The Ingredients of Successful Mentoring for Women: What I Learned from a New England Energy-Environment Group
At a Glance
For professional women in fields like engineering and energy that remain, in 2020, still largely dominated by men, finding mentors to collaborate with can be one of the most beneficial, enriching–and career-advancing–personal and professional experiences they can have.
But in a time when it feels like no one has enough time for anything, what does it take to build a successful mentoring program? A great example I can point to is the experience of New England Women in Energy and the Environment. NEWIEE (pronounced “NEW-ee”) in 2017 launched a pilot mentorship program that fully 80 percent of participating mentors and mentees called a success and something they want to grow and continue.
“It’s very nice to know someone that has lots of work experience because she can give great advice,’’ was one response we heard from a mentee that was widely echoed. On the other side of the relationship, mentors talked about what a positive “two-way street” the connection was, even a confidence-booster: “It reminded me just how much I know!”
So what goes in to launching a successful mentorship program like this? Some quick background: NEWIEE was founded in 2008 by a group of women who wanted to exchange ideas and experiences in a space where women could easily meet other women facing similar technical, career, and work-life balance questions and benefit from each other’s experiences. The group has grown to more than 50 corporate members and over 800 individuals participating, while also becoming a true regional force for women’s leadership, drawing support from corporate and other sponsors who recognize the value of helping to raise women’s voices and stature in our fields.
In the late 2010s, membership surveys showed that the need for mentoring opportunities was emerging as a top priority for NEWIEE participants. NEWIEE’s board responded by creating a Mentorship Committee charged with creating a pilot mentoring program for members that would be effective–and nimble. The committee is made up of volunteers who have a passion for wanting to give back to other women and to provide them opportunities to grow as professionals and to network by forming mentoring relationships with senior women practitioners in energy and environmental fields.
As Chair of the Mentorship Committee, I worked with a superb group of colleagues to develop what we called a “website matchups” strategy to connect interested mentors with prospective mentees. This involved having women fill out a questionnaire including information about their strengths, interests, areas of work experience, and goals for participating in a mentor-mentee relationship.
While artificial intelligence (AI) can do a lot of things very well these days, one thing it can’t replace is the human insight and judgment you need to identify the best potential mentor-mentee relationships. With close to 100 applicants coming in per pilot round, we needed to spend hours to thoughtfully cull the responses to make appropriate matches.
When we introduced mentors and mentees by email, one important element we added was a “code of conduct” for the relationship: a suggested structure of engagement, including meeting at least once face-to-face, agreeing on a regular schedule of meetings or calls, and letting mentees drive the agenda and the conversation. We also directed our mentor-mentee pairs to specify how long they would commit to the relationship (typically 6 months) before filling out feedback questionnaires and assessing what was working and what was not and whether they wanted to continue. Putting a firm limit on the engagement, making sure it never would feel like an open-ended overlong commitment, was an important element of recruiting willing mentors.
Even still, one of NEWIEE’s biggest challenges was to recruit enough mentors. In the first three rounds of matchups, potential mentees outnumbered available mentors by as much as a 5:1 ratio.
One striking realization we had from this process is that finding time for work-life balance and growing a career while juggling a family is one of the most important challenges for women, and something they most want to discuss with their successful mentors. And yet, that exact time-crunch dynamic is also one of the single biggest obstacles to mentees being able to ensure their mentor relationship flourishes and succeeds. Because NEWIEE’s members are spread over a six-state area, few have time available for traveling to face-to-face meetings–and yet, lack of face-to-face meetings emerged as one of the single biggest reasons mentorships fail. Telephone calls, Facetime, and Skype can be alternatives to meetings, but in our experience can never replace the experience of two people engaged in a real-life, face-to-face conversation.
Overall, however, mentees and mentors have reported tremendous satisfaction with the program, particularly the flexibility of the process, the finite length of commitment, and their overall compatibility with their mentor or mentee. That, I know, is thanks to the hours of matchmaking work committee members invested in identifying who would best click with each other and the commitment from the participants in wanting to make the relationship beneficial. I am proud to point to what I think is the most important bottom-line number: 7 out of 10 mentees, and 5 out of 6 mentors, say they would like to extend their current relationship.
Some more of what we’ve heard from mentees: “I learned a lot of helpful things that I was able to implement into my job.” “She has been able to give me people to network with that can help me on my way looking for a new job.’’ “My mentor has been very helpful in understanding my strengths and how to navigate the traditional pitfalls … I hope I can continue to seek her out for advice.” “My mentor offered her extensive insight to help me develop more effective strategies in managing up and managing direct reports, specifically about which skill sets are most useful in handling those situations.’’
Mentors, meanwhile, expressed gratitude at being able to help mentees with immediate things-updating a resume, managing a salary request for a new job–and what one called “longer-term questions about career trajectories.” “This experience made me think about my own journey and how I evaluated steps along the way to get to where I currently am, and what was effective at each time.’’
If I could sum up what we’ve learned about what makes this mentorship program successful: 1. Invest heavily up front in matching pairs thoughtfully; 2. Assure both parties it’s a finite time commitment, subject to a “review and re-up” process and 3. Require they commit to “rules of the road” for how they’ll meet, drive the objectives of the relationship and address communication challenges. Having as many face-to-face meetings as they can possibly make time for is one of the keys to a meaningful mentoring relationship.