Scoring a big strategic win is exciting. Although there may be many others involved, the person in charge becomes the face of success. That’s one of the perks of leadership.

Helping others to rise can be even more rewarding. Encouraging a colleague to shoot for that sought-after certification, offering advice on an important project, or simply inspiring the confidence to see future potential, are the less visible activities that make leadership meaningful.

Most CEOs are lucky enough to have a mentor or two in their past. Often, these relationships develop informally. They spring from shared values, business connections, or similar interests and backgrounds.    

The rise of diversity, equity, and inclusion as a priority, coupled with the imperative to utilize talent more effectively, signals the need for a more deliberate approach to mentoring.

According to Forbes, 75% of CEOs attribute their success to help from a mentor and 84% of US Fortune 500 companies offer mentoring programs. But, in a demographically evolving workplace, the following statistics highlight deficiencies in the current process.

Seventy-one percent of executives choose mentees of their own gender or race. It’s hard to deny the fact that we are drawn to people like us. Communication flows more smoothly between colleagues with a common vocabulary. The attraction of like-to-like may account for the fact that only 7.9% of CEOs are Hispanic or LatinX, 7.8% are Asian, and 3.8% are Black or African American. And, according to Investopedia, as of February 2023, only 4 Fortune 500 CEOs were openly LGBTQ.

I wasn’t able to find statistics related to association leadership. But I imagine that the numbers of diverse leaders are similarly out of balance.

Be Intentional

What can we do to facilitate more deliberate mentoring relationships? How can we support women, people of color, and other minorities in achieving leadership roles? Most mentorships begin with bonding. Pairing people of different backgrounds and experience, or “bridge mentoring,” requires more intentionality and effort than casual arrangements.

Turn the focus away from individual success and toward team building.

I’m not sure that mentoring is a priority in most associations. In fairness, so many groups operate with minimal staff that this type of program can seem like a luxury. Cultivating new leaders is an initiative that requires you to see beyond immediate gratification.

If mentoring is a new concept for your group, baby steps may be needed to create buy-in. Introducing coaching into your culture is a good way to begin. In fact, promoting mentoring throughout all your organizational activities is probably a more effective strategy than developing a stand-alone program.  

Turn the focus away from individual success and toward team building. By embracing what .orgSource calls Association 4.0 values or a growth mindset, continuous feedback, and open communication, you will foster an environment that encourages employees to support one another.  

Create Opportunity

Peggy Winton, President and CEO at the Association for Intelligent Information Management, is a leader who puts elevating others at the top of her agenda. When we interviewed her for our book Association 4.0: Positioning for Success in an Era of Disruption, she explained her commitment to skill-building like this.

“My personal goal is to make opportunities for the future leaders at AIIM. Our organization had been pretty tall and top-heavy. To change that, we came up with a structure that allows for on-demand project work in blended, cross-functional teams. It’s a way to use people’s best talents regardless of their department or responsibility.”

Winton also notes that this skill-based, collaborative model is the way millennials prefer to work. “The success is shared. Nobody feels like they have the entire profit and loss resting solely on their shoulders.”

Helping other women succeed is an especially meaningful piece of Winton’s professional development goals. “I wanted to ask how women in this industry could better help each other. We launched a Women in Information subgroup to our community last year. We now have over 2,000 members who are actively involved.

“We didn’t want it all to focus on technology or industry education. We really wanted to highlight helping other women achieve leadership roles within their organizations, on boards of directors, and within the AIIM community. I hope this will be a pipeline for our own board, and I view my younger staff in that same way. I want to create opportunities for them.”

Prioritize Success

Winton restructured her organization to create leadership opportunities for more employees. Charlie Judy, Chief People and Culture Officer at Intelligent Medical Objects, and another contributor to our books, sees promoting employee advancement as an important future direction for associations.

“If I were going to place the bet in Vegas that I think has the biggest payoff,” Charlie advises, “it would be that organizations that can create a career experience customized to the individual are going to be the real winners.

The idea that the employer holds all the cards is changing.

“The idea that the employer holds all the cards is changing. We’re moving toward a less black and white world. We’re going to see a shift to the other end of the continuum. For decades, the customer has come first. The most futuristic view is to put the employee first.” While Judy acknowledges that customer satisfaction drives success, he notes that employees are the people who have the greatest impact on that equation. 

“If organizations are not shaping work around the needs, interests, aspirations, and motivations of the employee, at the least you’re seeing sub optimization, and at the worst, you may be seeing disaster. Saying my employees come first doesn’t mean my customers aren’t important. But my customers won’t increase their spend with me unless I’ve got the right people.”

Acknowledge Diversity

In a heterogeneous workforce, a good way to support relationship building is to begin with diversity training.  A professional DEI training program can help people identify blind spots and biases while maintaining a safe and supportive atmosphere.

An expert facilitator will introduce the level of introspection needed to encourage empathy and insight among colleagues. Look to training to build these mentoring skills:

  • Respect for divergent opinions and customs.
  • Appreciation for the value that our differences bring to the table.
  • Awareness of where communication may be challenging.
  • A common vocabulary to build on.
  • The ability to set inclusive goals that take cultural differences into account.

Help Supervisors Be Mentors

Focus on training managers to develop a mentoring approach. Encourage supervisors to understand each employee’s strengths and weaknesses and to identify steps for individual improvement. Take this support beyond current performance into future goals.

As part of a recent salary study for the Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute, .orgSource Senior Consultant, Cecelia Sepp, included recommendations to create a career arc for each staffer. The career arc is a blueprint for advancement. It defines a trajectory of progress and identifies next steps for individual growth.

“The career arc is an outline. It’s not a guarantee,” Sepp advises. “But it does provide each individual with motivation and a plan for ongoing professional development. The organization benefits by reinforcing a culture of continuous quality improvement. It also identifies future leaders for senior staff positions.”

The career arc builds mentoring into the supervisory process. It creates the opportunity for a dialogue centered on potential.

Inspiring a vision of ability and providing guidance to realize that success is the heart of the mentoring relationship. When you help your team build those skills, you are also creating new leaders. And putting others in the first chair can be even more gratifying than being there yourself.