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Making the case for mentorship through a pandemic

Recent economic shifts have forced many U.S. workers to re-think their jobs, careers and ultimately, the meaning of their life’s work. Research tells us that a staggering 80,000 American women have left the workforce during the pandemic and 76% of those 30 and younger are looking for or are open to new opportunities.

When it comes to uncovering a path forward, I believe mentorship is critical — and greatly underutilized.

Mentorship solves many problems of workforce growth from the inside out, not the outside in.

When done well, mentorship:

  • Provides junior and diverse workers opportunities for upskilling and visibility among management. One study found that mentoring, as compared to training and other corporate diversity initiatives, increased minority representation among managers from nine to 24 percent.
  • Leads to job satisfaction. According to organizational researchers, employees with mentors report higher levels of job satisfaction, and commitment to the organization, compensation and promotions. Why is that? Simply put, when employees believe an organization is committed to them, they feel committed to the organization. Everyone wins.
  • Benefits the mentee just as much as the mentor. One study of CFO mentors found that 38% said their greatest benefit was the opportunity to improve their own leadership skills; 29% said it was the personal satisfaction they felt by helping someone else.
  • Facilitates referrals needed to get that next job on the corporate ladder. Regardless of what recruiters would like you to think, as many as 85% of jobs are filled via networking. Mentorship opens doors for these opportunities.
  • Provides a 30,000-ft. perspective during the pandemic. A mentor will have a greater lens with which he/she sees the business or industry and will therefore, be able to help a mentee recognize when it’s necessary to pivot, how to juggle remote work and other current challenges.

Mentoring during a pandemic

When we think of mentoring, we typically think of taking a junior or new employee down to the cafeteria for lunch and a schmooze once a month. During a pandemic, however, that close, relative proximity is gone. The irony is that even though in-person talks aren’t possible now, we need mentors more than ever.

Here are a few tips for mentoring during a pandemic:

  1. Remain visible. Hold mentoring sessions like your other meetings, via video conference, so your mentee can see you. There is so much to learn that can’t be taught on the phone or via email. Let them see how you speak, what you’re wearing when working from home, how you present yourself and how you keep your surroundings. These lessons are often just as important as what you have to say.
  2. Soft skills have never been more important. Mentees, especially those new to the workforce have always benefited greatly from mentoring on soft skills. How can you “teach” soft skills virtually? You have to call them out. The day before your next call with your mentee, pay attention to the soft skills you use. Jot them down on your phone. Think: communication with clients and co-workers; small talk to make when you first get on a video call ( I love talking about weather!), how to catch the personal things people say about themselves and then file away for use later on. Think about HOW you lead, HOW you go about making decisions and what motivates you to keep going even while the world faces a devastating pandemic. Being able to articulate these to your mentee are critical to their professional growth.
  3. Be there for them. Everyone is struggling in some way during the pandemic. The ability of a mentor to acknowledge and validate these feelings is a critical component to the mentor/mentee relationship. Showing your own vulnerability and sharing your own challenges authentically will go a long way. Remember that leading by example, i.e. revealing your own vulnerability, is a critical aspect of being a strong leader. Show mentees that you give yourself permission to take a break when you need one – lead by example.
  4. Schedule what’s next. Just as you wouldn’t let a co-worker leave a meeting without scheduling the next project pow-wow session, make sure you do the same with your mentee. Whether that means you’ve got a monthly reoccurring meeting on the calendar (automation makes life easier!), or you two reevaluate dates each time, make sure you book your next mentoring session before you leave the last one. This will remove any angst your mentee has about reaching out each time they need to talk, and will ensure the mentor doesn’t get too busy to carve out necessary time for the mentee.

Being a mentor and mentee simultaneously

Even as a high school student growing up in Suburban Chicago, I knew I wanted to be a writer. Through a program with the local daily newspaper my senior year, I wrote a weekly column about the goings on at Buffalo Grove High School.

Although my parents and immediate neighbors were likely the only ones even interested in my “news,” I gained something else significant from that experience – my first mentors in the news business.

It was those mentors that advised me to major in what I wanted to write about, aka Political Science – not Journalism. Their advice was to start writing for any publications that would publish my work and amass a series of clips and experiences. And that’s exactly what I did. I would still say it was the single best – and most unique – advice I received at that pivotal stage in my life. I am still grateful to those writers that gave of their time and ideas early on in my career.

As a general practice, I believe it’s important to be both a mentor and mentee simultaneously. And I practice what I preach. I have personal and professional mentors I consult regularly, and I have mentees that reach out to me occasionally for advice and those I meet with regularly.

Participating in mentorship on both levels is critical to remaining humble, creative and nimble in whatever your industry or job you do. Very often each of those roles informs the other.

Mentor Today

Now is the time – yes, during a pandemic – to tell a junior associate or student you know you’ll take him/her under your wing. The commitment is less than you think. Schedule a 15 to 30-minute virtual video call with them and jump in! I promise, you won’t regret it. In fact, you may even learn a thing or two yourself.

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