What if development programmes are not the most helpful investment for under-represented groups?

What better ways are there of challenging a system that has continued to promote tall, white, cisgender, straight men?

In our podcast this month, we were exploring the fact that International Women’s Day tends to come along each year with a focus on women, and what they can do to be more confident and successful. As though the issue of so few women at the top is an issue for women to resolve alone. There are many diversity experts who work on addressing issues in the system: we recommend Jiten Patel and Chikere Igbokwe to name just two in the UK….

But we’re going to focus our attention just now on the massively underutilised opportunity of mentoring. And a few ways we can make it even more effective.  We tend to think of mentoring as simply a more senior person providing insights and experience to a more junior person. Yet it can be so much more than that.

What if the mentor became something more of a sponsor and an ally? Speaking to their peers about their mentee, raising awareness of the individual’s talent, experience and potential? What if the mentor invited the mentee to a few of their senior meetings, gaining the individual exposure to different levels and discussions?

And where this opportunity becomes even more exciting, is when the mentee then meets three new senior colleagues, and asks them to be mentors too.

The classic challenge to all of this is time. How could any ambitious individual have time for all these fluffy meetings with senior colleagues? And surely the senior colleagues likewise will say they can’t afford the time. Yet we make time for people in our inner circles.

We invite that person on our team, who reminds us of how we were a few years’ back, to meetings, projects, opportunities, lunch, drinks – sharing our experience and advice with them. We do this naturally with people who are like us. And now it is time to extend that to people we would not think of.

Setting up a mentoring scheme that educates people about their biases and gets them to actively involve mentees in sponsorship, could be your next greatest opportunity to shift your corporate needle on DEI.

You’ll need to consider:

  • How this is led from the top – perhaps getting your Exec team to invite people to be mentors.
  • How you engage mentors – including educating them about company goals on DEI and how their biases and therefore who they sponsor and bring to meetings, will affect who gets noticed and talked about.
  • How you engage mentees – making clear what this is and is not. Sitting for hours listening to someone drone on about their experiences (and privilege?) is unlikely to be too appealing. But looking at the opportunities for exposure to projects, meetings and stakeholders – being seen, heard and having an impact – that’s going to be more challenging and enticing.
  • How you set this up and monitor progress – as many mentoring schemes are monitored by the number of meetings a mentor has with their mentee. Could you put more success measures in place for how many new meetings or projects the mentee has gained exposure to?

Rather than focusing all your career development or DEI offers around workshops and skills-building for those that are under-represented, what if we put more emphasis on those at the top, to grow diverse talent pools?

Mentoring, with an emphasis on sponsorship and exposing people to new opportunities, is a way to do just that.