My world changed when I was an intern at a Fortune 500 healthcare company. It was my first real job out of college and I was navigating corporate America without a roadmap, unsure of what to say and how to act in a culture that is often defined by unspoken rules. Without any guidance, I was destined to make some mistakes. Also, with life-learned lessons from my parents, who themselves had blue-collar jobs, I needed to find advice from brand new places.
Many employees of color find themselves in my predicament. In fact, only 31% of Black professionals in corporate America have direct access to their senior most leaders as compared to 44% of White professionals. One way to balance these numbers out is through Intentional Mentoring.
Luckily for me, a White senior leader in my company named Jeff, took me under his wing and became my first intentional mentor. Winston-Salem State University researcher Haysetta Shuler, and co-authors, in an August 2021 research paper, defines Intentional Mentoring as “making informed decisions and taking the appropriate actions to meet established goals between mentor and mentee,”; especially those from underrepresented racial, ethnic and gender identity groups. Jeff saw something in me I could not yet see in myself and invested in my professional development and career growth. As my mentor, he became my trusted advisor that gave me direction and counsel as I navigated through the corporate arena.
The word mentor comes from the Greek epic poem, The Odyssey, where the main protagonist, Odysseus, leaves home to fight in the Trojan war. Before leaving makes sure there is someone he trusts who will watch over his young son, Telemachus. The man Odysseus selects is his close friend, Mentor.
The importance of Intentional Mentoring
Why is Intentional Mentoring important for your employees of color? Nearly two-thirds of Black employees feel they have to work harder than their White counterparts to advance in their careers. Only 19% of White employees feel the need to work harder. So the mentoring to your employees of color requires the nuance to realize that they will need different kinds of support. As a young mentee of color myself, I was worried about fitting in with my mentor who was of a different ethnic background and different social class. I was shy and hesitant to speak, nervous that I may sound uneducated. I was the first person in my family to earn the income I was making, even though it was an entry-level job. Lastly, I did not have much exposure to white collar professionals before. This was all so new to me.
A rule of thumb in partnering with a mentee of color is to keep in mind some of the very things you may take for granted when forging a relationship. Jeff did that for me. My parents were both immigrants from Haiti, with little knowledge of the corporate world I now found myself in. To pick up where they left off, Jeff stepped in, and was able to act as that trusted advisor, with years of experience and institutional knowledge of the corporate world. He did so, by creating an environment where I felt safe enough to be vulnerable, and he took the time to get to know me and my background.
Now, as a mentor to many myself, I coach mentees of color on how to build a rapport with their mentor and have the guts to reach out to people in their company that do not look like them and come from different cultural backgrounds. When thinking about becoming a mentor to an employee of color, I encourage all leaders to take the proper time to assess if you have the bandwidth to commit to the relationship. If not, it is actually better to say “no,”, then participate without full commitment.
Intentional Mentoring takes T.I.M.E.
To become a mentor takes T.I.M.E. The acronym stands for Trust, Intentionality, Milestones and Evaluation.
Trust is one of the most important aspects of the mentor/mentee relationship and cannot be understated; especially when involving an employee of color. A relationship rooted in trust and openness will blossom into a long lasting partnership with reciprocal value. Mentors, do not be afraid to ask personal questions of your mentee to help break down the walls and have them open up. In a trusting relationship, a mentee may feel confident enough to bring up the biases they feel in the office, which can lead to interventions that can help the entire employee population.
Intentionality as a mentor is vital with an employee of color. You should be ready to engage in conversations that might be uncomfortable, or even taboo, at first. Professionals of color tend to be paid less for working in the same role. There will be questions about salary negotiations and posturing for pay raises. Less than half of employees across all races believe their diversity, equity and equality efforts are effective. Roughly, 40% of White, Hispanic/Latin and Asian employees find them effective while only 34% of Black employees do. It’s likely your mentee of color will be meeting with you to navigate issues of race and bias and how it is limiting their professional growth. Entertain these tough topics. You will learn valuable information that can help increase the retention of all your employees if you have an ear to listen.
Milestones for any mentor/mentee relationship are key. Ask your mentee to define what success will look like before your first meeting. Have your mentee break down your end goals into smaller steps and put some dates and times around each one to hold each other accountable. If for some reason you are not reaching a key milestone with your mentee, ask them to pause and reflect as to why that might be the case. Is it on your end or their end? Are there things you can do to push it along? Milestones keep the relationship moving forward, which is key to ensuring the connection is mutually beneficial.
Lastly, an Evaluation of your mentor/mentee relationship after three to six months is a good way to assess whether it is working for both parties. Not every mentee will be the right fit for you. You may need help with some of the harder topics from your human resources department, and that is ok. Or you may not have the expertise they need to succeed, and that is ok, too! Evaluating the relationship every few months allows you to have honest conversations about things you’ve accomplished during your time together and to assess whether it makes sense to continue. Give yourself time and space to honestly evaluate where you are with your mentee.
Errol Pierre is author of The Way Up, Climbing the Corporate Mountain as a Professional of Color, and serves as a healthcare executive, public speaker and college professor in New York.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.