items. It also means setting time limits for meetings and their frequency, as well as how communication should be conducted. If there is a possibility that meetings will be consolidated so that the mentor can hold a group meeting with a number of mentees instead of several one-on-ones, that should be made clear to the mentees at the outset.

Read more: 3 Ways to Overcome a Boys' Club (Even if There Are No Boys)

The impact of mentorship on women’s careers

Women fully endorse good mentorship programs.

“When I look back at my career, most of my successes can be traced back to a mentor,” says Allie K. Miller, global head of machine learning business development, startups, and venture capital at Amazon Web Services. “The benefits of the mentor-mentee relationship cannot be overestimated.”

Like most people who have been mentored, Miller is a mentor herself. Chelsea Render, who also works at AWS, says “mentorship is so important, even in informal or shorter-term formats. In fact, Allie's mentorship to me personally is a big reason that I have the job in AI that I do today.” 

And mentorship goes two ways. In her article on how to promote a development mindset, workplace growth and development consultant Julie Winkle Giulioni says two-way mentorship is a necessary step in creating “more hospitable and supportive conditions for...employees.”

She explains that two-way mentorship is “a relationship of mutuality... that is built upon the belief that we all have gifts/talents that can benefit others. It's not about one person having all of the knowledge/power... but rather it's a reciprocal relationship from which both people derive value.”

Read more: Your Inner Circle is Your Ticket to the Top

There’s a case study that gives a good example of that reciprocal relationship. Michelle D. Steward, associate professor of marketing at Wake Forest University, and fellow authors, describe how Tata Steel Ltd., a large multinational company headquartered in India, has made intergenerational mentor/mentee pairings work for them. 

“In the two-way mentoring program, new employees who are seen as rising stars and technology experts can be paired with the most senior managers,” they write. “The new employees can acquaint senior managers with the possibilities of digital technologies and data analytics, and inspire them to champion new ways of doing business. In return, senior managers can counsel new employees about business practices, leadership, and organisational skills, with the intention of grooming them for senior management positions in the future. This therefore offers accelerated learning opportunities for both mentors and mentees.”

Read more: How to Find a Mentor & How to Ask

How organizations can create mentorship programs

In Deloitte’s 2016 Millennial Survey, findings about the benefits of mentorship were striking, with 94 percent of respondents saying the quality of advice from their mentor was good. According to the report, “those intending to stay with their organization for more than five years are twice as likely to have a mentor (68 percent) than not (32 percent). Among those intending to leave within two years, the ratio of those with (56 percent) and those without (44 percent) a mentor is much lower.”

In other words, a successful mentorship program not only builds a leadership pipeline; it can also boost top employee retention significantly.

We asked Dr. Dana Nicholson Bledsoe and Dr. Farzana Chohan, who are on the Women in Healthcare board of directors, what a company might need in order to  effectively support the advancement of women in leadership positions and equity. They told InHerSight there are four segments in the development of a successful mentorship program:

1. An internal mindset

The organization must first set the foundation by establishing an internal mindset committed to developing women leaders. A commitment to “own" this work at the highest level of the organization is also critical to sustained and successful results.

2. Mentorship and sponsorship

Understanding and providing mentorship opportunities at all levels of the organization allows for a diverse and broad based pipeline of talent. Sponsorship requires senior leader engagement and intentional focus on promoting mentees to higher leadership positions within the organization, and thoughtfully matching talent development with emerging organizational needs.

Read more: Better Sponsorship: 6 Times to Speak Her Name

3. Use external resources to optimize impact

External resources are available to help companies advance (or develop) organizational reach and impact. These can range from outsourced program development and/or facilitation and measurement in partnership with internal senior leadership. Companies further need to tailor their philosophical view and financial commitments regarding employees' active participation in external organizational mentorship programs.    

4. Measure progress

Companies sincerely committed to advancing women into leadership roles will set and review success metrics at the highest level of the organization to ensure progress and celebration of advancement.

Read more: Moms Really Do Know Best

A new kind of mentorship dynamic is needed

According to research by Cindy Schipani, business professor at the University of Michigan, and fellow authors, there needs to be “more women executives mentoring men.”

Having women in executive leadership positions model leadership behaviors appropriate across genders to more junior men on the corporate ladder would “generate more empathy, more cooperation and just more willingness to see each other as people,” Schipani says.

Initial findings from one corporate mentoring company that does cross-gender pairings, with women mentoring men, suggests it’s working. “One male participant said that he thinks this awareness of what women are going through is greatly under-appreciated,” she explains.

Read more: What Is a Male Feminist, Anyway?

About our sources

Dana Nicholson Bledsoe, DHA, MBA, MS, RN, NEA-BC, FACHE is a visionary leader and strategic professional in the healthcare industry, who serves as a thought partner to leading healthcare organizations, advisor to healthcare start-ups and executive coach to top talent.

Most recently, she led Nemours Children’s Hospital, an academic health campus located in Orlando’s Lake Nona Medical City, while also serving as an enterprise vice president within Nemours Children’s Health System. Particularly, her efforts helped Nemours develop strategic and master facility plans, as well as program development to grow the health system’s operations in Florida. 

Dr. Farzana Chohan, Doctor of Management, MAUD, BARCH, is a human-centered ideation leader. Farzana's thought leadership is focused on inclusion and mentoring. She designs and implements workplace cultures that are diverse, inclusive, and equitable. Farzana’s higher degree of acumen comes from Healthcare Architecture (Hospitals and Labs) which had made her an expert in integrating all the puzzle pieces, as the life of people depends on efficient spaces to survive and thrive. Her professional work includes business management and leadership in nonprofit and architecture. She is also a founder of the Strategic Leadership Advocacy Platform in STEM.

Farzana is a published author, Keynote speaker and mentor and recipient of leadership awards. She is an alumnus of Washington University in St. Louis, Webster University and the NED University of Engineering and Technology. Farzana was the recipient of the highest honor by Toastmasters International, the “Presidential Citation award”, in 2017 in Vancouver, Canada. Dr. Chohan is a member of the Women in Healthcare Board of Directors and co-chairs the National Mentorship Committee. Dr. Chohan is passionate about the development of Human Excellence.

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