Setting up my first mentoring program was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I didn’t know it at the time, but it would lead to a complete change of career for me, to something I’ve made my life’s work and about which I care tremendously.
It was 1997. Back then, there were hardly any mentoring programs, especially for women. At the time, I was ensconced in a Marketing career, so I decided to set up a mentoring program for young women in the Marketing profession. I arranged a breakfast with a few colleagues and asked if anyone would join me. Boldly, we decided to establish a professional association and set about finding out how to start a mentoring program. After all, it couldn’t be that hard, right?
Being a group of high achievers with Type A personalities, we quickly realised that we had no idea where to start and we were likely to crash and burn unless we brought in a consultant to help us design and launch our program. Good move.
14 years and several hundred mentors and mentees later, we finally wound up the program in its home city and moved on, although the association still lives on in another city. Pretty soon, word got out that I knew something about this mentoring thing, and I found myself assisting various organisations with their mentoring programs. And so, Art of Mentoring came into being.
Looking back, we did a lot right. We got everyone together for a briefing at the beginning, checked in with them along the way and held an end-of-program event to celebrate success. But we didn’t really provide training to the mentors, many of whom felt out of their depth. We corrected this and made other tweaks until the program ran like a well-oiled machine every year.
So, what’s changed in my views about mentoring and how has mentoring itself changed in 25 years?
Preparing mentors and mentees for the role is critical – and continuous upskilling for mentors
We moved from a short briefing to a slightly longer training for mentors, but in hindsight, it was not nearly enough. Prof David Clutterbuck claims that mentoring pair success is greatly reduced if no one is trained for the role, and that training mentors can double the success rate. After overseeing hundreds of programs, I now know this to be true. Another key insight is that many mentors will eventually lose interest in the program if their skills are not being upgraded every year. Not everyone is keen to do more training, but our experience is that offering an advanced course is very much appreciated by most mentors.
In 1997, the program we established ran in one city. We carefully matched people within 30 minutes of each other so they could meet in person. As a result, not everyone got a match or the best match for them. Quite early into the 2000s, we started making virtual matches in other programs and discovered that, in accordance with research evidence, many pairs were able to work very effectively using virtual means to communicate. So, when COVID-19 arrived, we were able to say, with confidence, that virtual programs would work just fine.
Mentoring women also works
Over the 14 years we saw many women gain promotions, new jobs and salary increases, all of which they reported would not have happened without the support of their mentors. We created an amazing community of women who collaborated and celebrated success together. We only wound up the program when it became clear that there were enough opportunities within companies to provide mentors – we became a bit redundant and we’d achieved our vision, so we shut up shop. Of course, these days, we see loads of programs for women and for other minority groups, a trend I’m very happy to see. Whilst I understand the value of sponsorship, and it’s great that sponsorship is included in DEI initiatives, it should supplement, not replace mentoring,
We were very early adopters of mentoring program management software. As an association with no staff, everything was done by volunteers. We funded the platform by attracting a sponsor right from the start, along with modest mentee fees. We kept other costs low and spent money on the time-saving aspects of automating some of the administration tasks. We were very focused on the mentoring program as our core program, and we didn’t spend money on other initiatives that might not add value.
Reverse and reciprocal mentoring are now a “thing”
25 years ago, the vast majority of mentoring programs were traditional hierarchical programs, particularly targeting high potential talent or leaders and emerging leaders. Given that the so-called “Hi-Pos” are already beneficiaries of most of the training dollar, I am very glad to see that the net has widened considerably to include, not just minority groups, but mentees at different talent and seniority levels.
Reverse and reciprocal mentoring have grown in popularity in the last five years and are now quite common. They do need careful design though, so reach out if you need help with this.
Mentoring can be life changing
Over the 25 years, I’ve witnessed so many people who have reported, at the end of a mentoring program, that their life has been changed forever (in a good way!) by the experience they’d just had. Many mentees come into mentoring thinking they might enhance a skill or two, maybe get connected with some new contacts. Most have no idea of the profound impact that mentoring can have, if only they would open up and embrace the opportunity.
This leads me to a 25-year anniversary request. I am very keen to hear from mentors and mentees who believe that some aspect of their lives was transformed by a mentoring experience. I will be conducting research this year into what creates the transformative magic that ignites this change. If this sounds like you, please contact me at email@example.com to participate in the study.
©Melissa Richardson 2023