Mentoring Matters: Nurturing Employee Potential in a Hybrid World

Career AdviceDEILeadership Strategies
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Caitlin MacNamara
November 18, 2021
4 min read
Career AdviceDEILeadership Strategies
Executive Summary
Mentorship has long been hailed as one of the most economical and effective tools for developing talent and now we know it also helps fostering the inclusivity.


Our experience is that the “leaky pipeline” for diverse talent that exists across most industries and companies can be even more pronounced at retail. As an industry, retail tends to be more diverse on the front lines and in the field, but as you move through to the corporate team, it becomes much less so. This dynamic underscores the importance of developing diverse talent early on as a way of building the executive talent pool down the road.

Russell Reynolds recently concluded an in-depth look at what drives diversity. After a year of tracking a number of factors, we found that one intervention has a particularly powerful effect: inclusive leadership.

Specifically, our study found that more diversity led to stronger feelings of equity and inclusion. The lift in those two factors is what ultimately drives a sense of belonging. But it was inclusive leadership characteristics such as empathy and a willingness to take feedback that really made a difference.

Mentorship has long been hailed as one of the most economical and effective tools for developing talent and now we know it also opens the door to fostering feelings of inclusivity. The value grows exponentially more when there is an intentional focus on often underrepresented groups.  The relationship allows leaders to demonstrate care and nurture potential in up-and-coming talent. The result is an associate who feels appreciated and valued. Unfortunately, the global pandemic has created an environment where mentorship is much harder to execute successfully.

The timing couldn’t be worse. Just as companies began to respond with deeper commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion, COVID impacted all ways of working. Spontaneous interactions simply don’t happen as much and planned connections require more effort in the remote and hybrid worlds that are a reality now.

But there are a number of factors that strengthen the case for adapting mentorship programs for today’s dynamics. Under-represented groups, such as women, can be disproportionately impacted versus their counterparts, as they may be taking on additional responsibilities and/or require more remote-working options due to the circumstances of the pandemic.

In fact, a recent survey from Qualtrics and the Boardlist found that 34 percent of men with children had received promotions while working remotely, compared with just 9 percent of women with children, further making the case for equitable mentorship opportunities.

Mentorship can also help mitigate the risk of losing high-potential talent. The demand for strong diverse talent has soared as companies look to address their own commitments to diversity. And remote working opportunities now allow some companies to broaden their reach into geographic markets they may not have previously considered and/or offer remote options that de-risk career changes for high potential talent. As such, putting development on the back burner or not adapting to today’s remote/hybrid dynamics could leave you more vulnerable to attrition.

Mentoring programs done right can help give employees the development they desire while also helping companies retain a pipeline of engaged capable future leaders. On the flip side, robust development opportunities will play a key role in attracting and retaining the diverse talent so many companies are after. In fact, mentorship opportunity is becoming more of a factor in career decisions with one study saying 79% of millennial candidates cite a strong mentor program as important when considering job opportunities.

As we have helped our retail clients build succession strategies for leadership levels during the COVID crisis and talked to both mentees and mentors, there are some best practices for fruitful mentoring in the remote environment. 

Structure for Success

Giving mentors a roadmap for success eases the burden on their time and sets them up to deliver on advantages of the relationship for mentees. Provide details about the goals of the program, how often to meet, and the types of interactions that are most valuable to both parties. Be thoughtful about ensuring exposure and access to diverse leadership talent and encouraging cultural competency among leaders. 

Set Clear Expectations

Both parties will benefit from well-defined expectations that outline the time and contributions necessary to achieve the intended purpose of the relationship. Successful mentorship requires purposeful – and in a remote relationship planned – interactions. When participants know the time and effort required, there is accountability built-in and they can make an informed decision about entering into the professional relationship.

Connect Regularly

Having a regular cadence of meetings is key. It doesn’t have to be an everyday occurrence but connecting frequently with a specific agenda for those meetings helps ensure the relationship grows and strengthens.

Scheduling engagements that offer a variety of opportunities is important. For instance, including mentees in key business meetings gives them a chance to have an insider’s look at how the company and leader are running the business. It also creates a topic for discussion later. We’ve heard from many companies that this is especially effective when there are several organizational layers between the mentee and mentor, giving the mentee early exposure to corporate strategy and how decisions are made.

Where getting together in person can be done safely, seek to hold regular face-to-face meetings, which will help both people mentor and mentee get more out of the relationship.

Planning time to give specific feedback and coach is also vital. One benefit of mentorship is advice that can help the mentee advance their career at a faster clip. Such guidance normally happens less frequently, mostly driven by the performance review process. More frequent feedback early in a career can go a long way in building performance and leadership potential.

Invest in Tools to Support

Providing the technology and information participants need to succeed is another way to bolster the effectiveness of mentoring. Remember that both the mentor and mentee are often engaging in the effort above and beyond their functional responsibilities. The goal is to facilitate convenience and value. Providing everything needed to understand and advance the relationship does just that. For instance, giving participants a way to easily track progress and deliver formal feedback not only saves time, but it will also leave both with a record for future reference.

Rewards and celebration are another way to build confidence in high potential employees. The end game is a strong pipeline. Recognizing wins (informally and formally) will help mentees feel appreciated and build their loyalty.

Even as many around the world pivot to new ways of working and doing business, upward mobility, a culture of belonging, and the opportunity to grow a professional network remain points of consideration for staying in a position versus looking for opportunities elsewhere. A sound mentorship program can contribute to all of those elements, leveling the playing field for those disproportionately impacted by remote work. While it seems simple, mentoring still remains an effective way to develop future leaders – maybe even more now.