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Building the Mentorship Program at Earnest

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By Zoë Foss, a Software Engineer at Earnest

In May, Earnest kicked off the first full session of its Mentorship Program with 15 pairs of mentors and mentees across the company. It was an exciting culmination of many months of planning by the Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) Working Group, including a three-month-long pilot program. Mentorship has been vital to my own career growth. I did not attend a four-year Engineering program, so I didn’t have a college network or other campus resources when job searching. I was excited to create a program at Earnest that focused on helping others build the kind of professional relationships that have been so important for my career development.

The initial idea for a mentorship program came out of employee feedback and our own research of already successful programs at other companies. Employee engagement surveys showed that people wanted more opportunities to grow and learn skills that would advance their careers. The D&I Working Group didn’t have a large budget for this program, so we set out to create a program that supports Earnies’ professional development and overall engagement, while leveraging the skills and experience of more senior coworkers.

We learned a lot during the pilot program and made several updates before launching the first full session. Keep reading to find out what changes we’ve already made for this session and some of the things we’ve learned along the way.

Starting with a Mentorship Pilot Program was a good idea

Just calling it a Pilot Program set expectations that we still had some kinks to work out. We limited the number of participants, sent out multiple surveys, and hosted a group retrospective session so participants could give us lots of feedback. 

After the three-month-long Pilot Program, we extended the sessions to six months. This allows for more time to develop a stronger mentor-mentee relationship and make meaningful progress towards the mentee’s goals. We also realized it wasn’t feasible for the D&I group to run the program on a quarterly basis.

Starting with a Mentorship Pilot Program was a good idea

Mentees who came in with specific goals got a lot more out of the program

This one wasn’t too surprising. Mentees who had a strong idea of what they wanted to accomplish were easier to pair with exactly the right mentor and quickly made tangible progress towards their goals. This is a strong reason that we believe this program should never be required — at least for mentees. Participants will get a lot more out of it if they are self-motivated.

The one-to-one ratio of Mentors and Mentees was ideal

In the Pilot Program, we had some mentors with two mentees and people who wanted to act as both a mentor and mentee. Inevitably, these people ended up spread too thin. We managed this by first doing an open call for mentors (any senior Earnies) and asked them to list their strengths or areas of expertise. Once we had a large enough list, we asked mentees to send us an idea of their goals, along with their top five mentors from the list. We did the match-making primarily on the mentee’s goals and tried to honor their top choices where possible.

We wanted to make sure that everyone was working with someone they are comfortable with. We did not pair anyone with a mentor in their direct reporting structure, because we wanted to push mentees to work with people they normally wouldn’t. This pairing system was a bit more time-consuming than random matches, but we will do it for as long as possible because it leads to a much more successful relationship.

People liked the open-ended structure, but need lots of (optional) resources

Mentees have a wide range of goals, including job-specific and professional development goals, and many mentor-mentee pairs are cross-functional. But with a lot of flexibility comes a lot more uncertainty. The request for more resources was probably the largest theme in the Pilot Program feedback. Mentors and mentees most commonly asked about tools for productive goal-setting and building their communication skills.

We updated the kickoff event to include presentations about goal setting and a few mentoring or coaching frameworks. We also hosted a Coaching Workshop halfway through this session that was open to all mentors and mentees. Participants did a self-assessment exercise and worked in small groups to practice communication skills like active listening and asking the right questions.

Providing a lot of resources requires time and expertise, but you can ask for help!

No one in the D&I Working Group is a communications expert or has been through coaching or mentorship training before. However, we realized that we have a lot of resources around us, and we got a lot more of our colleagues involved after the Pilot Program. One of the Product Managers mentioned having taken a coaching course in Business School, so she designed the Coaching Workshop. The Business Operations team leads the whole company in regular goal-setting, so they led a S.M.A.R.T. goals refresher during the kick-off event. When deciding how to structure and promote our program, we got a lot of help from a Technical Project Manager who had previously run an engineering mentorship program.

Providing a lot of resources requires time and expertise, but you can ask for help!

Executive and management buy-in is so important

It can be hard to find time to focus on career development when you already have a full plate at work. Many Pilot Program participants said they weren’t sure how to make mentorship a priority, especially when there was no existing structure for professional development activities at Earnest. We want to get rid of this uncertainty and make sure participants feel like they have the full support of management to spend time on this program.

While this effort is a work-in-progress, we did a few things to give the program greater visibility within the organization and try to make it a core part of the Earnest culture. We got a program budget that participants can use for mentorship meetings or attending professional development events. We gave updates to the whole company about the progress of the program and made sure we had multiple executives participate as mentors during each session. We tied the program to existing annual company goals related to retention and building a positive culture. Information about the program has also been added to new employee onboarding, so we already have new Earnies who are looking forward to the start of the next session.

At this point, 32% of Earnies have participated in the Mentorship Program. This has surpassed our original expectations and we think more and more will join. It is rewarding to bring together Earnies from across many different departments to work on a shared goal of professional development. We hope to continue to make improvements in each new session — after all, we are a tech company dedicated to the Agile methodology!

If you’d like to join us, we’re hiring.

Come build the future of education financing.

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Disclaimer: This blog post provides personal finance educational information, and it is not intended to provide legal, financial, or tax advice.