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4 Steps to Supercharge Your Workplace Mentorship Program for Women

4 Steps to Supercharge Your Workplace Mentorship Program for Women

Many organizations offer mentorship in one form or another, but designing and running a program that is truly impactful is more difficult than it might seem.

A successful mentorship program should take the time to make careful matches, be both flexible in its approach and focused on its objectives, and drive a genuine conversation that benefits both mentors and mentees.

A program that achieves all these things will be a vital tool in addressing the many challenges that women often face in the workplace.

Benefits of a thoughtful workplace mentorship program

Running an impactful mentorship program has widespread benefits. It builds trust, helps identify problems – and their solutions – in a timely manner, and emphasizes that offering staff meaningful support is a priority for the company.

It is also an important way to keep talent engaged and prevent women from leaving your workforce – both by demonstrating support to staff and by acquiring honest feedback, which can help make policies and processes more fit for purpose.

Mentorship programs can help women transition back into the post-pandemic workplace

While COVID-19 has certainly been a challenge for everyone, our recent working parents report revealed that the pandemic has triggered a parenting crisis. Among the 440,000 employees surveyed across 1,244 companies, women of color have been affected by this crisis in distinct ways.

Companies have a duty of care to all their staff, but considering the unique challenges facing women in the workplace right now, we must ask, what can companies do to support their female colleagues during this difficult time?

Great Place to Work-Certified™ company Standard Chartered Bank is an international banking group with diversity at its core. Recognizing that fostering diverse talent is a key driver in business growth, the bank runs mentorship programs across many of its 59 international markets, including in the United States.

Nancy Wisniewski, Standard Chartered Americas’ chief operating officer and a champion of their Gender Equality Network, recently spoke with Great Place to Work® about how Standard’s programs help keep female staff motivated and feeling supported.

Here are four steps for creating a workplace mentorship program for women that really works:

Strategies for building a successful mentorship program

1. Take the time to get the pairings right

Taking a tailored approach that carefully matches mentors and mentees is a critical first step. By clearly establishing what the mentee needs, and taking the time to identify a suitable mentor, you can design an impact-driven program that facilitates meaningful conversations and prompts genuine opportunities to learn and grow.

The type of support need will obviously differ. A colleague who is facing specific challenges around promotion or advancement will be looking for different guidance than someone struggling to find work-life balance. As such, the right mentor might be someone with similar experiences – perhaps a more senior leader in the same business area – or someone much further removed who can provide a fresh perspective.

“For some more formal mentoring programs, we also have ‘personal profiles’ of the potential mentors.” said Nancy. “This means our mentees can see who they think they might best connect with and reach out to them for an initial chat that will help inform pairing choices.”

Once you’ve matched a pair, they must take the time to connect properly. “Resist the temptation to dive headfirst into career problem solving and advising,” Nancy added. “It’s important to build trust and chemistry by getting to know each other on a personal basis. Remember, a mentoring relationship is like any other: It takes time to develop.”   

2. Set clear rules of engagement 

It’s important to set out clear rules of engagement from the start. Even before the first mentoring session, everyone involved should understand what the objectives of the mentorship program are – and what they’re not.

When it comes to career-related issues, it is not uncommon for people to sign up for mentorship when what they’re actually looking for is sponsorship. Understanding the difference between the advisory role of a mentor versus the advocacy role of a sponsor will help to reduce disappointment in the long-run.

Both sides should agree to a set of expectations. How much time are you expecting to put in? How often will you meet? Making sure that commitments are realistic will help to keep momentum going. But turning up for meetings unprepared or constantly rescheduling them is likely to lead to the partnership fizzling out.

Turning up for meetings unprepared or constantly rescheduling them is likely to lead to the partnership fizzling out.

“Know what you want to achieve and be clear on the ask,” said Nancy. “While it’s great to build a cordial relationship where you can speak candidly and share war-stories, it’s also important to stay focused on the objectives of the mentorship program and make sure that the sessions are effective.”

Nancy also observed that “it is a good idea to have a midway check-in point for mentors and mentees to see how things are going, as well as one at the end to share lessons learned that can drive improvements in future programs.”

3. Mix things up

An impactful mentorship program should permeate all levels of the organization – it won’t just match senior leaders with junior ones. This provides a wider choice of possible mentor-mentee pairings, and facilitates the tailored approach we’ve already covered.

Depending on the challenge, a mentee might need someone close to their level of experience, or someone who’s much further ahead in their career.

Likewise, the best mentorship structure might not be one-to-one. Some people will benefit most from a dedicated, individual mentoring experience, where others might thrive in a more collaborative mentoring circle setup.

Some people will benefit most from a dedicated, individual mentoring experience, where others might thrive in a more collaborative mentoring circle setup.

And mentoring doesn’t have to stop at the lobby – it can extend into the community as well, offering mentees the opportunity to share their learnings from the mentorship experience by providing mentorship training to young people at the very start of their careers.    

Nancy, who mentored entrepreneurs at the Women in Tech Incubator at the City College of New York, added that taking on a mentorship role in the local community helped her to reflect on her own career challenges.

“When I listened to the students talk about the obstacles they face at this early stage of their careers, it got me thinking about what I can do to help. Can I expand their network? What experience can I share? The opportunity to become a mentor kick-started a self-reflection process. By being on the ‘other side,’ and taking on that mentorship role, I also learned to take a much more active role in my own career development.”

 4. Drive a dynamic conversation

When mentees experience the benefits of being a mentor, we see the value of an impactful mentorship program working both ways. All participants should be able to benefit.

As such, it is important to design a mentorship program with a reverse-mentoring aspect to ensure the needs of the mentor are not forgotten.

This will help to keep all participants engaged. It is also an effective way for senior leaders to get genuine insights on whether a particular initiative or strategy is landing well. While there are other ways to take the pulse of morale within an organization, reverse-mentoring is certainly a helpful tool for timely feedback.

As well as direct, on-the-ground intelligence, reverse-mentoring can also be a great way to pass on particular skills. In recent years, many organizations have enlisted the help of their millennial, digital native staff to help upskill their colleagues.

An organization that is committed to showing that all corners of the talent pool are valued – not just the most senior or longest-tenured – is likely to be one that nurtures and retains talent in the years to come.

Using thoughtful mentorship programs to retain your talent

Investing in and retaining junior women helps to maintain a diverse talent pool that is ready to transition to senior leadership in the future, which helps to build more diverse management teams.

But mentoring isn’t just organizational advancement – we must remember that women at any stage of their careers may be struggling with challenges outside of the workplace and the listening ear of a mentor can make a real difference.

It is a great shame when talented, motivated women are forced out of flourishing careers because they don’t have the support they need. An impactful mentorship program is one way to give them that. Another way to ensure that fault lines in the workplace aren’t going unaddressed is to keep your finger on the pulse!

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Kalia Simms