By Tanya Tarr
In business and life, success hinges on managing a game of expectations. In times of deep uncertainty – like now – it can be nearly impossible to win that game. So how do you increase your odds of success? Whether it’s a pandemic, international deployment or on-boarding into a new organizational world, mentorship can help close that uncertainty gap. Growing research has also shown that intentional mentorship programs have a positive impact in chipping away at the promotion or opportunity gap, gaps that keep women and people of color from advancing within organizations.
Originally, that was why I reached out to experts as I started to write this article. I wanted to find stories of how mentoring was helping create world-class organizations that retain talent, level pay and hone their competitive edge through innovation. But I ended up finding out how mentoring has been an unexpected solution during the pandemic. I found mentorship was breaking down organizational silos while also creating vital emotional stewardship.
I want to take a moment and define this term – emotional stewardship. Managing with emotional stewardship means prioritizing long-term, inclusive decisions that help the entire organization, not just individuals. Dr. Morela Hernandez at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia has written extensively on stewardship as a management philosophy when applied to organizational settings. She cites previous research that shows that “relationship-centered collaboration within the organization fosters pro-organizational and trustworthy behavior in managers.” Dr. Hernandez also defines stewardship as “placing the long-term best interests of a group ahead of personal goals that serve an individual’s self-interests.” I include the word emotional to mean when executives and managers take their team’s emotional health into decision-making, both as individuals and as a cohesive group.
Mentorship fits squarely within the domain of emotional stewardship. Both frameworks see interaction through a lens of long-term relationship and steady development. “Mentoring is a core part of who we are as humans,” said Seena Mortazavi, CEO of Chronus, a mentoring software and platform. Janice Omadeke agrees. She is CEO of The Mentor Method, also a mentoring platform. “Mentorship is the trifecta for employee morale,” Omadeke said. When an organization decides to invest in a mentorship program, “you’re providing a safe space for them to discuss their feelings, you’re connecting your talent to resources that build resiliency and you’re showing an investment in their development, which can offer peace of mind, personally and professionally,” she said. That emotional support is vital as organizations do their best to navigate the pandemic.
Mentoring programs have often been championed as a proven method to implement diversity and inclusion goals, close the opportunity gap and also retain staff. “We know that people really don’t get promoted without having a champion and someone that can speak about you behind closed doors,” said Mortazavi, “Having mentoring as a part of the employee journey helps to level the playing field so everyone has the same opportunity to progress in their careers,” he said. Mortazavi also mentioned Cox Communications and Paychex Payroll Solutions as two other companies that had a significant and measurable boost in women advancing within the organization as a result of intentional mentoring programs.
While closing promotion gaps are important, that might not be the gap that is currently top-of-mind. The biggest problem that looms right now is not unfamiliar: loneliness. Loneliness and isolation have been costing businesses billions of dollars every year. “Imagine what’s going on now,” said Mortazavi. “I can’t even fathom what that cost will be in terms of impact to our lives or health conditions or mental health,” he said. Mortazavi noted that the pandemic is surfacing places where employees might not have a support network that can help them navigate the new work-from-home reality.
Mentoring programs have also been helping organizations continue to deepen their adaptive capabilities, even within organizations that have an established expectation of disruption. This has been the case for the U.S. Coast Guard. At the Coast Guard Academy, a fledgling mentoring program created unexpected value for students and also for active duty sailors. Toby Olsen is the Leader Development Program Manager at the Loy Institute for Leadership at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. Olsen, who is also retired from the Coast Guard, tested a few mentoring programs over time. “We have cadets go through 200 hours of leadership during their time here, and we want to make sure it counts,” Olsen said. Mentoring seemed like the best fit to reinforce class work. Eight months ago, Olsen launched a comprehensive program with 182 mentees and 160 mentors. That represents about 18% of the student body and recent graduates that are deployed across the globe. Mentors are a blend of Academy faculty and staff, as well as active duty and retired members of the Coast Guard.
A driving factor for the mentorship program was to support the success of female cadets or those that came from a racial or ethnic minority backgrounds. The Academy boasts one of the most inclusive populations, particularly when it comes to gender. Olsen mentioned that women represent 36% of the student body. This is significant because across all active duty military branches, women represent about 17% of the enlisted and officer population. “It’s exciting that we’re able to match people with someone from their background and be mentored by someone who is out there in the Coast Guard,” Olsen said. “Maybe they grew up in Florida and they’re about to be deployed to Alaska, and they’ve never been to Alaska. It’s helpful to have someone to talk to, that can help them get prepared and guide them through their career,” he said. To date, Olsen has had a 97% success rate in matching mentors and mentees, which is a voluntary program. In other words, mentees stick with their mentors.
The Academy’s mentoring program was launched right before the pandemic broke out, and the benefit wasn’t limited to just cadets. “We got noticed by our leaders in Washington D.C., and they realized that the program we had created could be helpful for active duty and reservists in personal readiness,” Olsen said. While deployment is familiar, rapid deployment during a global pandemic is new. The mentorship program the Academy created now is being considered for use to boost personal readiness for active duty Coast Guard members and their families, in managing personal affairs when deployment orders come down. Again, the mentorship program shows the dual benefit of helping keep the organization resilient and adaptable while also supporting strategic recruitment and retention goals around gender and underrepresented groups.
Mentorship programs also helped one media giant connect employees during an organizational restructuring. ViacomCBS had planned to launch a mentorship program and pushed up their launch date because of the pandemic.
Originally posted on Forbes