Why More Companies Are Turning to Mentoring Circles to Elevate Women

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“Women remain underrepresented in the corporate pipeline… At every step, the representation of women declines.” – McKinsey & Company

Despite modern movements to elevate women in the workforce, women continue to experience a significant drop-off in workforce participation from entry level to C-Suite—a 27 percent drop-off to be exact. Organizations that fail to engage or advance women employees aren’t just perceived negatively for their D&I commitments, it’s also bad for business. As McKinsey & Company found, companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to have higher financial returns than their competitors. Furthermore, research shows that once women make up a majority of a team, the entire team’s collective intelligence rises. What does this lead to? Greater creativity, innovation, and decision-making.

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In order to reap the benefits of gender diversity in the workplace, organizations have to keep women in the talent pipeline from the beginning. This means creating a deeper connection between them and the organizations they work for, assuaging the feelings of isolation and disconnect, while building the skills and networks they need to advance in the leadership pipeline. A study in the Academy of Management Journal found that career development for women is specifically tied more to attachment and relationships, compared to career development for men which tied to increased autonomy and separation from others. In light of this, it’s critical that organizations provide women development in the manner they crave: a community of support and social ties that connect them more fully with those around them.

Sound like a tall order for organizations to deliver on? This is precisely the reason why mentoring circles, a modern form of group mentoring, is on the rise, quickly gaining popularity in organizations looking to tackle gender diversity head on.

Why Mentoring Circles?

Made popular through Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and the Lean In movement, a mentoring circle is peer-to-peer group mentoring program type that enables employees to find colleagues within an organization who share common interests or learning objectives, and develop together. Circle members (ideally between five and eight people) choose a topic—whether it be personal or professional—for group discussion. The discussion is led by a circle leader. The option to be a circle leader is rotated around the group, giving members a chance to build confidence, improve leadership skills, and engage in career development through active facilitation.
Catalyst found 65 percent of women who have been mentored will go on to become mentors themselves, thus continuously refilling the mentor pool and perpetuating the positive mentorship cycle for women.

A circles program can serve various groups such as Working Moms, Women in Leadership, Minority Women in Finance, Women in STEM and more. The circles can be gender specific or coed, depending on the program’s intentions. This modern form of mentoring imparts a feeling of inclusivity that can help employees feel more connected and engaged. Mentoring circles work for three distinct reasons:

Build Community, Networks & Skills

Interacting with a community through formal mentoring helps women build networks within an organization. This is something women struggle with on their own. Development Dimensions International reports 67 percent of women rate mentorship as highly important in career advancement, but a majority 63 percent report they’ve never had a mentor. While studies point to women asking for mentorship less than men because they’re unsure whom to approach, or hesitant of the response they might receive, this lack of involvement can increase as women move into the later stages of their careers, further hindering corporate latter progression.


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Mentoring circles can give women early access to influential peers, future sponsors and senior leadership they might never have interacted with before circles. This pulls women into networks sooner, engaging them earlier in their careers. Further, these interactions enable skillset development, whether through direct peer-to-peer learning on topics such as strategic thinking and leadership or nominations from leadership for stretch assignments or development programs. Exposure to higher-level personnel propels continued and greater learning. Integration into networks can be extremely helpful in avoiding the mid-career drop-off as women progress from entry-level to later career stages.

Elevate Accountability

Much like Weightwatchers or CrossFit, group accountability can be an empowering factor for action in mentoring circles. Seeing what challenges others group members are tackling can inspire a participant to push herself to check off a daunting obstacle—asking for a raise, seeking a promotion, or speaking out in a meeting. This type of interaction builds trust between members that allows them to come together in support of each other’s goals, while simultaneously seeking to achieve their own. It’s a lot easier to run that extra two miles or skip the after dinner dessert when there’s someone else there backing your decision.

Confront Discomfort, Bias & Feedback

Mentoring circles can breakdown silos between departments, genders, ethnicities and beyond. It can be a safe space to discuss things that make us all uncomfortable. For women, discussing subjects like equal pay or negotiating for a promotion can be difficult to bring up with a boss or co-worker, but circles allow members to discuss hard-hitting topics openly and truthfully, building a more empathetic culture while offering each other ways to actively work through challenges.

Stanford professors found that women are less likely to receive explicit feedback related to outcomes, both when receiving praise or critical feedback. This lack of specificity leaves women questioning their work, and sometimes themselves. Discussing subjects like this during circles can enlighten all participants present and builds confidence in women’s work, having received honest feedback.

Mentoring circles also allow people to self-assemble with a network that makes them feel comfortable. They allow participants to sidestep the awkwardness of reaching out for a one-on-one relationship, or worrying about the chemistry of a matched one-to-one connection. Instead, it enables people to gather around the topics they’re passionate about, and the people they want to learn more from.

Beware the Temptation of Ease

The benefits of mentoring circles are endless, but beware throwing employees into a program without the proper guardrails. Without organizational buy-in, proper structure, or the ability to scale a program with software or otherwise, well-intentioned mentoring circles could hurt more than they help. As a 2011 Corporate Leadership Council report found, only 36 percent of employees are effective at peer mentoring when left to their own devices, and only 7 percent of organizations focus engagement initiatives on improving these interactions. Mentoring is not something that always comes naturally to people, and unprepared participants can lead to inefficient programs—ones that can become more of a liability than a solution.

When employees are enabled to be effective at critical peer mentoring interactions, average engagement capital can improve by a staggering 66 percent. In order to build a successful mentoring circles program, organizations must make sure to:

  • Garner leadership buy-in as advocates for the program and the advancement of women in their careers
  • Provide structure and onboarding to equip all participants with the knowledge of how the program should work
  • Implement a system or software to manage the program scale the organization hopes to accommodate
  • Guide the individual mentorships as they progress

Just as circles are meant to create engagement between employees, so program design and automation should emanate this same connectivity between program and participants, constantly keeping them linked with an up-to-date circles marketplace of topics, automated communication, and an easy to navigate program.

Conclusion

Through the power of mentoring, women can build skills and create networks that will propel them to fill the gaps in management and leadership that will soon be left by the departing generation of baby boomers. The inclusive nature of mentoring can embolden women to seek higher, more integrated roles in an organization, inspiring tenure and engagement for a forward thinking company. In order to combat workplace challenges, organizations must be on the proactive front with a solution that will benefit future innovation and increased profitability.

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