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Overcome These Four Mentorship Pitfalls to Nurture Talent for Growth

Many organizations start mentorship programs with high hopes of creating connections across teams and roles, transferring experience between employees, and spurring professional development. When executed well, mentorship programs can deliver on all those goals and more. But many initiatives falter before getting there, leaving employees less than satisfied and senior leadership wary about reinvesting.

So what's the difference between successful mentorship programs and ones that struggle? At Dataminr, we rely on structure and shared commitment to support a thriving mentorship program.

The key is reframing how you set up the program, from setting the right expectations to facilitating a valuable experience for mentees and mentors alike.

A modern take on mentorship

When people think of mentorship programs, they often envision a long-lasting relationship between an older employee and a younger one, with the mentor providing advice across a range of topics over the course of a career. While such relationships can be beneficial, they're exceptionally hard to force and nearly impossible to scale.  The expectation that one person can provide all of your career guidance for a prolonged period of time isn't realistic. Moreover, a mentor need not be older than a mentee in every situation; rather, the mentor is someone who can share relevant and valuable perspectives, experience, and advice that the mentor requires at a given point in time.

At Dataminr, we take a different approach, viewing our mentorship program as a way to cultivate meaningful connections to achieve specific goals. For instance, an employee may want exposure to other parts of the company. In order to enable that objective, we match them with a mentor from another team or department. This is a fairly common request. We've had many reports from participants who say these relationships help them form a better understanding of Dataminr as a whole, and that the knowledge gained is useful in their current positions right away. This type of connection has even introduced some mentees to entirely new career paths at Dataminr.

In other situations, mentees have wanted to amplify their voice in the company, develop their leadership skills, or more quickly onboard as a new hire. The program can facilitate all of these objectives. We thoughtfully match mentors based on personal goals. We also encourage people to participate in the program more than once in order to seek out additional mentors if they feel like another mentor can address different aspects of their needs. For us, the result is a program that is less dependent on finding one perfect match and more focused on helping employees achieve their own goals, while developing multiple key relationships along the way.

How true mentorship helps:

"My mentor...really helped me identify what I wanted to work towards and how to get there."
"My mentor has taught me a lot about making my work more valuable from start to finish…[H]is involvement in my career has immeasurably aided my development."
"My mentor['s]...anecdotes and stories shared bring a lot of insight to learning a new perspective from someone from a different background than me."
"[It has been] really good to have a direct, personal line to someone senior with whom I can discuss ideas and proposals in a friendly, open space."
"Getting great feedback from someone much higher up in the company about its operations and direction is immensely valuable and interesting."

Getting it right

Within this updated view of mentorship, there are some best practices for putting a successful program into place. Here are four common pitfalls and recommendations for how to avoid them:

  1. Pitfall: Misplaced expectations.
    Mentees often look to mentors to define their goals for them. Furthermore, people have different ideas about how their mentorship relationship might work. Without solid guidance, it's easy for one or both parties to drop the ball on meetings or follow-up, and to miss opportunities to give meaningful feedback.

    Recommendation: Establish an optional, employee-driven program and provide a framework. 
    Structure helps people know how to approach the relationship, gives them guidance for what the mentorship should entail, and helps increase satisfaction from mentors and mentees. For example, we start by denoting the time commitment for people involved. Our program requires a six-month time commitment and we encourage our mentors and mentees to meet at least once per month. Creating a program that is optional guards against the program being a waste of time for people who have no real interest in it. In addition, requiring goals, agendas, and meeting times to be employee-driven puts the onus on the employee and lightens the commitment required from mentors, enabling even the busiest senior leaders to participate. We have an application process, which asks what people want to achieve from the program. Then we kick the program off with a training to set expectations for how to build and develop the mentor relationship in a six-month timeframe. Since our program is mentee-led, and that can be overwhelming for a new or junior employee, we offer robust, tactical templates and guides to help mentees hit the ground running. Just as importantly, the training outlines what not to expect from your mentor. A mentor is not your manager and a mentor will not drive the agenda or solve problems for you. Rather, a mentor is there to listen, guide, connect, and provide a safe space for ideas and creativity. Lastly, we don't dictate when or where the meetings should be held, but we do encourage pairs to get out of the office. We offer a $25 monthly budget to cover a cup of coffee or lunch to facilitate an offsite experience. If it is nice weather, it is great to take a walk together, and that's free.
  2. Pitfall: A lack of leadership support.
    Mentees often look to mentors to define their goals for them. Furthermore, people have different ideas about how their mentorship relationship might work. Without solid guidance, it's easy for one or both parties to drop the ball on meetings or follow-up, and to miss opportunities to give meaningful feedback.

    Recommendation: Get your senior leadership behind the program as soon as possible. This support can take many forms—whether it's providing a budget for the program or advocating for employees to participate and, ideally, having senior leaders sign up as mentors in the program. At Dataminr, our senior leadership team does all of the above. That support reiterates to our employees that this is an important use of their time. And for those administering the program, it makes it that much easier for the program to find success.
  3. Pitfall: Not enough feedback.
    You can't create and improve your program in a vacuum. If you're not formally collecting feedback and establishing KPIs, then you're missing opportunities to learn more about what's working and what needs to change.

    Recommendation: Gather feedback early and often. We collect both qualitative and quantitative feedback about every eight weeks, allowing for three feedback moments in each six month program. Our short surveys ask participants about their overall satisfaction, the degree to which they value the program, what they've gotten out of it, and whether it's made a difference in how they do their jobs. Our program participation grows with every session, and so far we've had 98-100% satisfaction on all surveys. Both mentors and mentees regularly confirm that the mentorship program at Dataminr is valuable. Putting data behind the program makes it easier to quantify our results and maintain support for the resources the program requires. It also gives us feedback for continuous improvement.
  4. Pitfall: No one owns the program.
    A mentorship program needs a home—and an individual or team charged with ensuring that it runs smoothly session after session. There is very little chance of a mentorship program truly taking hold and succeeding in an organization if one early champion launches it and then leaves it to flourish organically. It won't work to set it and forget it.

    Recommendation: Make sure a team owns the program and that people are held accountable for results. Our People Team is responsible for the mentorship program. We facilitate the applications, make meaningful matches, create and deliver Mentorship Program Orientation training to every mentee and mentor, gather feedback, and report on progress. The People Team also holds program participants accountable. We check in to ensure people are attending their mentorship meetings and paying attention while they're there. We encourage people to put down their phones, ignore their email, and fully engage personally during these important meetings.

Doing mentorship right pays off

Most of the time, mentorship programs lack structure and accountability, and fail to launch, or simply fade away from lack of engagement. A well-intentioned but poorly executed program can leave participating employees disenchanted and frustrated.

At Dataminr, nearly 100% of all participants -- both mentors and mentees, surveyed over the last two years -- have given the program the highest rating and said they found it to be of value. It is typical for us to have over 30% of our employee population involved in the mentorship program at any given time, and over 85% choose to re-enroll for a second mentor or to be both a mentor and a mentee. Through positive word of mouth, our participation has more than doubled each time we open applications.

We have achieved something truly special by redefining mentorship and investing in our employees' continued growth and success