Marketers on their mission to democratise mentoring

While mentoring can feel like it’s reserved for senior leaders with strong networks, marketers are finding new ways to open career support up to the next generation.

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Brands often wax lyrical about the power of diversity of thought, but what are they doing to encourage talent to thrive?

Mentoring is a crucial, if often neglected element of the mix. This kind of dedicated support can feel removed from young talent, something that’s only for well-connected senior leaders who are great at networking.

Democratising mentoring is a big part of enabling diverse talent to thrive long term, giving mentees access to meaningful advice, while mentors gain insight into the challenges faced by junior employees.

Since launching in January 2021, Mentoring Gen Z has reached more than 2,000 mentees and 80 mentors. The brainchild of the School of Marketing, a specialist in skills-based marketing education and Level 3 apprenticeship provider, the free nationwide mentoring programme aims to help young people find a route into marketing.

Traditional mentoring is based on networks, which in the past have often been reserved for people of privilege, argues School of Marketing CEO Ritchie Mehta.

When it comes to solving for diversity and inclusion, it’s all about consistently tackling the problem. Day in, day out.

Ritchie Mehta, School of Marketing

“Mentoring comes from a good place from a mentor perspective. They want to help someone else to give back. The problem is they’re restricted from an access perspective to give back to those who are so far removed from them, so they probably pick a close contingent and that becomes the networked effect,” he states.

Informed by this insight, Mentoring Gen Z was founded as an attempt to address the “devastating consequences” of Covid on young people’s careers and the “ticking timebomb” of youth unemployment.

“A couple of things were happening that mentoring played very strongly into. The first one was this feeling that everyone was working from home and they were feeling very isolated,” says Mehta.

“It felt like those who were furloughed had been hit with a massive confidence issue as a consequence of sitting at home and feeling: ‘Why me?’. Being put on furlough, as much as it wasn’t meant to be a personal thing, it became personal. So, it became the combination of ‘Why me?’ plus being isolated.”

With Mentoring Gen Z, Mehta saw a chance to help senior leadership truly understand what young people were going through and spark rapid change. For the young talent, mentoring helps them discover more about what a career in marketing looks like through the eyes of senior leaders.

The scheme started small with 10 mentors and 40 mentees, growing to attract some of the biggest names in marketing from the likes of Google, Boots and Nando’s. It was a deliberate choice to opt for senior leaders as mentors, not least because they act as role models to show young people what can be achieved.

“We’ve tried to go for the influencers, so we could influence change. We’ve tried to go for the people who don’t hear it enough, so the reverse mentoring element is acute,” Mehta explains.

“If we can put young people in contact, who would never have had the opportunity to engage with the biggest individual in an organisation and if they can foster that connection and relationship, they’ve got a champion and a sponsor for life. That’s life changing.”

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Mentoring Gen Z has settled on a 90-minute group mentoring format. The sessions initially started with 20 mentees and has since settled on 12. Mehta describes the success of the peer-to-peer network as an “unintended consequence” of Covid.

“We didn’t envisage that at the outset, but it’s a strong community that’s been formed and that’s very much a consequence of the group mentoring we put in place,” he explains.

The mentoring scheme has led to real job opportunities. Some 80 mentees who went on to study for a Level 3 digital marketing apprenticeship have been successfully placed into employment, including scores of mentees from the government’s Kickstarter programme for young people on Universal Credit. Furthermore, some 240 people have joined Mentoring Gen Z from the School of Marketing’s skills programme aimed at Afghan refugees.

The goal is to create 500 employment opportunities over the next 12 months, reaching 5,000 mentees in the next three years.

While Mehta believes the School of Marketing has hit on the right formula, he knows the issue of widening access to marketing careers isn’t going away.

“It is about being consistent, that’s the hardest thing. Consistency week on week to be helpful. If there was a gripe I have of marketers, we like to go down fads. That’s a problem. Everything is the latest fad, the latest tool and latest technique, campaign and then you move on,” he states.

“When it comes to solving for diversity and inclusion, it’s all about consistently tackling the problem. Day in, day out. Being dedicated to the cause, year on year. The boring answer is I want to do more of the same. We know that’s what will create real tangible change. We’ve been going for 18 months now and it’s every single week for 18 months we have delivered, delivered, delivered.”

Unbiased support

Another organisation which sprang into action with a mentoring offer at the height of Covid is WACL, the community of senior female leaders in advertising and communications.

Currently in its fourth round, WACL members have mentored more than 500 women across 2,000 sessions. Mentees receive four months of online mentoring – one hour a month – for a cost of £100. The money is reinvested into WACL’s Future Leaders development programme, the idea being women supporting women in a closed loop.

WACL has chosen to keep access broad. Mentees range from people in their second job out of university to those trying to nudge into the C-suite and people considering a marketing career.

The mentees are matched with four different mentors – a founder or entrepreneur, a brand-side marketer, someone from an agency and another marketer on a board or a non-exec director. The current mentoring round will finish at the end of June, the intention being to launch a new round for September to December.

A mentor is somebody who is there for you. They’re not there to report back on you, they’re not line managers.

Victoria McKenzie-Gould, Marks & Spencer

While brands are now creating internal mentoring schemes, the fact WACL’s programme is anonymised is a big bonus, says CEO of creative agency Aurora and WACL talent sessions and mentoring chair, Dawn Paine.

“We want to give women across the country access to experienced, wise, insightful women who are at a completely different point in their life and career and want to give back. They want to give that honest, real advice, tell the real stories to help women navigate issues where, without mentoring advice, they might not be able to get that support,” she states.

Embracing new ways of working post-Covid, WACL has used platforms like Zoom and Google Hangouts to reach women nationwide. Paine says it has been “brilliant” to take WACL beyond being “a predominantly white, middle class, London-based organisation”, with mentoring proving a powerful means of reaching more women.

Fellow WACL talent sessions member and Allplants chief brand officer, Shelley Macintyre, wishes there had been a similar mentoring scheme in existence earlier in her career.

She explains mentees come with their own agenda, from real life challenges to discussing where they want to be in five years’ time. Recurring themes include building confidence and imposter syndrome, as well as the development of new leadership archetypes.

“It could be: ‘How do you even manage a career when you have a family?’ Or it could be: ‘I have a really difficult boss and I don’t know how to approach it,’” says Macintyre.

“I’m often finding when I’m talking to my mentees that their questions, challenges and problems are exactly things I faced and muddled my way through, and maybe made some mistakes. They can ask the same question to four very different types of people and will get four different answers. More than anything it gives them reassurance that the problems and challenges they’re facing aren’t unique to them.”

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Given the anonymised nature of the sessions mentees can share everything “gloves off”, and receive candid feedback and unbiased support, she adds.

As Paine points out, mentoring enables senior leaders to stay plugged into the issues women are grappling with, which serves as a “humbling” reminder that many of the challenges they experienced at the start of their careers are still not resolved.

“Particularly the women who are very senior in WACL, where you have layers and layers of women in your organisation you may lose sight of the reality of what women are contending with,” she states. “There’s real reciprocity, which is really powerful.”

To further its mission, WACL is taking its talent sessions live event outside London for the first time. Taking place on 30 June, the event in Manchester is aimed at widening accessibility to female leaders, with speakers including GroupM UK CEO Karen Blackett and director of BBC Brand, Jane Callingham. Future events are planned in other cities nationwide.

“You don’t have to be from a middle-class background, working out of London to be a brilliant marketer. That talent can be based anywhere,” Paine argues.

“That was front and centre in our thinking and hopefully now the world is resembling real life again, alongside the digital delivery, it might be that we can imagine other places where we can do events.”

The role for alumni

Marks & Spencer wants to expand its approach to mentoring beyond the current workforce through a tie-up with its alumni network. Established in March 2021, the ‘M&S Family’ alumni network is positioned as a forum for career advice, community initiatives and feedback on products and services.

Now the retailer is linking alumni up with its existing mentoring programme provided by tech company Guider. Mentors and mentees are matched via the online platform according to their personal skills and career ambitions, the idea being mentors chat to their mentees at least once every quarter. The intention is for alumni to act as mentors as they have moved on from M&S and therefore have an external perspective to share.

A mentoring relationship stretches beyond a typical line management arrangement, notes M&S director of corporate communications Victoria McKenzie-Gould.

“What you want in any mentoring relationship is a sense of independence from the person giving you advice. We’ve got an amazing alumni network and we employ a lot of people who tend to go on to do amazing things,” she says.

“We’re very grateful as they tend to give a lot back to the business. It’s fantastic to be able to use their experience, not just their work experience but life experience, and the fact they’ve got some of that at M&S is brilliant.”

You don’t have to be from a middle-class background, working out of London to be a brilliant marketer.

Dawn Paine, WACL

McKenzie-Gould believes the digital transformation brought on by Covid has democratised access to mentoring, offering aspiring marketers new ways to learn and grow. Having that outside perspective is seen as a vital way to expand horizons.

“You can only see and process information from your perspective and your life experience, and it’s wonderful to be able to talk to somebody. A mentor is somebody who is there for you. They’re not there to report back on you, they’re not line managers. They’re there to bring their different perspective,” says McKenzie-Gould.

“With a mentor it’s important that you have a good chemistry and there is that matching element to it and relevant crossover. It’s like having a fantastic counsellor and a brilliant boss who isn’t accountable for your numbers, so they can be that side of the boss that gives you their knowledge. You can talk them through what you’re thinking.”

In addition to expanding mentoring to the alumni network, the M&S Family community is growing. The team has hosted 18 exclusive events for the 10,000 strong alumni, including a session with M&S Food marketing director Sharry Cramond. The retailer sees the community as a strong talent attraction tool, having received more than 150 applications from alumni looking to return to M&S via vacancies posted on the network.

As with the wider M&S Family project, bringing mentoring to the alumni is seen as a test and learn process, with the retailer keen to analyse how the community responds.

Opening Up brandingMarketing Week’s Opening Up campaign is pushing for the democratisation of marketing careers. Follow our coverage of the challenges and opportunities over the coming weeks. Read all the articles from the series so far here



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