Is mentoring reaching the right people?

Mentoring can be a powerful tool but are we doing enough to make sure everyone has access?

Rosie Ifould, Head of Customer Engagement at cloud talent services firm Tenth Revolution Group, questions whether mentorship reaches the people who need it most.

When you think of a mentor, what’s the image that comes to mind? Do you picture a younger protege, someone recently graduated and eager to learn, or does your mental picture of a mentor more closely resemble a man in his fifties?

Unless you’ve had a lot of experience with reverse mentoring, where a more junior person mentors their senior counterpart, then you likely conjured up an image closer to that second description – and why wouldn’t you?

After all, we expect mentors to act as a guide, to share their perspective as someone who has been where their mentee is now. But if we can challenge our own assumptions about what a mentoring relationship looks like and who is eligible to take part, we have an opportunity to unlock even greater potential in our workforce.

We know that mentoring can be a powerful tool. There are benefits for mentors and mentees alike, as well as their employers. Mentoring promotes belonging, fosters confidence and a sense of engagement. For employers, there is also evidence mentoring aids retention.

Expanding mentorship

However, the majority of mentoring initiatives are still aimed at younger professionals. While these programmes are undoubtedly important, take a snapshot of the modern workforce, and you will find all the evidence you need for the validity of accessible mentoring schemes for a wider demographic.

Take age, for example. The number of older workers has been rising for years due to delays in retirement. The five-generation workforce has become a commonplace idea, and in the UK, a third of all workers are over 50, with a further 800,000 in that same age bracket wanting to find work. Should we view these employees as hogging desks that could be given to someone younger, or should we recognise and nurture their potential?

Consider this: in a study of over 2.7 million start-ups, the average founder age was 45. Furthermore, start-ups founded by someone aged 50 were 2.2 times more successful than those founded by 30 year-olds.

Research on the impact of the pandemic shows that it is also more critical than ever that we do more to support women in the workforce. Globally, between 2019 and 2020, women’s employment fell further than for men (a 4.2% decline compared to 3%), according to figures from the International Labor Organization, and was also likely to recover at a slower rate.

We also know that the pandemic has further exposed and worsened inequalities faced by ethnic minority communities, including at work, and left many people with chronic health conditions isolated from colleagues.

Of course, mentoring is not a panacea and should not be presented as such. But where we are looking to rebuild connections at work, find a new sense of purpose, and build employees’ confidence – no matter what stage of their career – it can play an important role.

Making the most of mentoring

One of the few positive impacts of the pandemic is that more organisations are offering mentoring. However, it is important to recognise that the solution may lie outside your own organisation.

While workplace schemes can be a valuable way of fostering a more inclusive culture, they may not suit everyone. According to a recent study by City Disabilities, a group that offers support to City professionals with disabilities or long-term health conditions, 36% of people with a disability would prefer never to disclose that disability to an employer unless they had to.

Mentoring must be a safe space and one where the mentee’s authentic self can be recognised. Sometimes the additional layer of confidentiality afforded by an outside scheme is necessary.

For individuals who feel they aren’t as well catered for, it’s worth keeping an open mind. One of the great virtues of mentoring is that it is a flexible model. Over the last 18 months, many people have embraced virtual mentoring, ‘micro-mentoring’, reverse mentoring, or peer-to-peer mentoring; there are all kinds of approaches you can take if you want to explore your options.

For facilitators of mentoring initiatives, it is important to realise that – whether your programme is aimed at a specific demographic or a broader cohort – it is not enough simply to make mentoring available. Are you doing enough to persuade your target audience that they are eligible?

Mentor Me, is an initiative founded by Tenth Revolution Group to support the career development of women in technology. From the outset, we wanted to create an initiative valuable to women with more experience who couldn’t access graduate schemes or opportunities aimed at entry-level.

We shared news of the pilot scheme with our networks, and when I spoke to one acquaintance – someone who more than met the criteria – she said, ‘I’d love to do it, but I don’t know if I’m good enough. I don’t have a ten-year plan or think of myself as ambitious’. We encouraged her to apply, and after her first mentoring session, both she and her mentor were elated. ‘It was humbling to watch her during this session,’ her mentor fed back. ‘I feel privileged to play a small part in her mentoring process. She’s awesome.’

That experience illustrates something profound. So many of us think mentoring is for ‘other people’, whether it’s because we assume it’s for a certain demographic or we don’t match up to some unchallenged assumption about who is worthy of receiving support. Perhaps it’s time we started trusting that mentoring can – and should be – for everyone.

Rosie Ifould is Head of Customer Engagement at Frank Recruitment Group, part of B2B service Tenth Revolution Group.

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