Creating a mentoring culture in the post-pandemic world

The National Association of Colleges and Employers named Allison McWilliams, Assistant Vice President of Mentoring and Alumni Personal and Career Development, Mentor of the Year. She is also a co-winner of the Career Services Excellence Award for her work with alumni and personal and professional development.

A decade ago, Wake Forest was one of the first higher education institutions in the country to adopt a campus-wide mentoring model. McWilliams was at the head of the university Mentoring Resource Center since its inception. She was hired to get the center started and envisioned a program where every Wake Forest student would have the opportunity for a positive mentoring experience.

While mentoring has always been a part of a Wake Forest education, McWilliams has expanded that culture by encouraging faculty, staff, students and alumni of all ages to assume both mentor and mentee roles. Today, the center reaches more than 3,500 in person and 27,000 online each year.

McWilliams provides advice to organizations and their employees.

Q: What strategy would you recommend for organizations looking to build a workplace-wide mentoring culture and why?

A: Take the time to talk to your employees and assess their specific, strategic needs. That’s probably still 75% of the work I do after 12 years in this role. Then assess whether mentoring is the right intervention to address those needs. Many programs fail because organizations don’t do the work. Mentoring is not a magic solution to every problem. I firmly believe that everyone can benefit from great mentoring and that there should be more of it, both inside and outside organisations. But it should be done thoughtfully and strategically.

Q: How do you see mentor and mentee support on the job for young graduates and employers when many new hires are seeking hybrid or full remote jobs?

A: If you want to work hybrid/fully remote, you need to put even more effort and structure into developing relationships. I would suggest young graduates

  • start by having as many 15-minute coffee chats with new colleagues as possible;
  • have longer conversations with those who seem most interested and relevant; and
  • Request regular meetings with your manager and direct team members.

And for the mentor or manager,

  • help facilitate this process by making these connections and introductions;
  • Ask your new hire who they met, what they learned and where their knowledge gaps are; and
  • Look for opportunities to create an intentional connection between and between your people.

We are hardwired to connect and exist within the community. And that doesn’t happen by accident.

Q: A recent study by TimelyMD shows that new professionals are eager and willing to work, while at the same time feeling nervous about finances, their ability to succeed, and their general mental well-being. What kind of mentoring support should employers be willing to offer in 2022 college graduates entering the labor market?

A: It is important that employers understand these concerns and not dismiss them. We all come to work as whole people, with lives and challenges and achievements outside of work that will impact our work. You do not have to be, and should not be, your people’s therapist. But it’s okay to ask if they’re okay and recommend resources if you do. From COVID to the ever-present news cycle, we’ve all experienced some heavy, traumatic things over the last few years. When employers pretend these things aren’t happening, your employees notice. First and foremost we must be human and treat others with kindness, grace and respect. It’s not your job to fix other people or solve their problems for them. It’s your job to show some basic compassion and caring for others.

Q: What is the most unexpected or surprising thing a mentor can do to support a mentee, or a mentee to support a mentor?

A: Perhaps not surprising, but sometimes the easiest and best thing a mentor can do is offer to connect the mentee with another person, resource, or opportunity. Sometimes that’s all the other person needs, and then you can step out of the way. For the mentee, especially when you’re just starting out, I think it can happen that you feel like you’re not repaying your mentor. This is the problem with viewing mentoring relationships as reciprocal: it implies some consideration and that the mentor is only doing his job to get something in return. The only thing we can expect from mentees is that they invest at least as much in their own growth and development as we do.

Q: What would you suggest to smaller organizations or groups with fewer resources to improve mentoring?

A: Think about how you can incorporate mentoring into everything. What would it look like to develop a culture based on intentionality, asking questions and hearing feedback, showing up for and with other people, genuinely caring about the growth and development of other people? This is what a mentoring culture looks like. It’s not about having a grand formal program. It means having a community of people who care about each other, who are invested in each other and who take responsibility for their own growth and development. It’s that simple and it’s also that challenging. But this is how you change organizations and cultures.

Q: They have helped Wake Forest establish a mentoring resource center to support mentors and mentees rather than taking on the mentoring process. What is the biggest challenge with this approach?

A: You have to be willing to give up control. We have created a decentralized model here at Wake Forest, which means that my office does not operate or “own” any of the formal mentoring programs on campus. Instead, we serve in an advisory role for those who wish to develop and lead formal programs, providing much guidance, training and support to both formal and informal programs. Cultural change is a long-term process. We decided early on that we were much more interested in that long-term success, rather than running a formal, limited-range program. And that means handing over much of the oversight and control to our campus partners.

McWilliams is the author of Five For Your First Five: Own Your Career and Life After College and Year One: How Young Professionals (And Their Managers) Can Thrive in Their First Job After College. She also blogs for Psychology Today at “your great career

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