The COVID-19 Crisis is a Mentorship Opportunity: Here’s How to Take Advantage of It

Companies around the globe are struggling to manage and motivate their workforces and enable productivity while dealing with economic uncertainty and layoffs. And while it may seem odd to think about employee retention during this crisis, there’s never been a more important time to focus on how you are supporting your employees—and the future of your business.

No one can be sure what the “right” business decisions to make to manage through this crisis will be. But we do know that gender-diverse leadership teams make better decisions overall. Mixed teams were 21% more likely to have above-average profitability than companies led by predominantly male teams, said a 2018 McKinsey study.

Chances are that your leadership team isn’t gender-diverse, though. Women hold only 10% of top management positions in S&P 1500 companies, says a 2017 analysis by the Pew Research Center. Only 28% of women are satisfied with the level of diversity and sense of inclusion and belonging at their company, found PowerToFly’s 2020 What Women Want report.

To fix that, your company has two options: looking outside or looking inside.

The biggest prong of an outside-focused initiative is usually recruiting. But if your company is facing layoffs and furloughs, recruiting is (understandably!) unlikely to be a top-of-mind focus right now.

That leaves the looking-inward approach. What people do you already have working for you that can be trained up to take on leadership roles and balance out the diversity of your top teams? And how can you help them unlock their potential?

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Mentorship. The practice of guiding and advising a protégé has long been proven to work to increase promotions and career satisfaction and decrease turnover in the mentee pool. And it’s what underrepresented groups want, too: the What Women Want report found that 82% of women surveyed wanted their companies to offer more professional development opportunities.

And let’s get practical: mentorship is one of the most cost-effective ways you can invest in training and promoting diverse talent. You don’t need to shell out for expensive conferences. You probably already know who the rising stars at the junior levels of your organization are. You just need to set them up with someone more senior who can help them navigate the transition to a leadership role.

If your team is already strapped for time, you can utilize a cost-efficient third-party mentorship service to assist in finding mentors and managing logistics, or you can introduce mentorship in smaller ways and create a culture of paying it forward. Here’s how to start:

  • Define your goals. If your goal is to foster diversity and build a path to leadership for underrepresented team members, your mentorship program will be structured differently than if your goal is to welcome new hires or build more technical skills. For the sake of this example, we’ll go with fostering diversity as our goal.
  • Share your goals with your team—and make clear it’s a business priority. This stage is especially important in times of austerity or stress. Why invest in something like mentoring, when its payoff isn’t immediate? Well, because it can dramatically improve the diversity of your company’s leadership, and thus its bottom line, turnover, and creative potential. Investing now for future returns is something companies do all the time. Make sure your team understands that’s what you’re doing here, and that mentors and mentees have the full support of your leadership team to invest time and resources into the program.
  • Choose your mentors. While it’s true that you can be a mentor at any stage of your career, for our goal, we need high-level mentors who have the skills and experiences to be able to thoughtfully and productivity guide junior and mid-level talent into leadership roles. It’s important not to choose only other women or people of color for these slots. As a LeanIn report shows, limiting men from being mentors means fewer women will rise to leadership positions due to less guidance and buy-in.
  • Choose your mentees. In our example, we’d need to identify high-potential diverse talent and gauge their interest in being mentored. Ideally, mentorship would be available to everyone in an organization, but it’s fine to start with a small group and expand as you learn about what works.
  • Pair mentors and mentees. You can do this in a myriad of ways, but a particularly effective way is to have mentees list the kinds of skills they most want to learn, and mentors provide a list of the skills they’re most comfortable imparting, then presenting mentees with a few options and having them choose. Interpersonal dynamics are important: even if someone looks great on paper, they might not click, which is why it’s important for the mentee to have a say.
  • Set expectations and get in sync on a format. For our goal, expectations might be to help the mentee improve along certain leadership dimensions and position herself to take on more responsibility in a year’s time. To facilitate that, our pairs might decide on biweekly meetings wherein the mentee brings the mentor problems or issues she’s been having, the mentor gives advice, and both share some reflections on progress.
  • Evaluate performance over time. After your mentorship program has been running for a while, collect data—both objective, like promotions and turnover, and subjective, like career satisfaction and confidence—and go over it with your team. Are you seeing the results you’d hoped for? Where can you improve?

Remember, mentorship is one of the single most effective ways to build leadership potential with the resources you already have available. And in a climate of uncertainty and increased stress, employees will be especially likely to benefit from having a seasoned advisor to call on. To get through this, we need to work together—and mentorship is one of the best ways to do that.

Katherine Plumhoff is a writer, editor, and researcher at PowerToFly, the platform for fast-tracking gender equality. She crafts stories about women in the workplace, feminism, and cross-cultural communication. Formerly a team manager at a hedge fund in NYC, she’s now a full-time content creator based in Latin America.

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