A new report from Heidrick & Struggles finds that women and people of color find mentorship especially important, but good formal schemes are scarce and hard to implement
Corporate America still hasn’t cracked this code.
Executive headhunter Heidrick & Struggles has confirmed what many have suspected: having a good mentor is key to success in the workplace— and that’s especially true for underrepresented groups like women and ethnic minorities. In a new report published after surveying 1,032 respondents and interviewing 20 senior executives, the recruiters found that 30% of women and 32% of minorities say that their primary mentor relationship has been “extremely” important to their career development. This compares to 27% across the board.
Among the report’s other interesting findings were that minorities were more likely to seek mentorship while in mid-career than at a junior or very senior level. “The sense we got was that many seek out mentors as their careers leveled off and they were having trouble progressing to higher ranks,” Dave Pruner, a partner at Heidrick and one of the report’s authors, tells Moneyish.
Both men and women tend to have mentors of a similar gender, though males were slightly likelier to have a male mentor then women to have a female mentor (84% to 64% respectively). However, the gender straightjacket becomes more mixed among millennials. (The survey took place before the fallout from the Harvey Weinstein scandal triggered a bout of soul searching about workplace relationships between men and women, so Heidrick couldn’t say if there was any impact.) Additionally, minority mentees tend to approach mentors with similar backgrounds.
“If there’s more familiarity, there’s a chance for greater commonality for the two people,” Pruner says. “Otherwise, you’ll have difficulty succeeding in the long-haul, over hard and busy times.”
But since there’s a relative paucity of women and people of color as one approaches the higher rungs of a company, this could make it harder for such individuals to find someone with the right experience. (It’s important to note that a mentor needn’t necessarily be significantly more senior than a mentee.)
The survey also found that minorities, in particular, want formal mentoring programs. However, these are scarce: only 27% of survey takers say that their companies have such schemes. Moreover, the execs interviewed often see such programs as ham-fisted attempts to manufacture chemistry. This is despite the fact that such schemes can be a good way to retain existing talent. “We heard stories about people put in situations where they meant well but there was no chemistry and it was just a bad match,” Pruner says, adding that he can’t think of any company that has solved this puzzle.
One possible solution might be a semi-structured approach that still allows for spontaneity. “Some have played with the idea of almost speed dating, where senior people meet more junior folks to see their initial level of chemistry,” Pruner says. “It sounds like a commercial opportunity for one of those dating apps with algorithms to maximize relationships.” Indeed, the feminist dating app Bumble recently added a career networking component as a feature.
The most important thing though, is for companies to keep at it. “Whether it’s causal mentoring or something longterm and formal, it has to be the focus of culture. It may take multiple times before it clicks,” Pruner says. “If it’s just one-off, the chances of such relationships succeeding are small.”
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