07 Dec How To Start a Mentorship Program
My first full time job out of college was at a large accounting and consulting firm within the Transaction Services (M&A consulting) line of business. My first day on the job, I realized I was the only woman on my direct team of 10+ colleagues. This came as a shock to me. Since I was fresh out of college and grad school, I suppose I was simply naïve. I remember texting my girlfriends in disbelief. I feel silly admitting it now, but I honestly didn’t think all-male departments existed anymore. Unfortunately, this was just the first of many imbalanced leadership structures I would witness in my career, but that’s a post for a different day. Thankfully, another woman at my level joined a few months later and we had each other’s backs.
To be clear, there was nothing particularly wrong with any of my male colleagues and they were supportive of me. However, without any day-to-day exposure to female leadership, it was really difficult for me to envision what a career in this field would look like. There’s a lot of research on the power of representation in leadership. Being exposed to leadership that ‘looks like you’ can be really empowering. One study found that women gave longer speeches and were rated as giving higher quality speeches when subtly exposed to pictures of powerful women compared to pictures of powerful men. Simply being exposed to a powerful woman improved the women’s performances!
I couldn’t change the fact that I didn’t have any female leaders in my direct line of business, but I thought interaction with female leaders in other lines of business might still be helpful for my career. As fate would have it, a colleague approached me and asked if I would help her launch a formal mentorship program in our local office. My initial reaction was that I wasn’t qualified (I had been with the company less than a year), but she was super encouraging. So, even though I was new, I decided to take action and help start a mentorship program in the local office. I learned a lot from the experience and have outlined the key steps below.
I hope this helps you launch your own mentorship program!
Find a Peer (or Several) to Help
Having a partner during this project is critical. I could not have launched this program on my own. From a logistical perspective, many hands make light work. And there really was a lot of work! There are emails, presentations, follow-up emails, event planning, questionnaire design, research, and more follow-up emails. But, more importantly, having a partner during the discouraging times (for example, when partners show up so late they miss almost the entire presentation) to share the load was immensely helpful.
Find an Executive Sponsor
Your program will be much more successful with buy-in from a specific executive before the ball is rolling. You may find there is a go-to executive who typically supports women’s initiatives and could therefore lend credibility to your program. In my case, we found a well-respected female partner to support our efforts. I can attest that having her name behind the program definitely helped our efforts.
Present the Idea to Executives for Buy-In
My colleague and I spent a lot of time preparing a professional presentation that detailed the importance of mentorship in developing female leaders. This research was not difficult to find. Studies have shown that 67% of women rate mentorship as highly important in growing a career. However, 63% of women reported never having a formal mentor. These statistics can be discouraging and research points to a key issue of women having more difficulty asking for mentorship than men.
The good news here is that the discrepancy is not due to an unwillingness to mentor on the part of senior women; 71% of women reported always accepting mentees when asked. And more good news was that creating a formal mentorship program could help break down the “asking” barrier women seemed to be facing. The actual presentation was, thankfully, more of a formality because the executive team was overwhelmingly supportive of the program.
Determine Interest Level of Mentees
Determining potential mentee interest can be done formally or informally. If there is already a women’s group that meets regularly, you can bring up the idea and assess interest level. You can also set up a separate informational session or send an anonymous survey.
When I first started at the company, several female colleagues from various business lines met with the leader of the women’s group for an informal lunch. Almost everyone at the table mentioned they were seeking mentorship. Although the interest was assessed in this informal setting, it was enough for my colleague and I to decide on launching the program. When we were closer to the official launch, we also sent a more formal survey to confirm participation.
Ask Potential Mentors to Participate
Finding enough quality mentors to support the mentee interest level will be one of the most important tasks for obvious reasons; no mentors means no program. A key reason we wanted executive buy-in was so that we could leverage their influence to attract mentors. We asked the executive team to think of female colleagues or direct reports who they thought would be great mentors.
We then asked the executives to connect with those colleagues and request their participation. In our presentation, we mentioned several ways the program would benefit mentors, such as leadership experience, exposure to differing perspectives, and connecting with less senior colleagues. Thankfully, there were a lot of mentors who didn’t need any convincing.
Host a Networking Event
Hosting a casual get-together with all the mentors and mentees can be beneficial for several reasons. For one, mentees may make some organic connections with potential mentors and make the mentee want to request a specific mentor. I can tell you from experience, specific requests make the matching process much easier. Also, an event can serve as a way to answer general questions about the program. For our event, we hosted a more formal Q&A session and then attended a local ballet. The feedback was very positive and several mentors and mentees made connections during the evening.
Design the Match Parameters
The specificity of matching parameters will be determined by the availability of mentors. For example, we originally set out to match mentees with a mentor at least two levels above themselves. However, due to the lack of available mentors at the higher levels, we had to make a few adjustments. Another consideration is whether mentors and mentees must be in the same line of business.
In our case, we let the mentees each decide whether they wanted a mentor in their line of business, another line of business, or if they had no preference. Another important decision is how many mentees can be assigned to one mentor. We put a limit of four, but also let the mentors decide if they wanted a lower limit. Being a mentor is a big commitment and we did our best not to overload anyone.
Create the Questionnaire for Matching
Creating a questionnaire for the matching process requires careful thought. I mentioned a few of the key parameters above, but it’s also helpful to include more qualitative questions. We wanted to get really specific about what the mentees were seeking and what areas mentors felt most confident offering advice. These categories included things like work-life balance, networking, building a personal brand, being a working mother, getting management and/or leadership experience, etc.
Complete the Match Process
The level of complexity for the matching process will depend on the size of your program. Our program matched about 20-30 mentees. This was a manageable number to do by hand. However, with larger programs, a more sophisticated matching process might make more sense (e.g. an algorithm).
In our case, we first matched the mentees who requested specific mentors. After that, we matched one mentee at a time, paying attention to requests for specific lines of business and well as the reasons listed for seeking mentorship. To be honest, there was less science to it than we would have liked due to mentor constraints. We had a low number of mentors in senior positions and it became difficult to adhere to the two-level difference we originally wanted.
Communicating matches requires attention to detail and a bit of discretion. For our communication, we reached out to each mentee first. We wanted to give them a period to request a switch before the mentors were alerted to avoid any awkward situations. We didn’t actually have anyone request a switch during this period, but I think everyone appreciated the opportunity. We then told each mentor. It was also important for us to stress that it was the mentee’s responsibility to make initial contact and own the relationship.
Provide Resources and Advice
Once matches were announced, we hosted separate meetings for the mentee group and the mentor group. We created a site that provided resources on how to be a good mentee and how to be a good mentor. During the meeting, we showed everyone how to access the site and answered questions.
Schedule Quarterly Check-Ins
Scheduling regular check-ins with the mentee group and the mentor group (separately) is important for several reasons. For one, it gives mentees and mentors a safe space to request a switch. It is also an opportunity to share feedback on what is going well and what is not going well so the program administrators can adjust as necessary.
Continually Add New Mentors and Mentees
After the initial program is launched, you need a formal way for new participants to join. I suggest taking new mentees and mentors quarterly, but depending on the size of the program, it could be more or less often.
Let me leave you with a few final pieces of advice.
First, prepare for the amount of work this undertaking will require.
I mentioned the importance of having a partner in the endeavor, but even so, launching our program was a lot more work than I originally anticipated. (P.S. It was also worth it!)
Second, prepare for some pushback.
I was surprised by how often I was asked “why is this only for women?” and “why can’t men be mentors?” Of course, you can make your own decisions for your program, but we chose to launch our program with only female participants to start. The research was clear: women, on the whole, were not finding mentorship as easily as men and exposing women to female leadership is empowering. My advice is to have your answers to these questions prepared so that you can answer them calmly and back them up with research.
Finally, always remember your purpose for getting this program started.
You may wonder, at times, why you’ve decided to add to your already full workload. The same way you want prepared answers for people who might push back, you might also want prepared answers for yourself when the going gets tough! For me, I was really passionate about making a difference in the office and I tried to remind myself of my passion in times of stress.