Advancing Mentorship Programming Through Partnership: Zendesk & UC Berkeley

Women’s representation in corporate America continues to lag, but mentorship can help women advance. According to the 2018 Women in the Workplace study sponsored by Lean in and McKinsey and Company, corporate America has made little progress in improving women’s representation over the past 4 years. Despite companies beginning to prioritize gender diversity, women are underrepresented at every level, and women of color remain the most underrepresented group. Seeing as the two biggest drivers of representation are hiring and promotions, mentorship that provides access to senior leadership is a key component of sustainable strategies that can tackle the ‘leaky pipeline’ issue.

Mentorship can facilitate structured support at work, knowledge sharing and — ideally — is accompanied by sponsorship to help retain and advance talent in a company. Mentees can thus grow more confident and be better equipped to tap into new opportunities as they strengthen their network within the organization. In fact, the 2016 Deloitte Millennial Survey found that millennials who planned to stay with their employer for more than 5 years were twice as likely (68%) to have a mentor than not (32%). The 2017 Mentoring Matters report also highlights higher employee engagement and growth in high potential employees as results of a well designed mentorship program. Of course, as a standalone solution, mentorship is not sufficient — when it comes to advancing diversity and inclusion (D&I) in leadership ranks, other efforts and policy changes that enable more equitable workplaces (e.g., paid maternity and paid paternity leave, unconscious bias training, etc.) are crucial — but it has been shown to effectively enable junior staff to advance and is one component to a holistic D&I approach.

Given the business benefits known from the diversity dividend, there has been a marked uptick in mentorship efforts in firms, with most Fortune 500 companies offering some form of formal mentorship programs to their employees. Mentorship programs are particularly important opportunities for firms striving to improve the acquisition and retention of female talent in sectors like technology, since they face the added challenge of recruiting from a smaller pool of women exploring a STEM education or career path. For companies that are suppliers to other companies that have D&I sourcing goals, being able to recruit and advance female talent may positively impact customer opportunities as well. One such company that is already making strides in this area is the global software company, and fastest growing dedicated customer service and engagement platform, Zendesk.

Zendesk’s mentorship pilot program reveals successes and opportunities for growth. Zendesk, which has an expressed priority to advance gender equality in the workplace and build a culture where “everyone belongs”, launched a pilot mentorship program in early 2018 driven by senior leadership, including Khalida Ali (Senior Manager, Diversity & Inclusion). While they had external mentorship frameworks in place, an internal program intended solely for the Engineering arm of the company, and a speed mentoring event every quarter for their employees of color, this pilot was aimed at extending beyond these initiatives and creating an internal network of support for their female employees. The pilot had high demand (200+ employees showed interest in participation), while there were only 50 spots available in the first program. It ran for a trial period of 3 months in the San Francisco and Madison offices, and paired each selected female mentee with a female mentor at the Director (or higher) level. In the program pairs were required to meet at least twice a month for 45 minutes at a time. It also entailed monthly group events that provided a platform for cohesive knowledge sharing within the community. Feedback revealed positive impact for mentees and mentors: mentees felt more supported than they did prior to the program, and mentors appreciated their now broader network.

The feedback collected revealed the following good practices:

  1. Fair and organized pairing: A randomized selection process was used to pick participants in order to prevent bias, and a cross-departmental approach was taken during pairing, forging new relationships across teams.
  2. Community Sessions”: The monthly group events fulfilled the mission of bringing women together at Zendesk, forming a community, and allowing mentees to gain valuable insights.

Although the organizing team worked to improve the pilot on a rolling basis, the following areas for improvement were observed:

  1. Size and time constraints: With 50 mentors available only so many mentees could be accommodated in the 1:1 pairing model used. The pressure of the 90 day timeframe also tempered some of the program’s impact, with scheduling conflicts making it difficult to build lasting relationships.
  2. Communication challenges: Despite mentors and mentees being paired on the basis of areas of interest, they often had to contend with different communication styles and lagging conversations. A handbook with best practices and expectations was made to combat this.
  3. Lack of manager engagement: The managers of each mentee were not notified of the mentee’s inclusion in the program. Mentees believed that garnering their managers’ support and having them play a role in the program would be valuable.

Partnership with Berkeley Haas’ Center for Equity, Gender & Leadership (EGAL) highlighted options to take the program to the next level. Recognizing the benefits of improving and magnifying the impact of its enthusiastically received pilot program, Zendesk held a student competition in conjunction with EGAL and Berkeley Women in Business (BWIB) in September 2018, aimed at restructuring it. This is now documented in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) Case titled Zendesk: Building Female Leaders Through Mentorship.

Teams were asked to redesign existing elements of the program to solve the key challenges identified, as well as to develop a strategy that would allow Zendesk to expand it. The students were asked that their recommendations meet four objectives: (1) to refine the timeline including length and frequency given current capacity; (2) to scale up to reach global and remote employees; (3) to clarify the program structure such as making participants aware of logistics; and (4) to prepare mentors and mentees for their roles with training sessions and online materials.

High interest and participation in the event resulted in a wide variety of relevant solutions, and Zendesk is excited about the winning team’s idea: an app that supports extending the mentoring program globally. This beta smartphone application — which Zendesk’s engineers are building at present — provides discussion topics around a theme for each quarter, adding a convenient “self-service” approach to the current hands-on approach. “We’re looking to leverage technology to scale our mentorship program,” said Ali. “The app outlines the framework and allows individuals to plug into the mentorship program at any time.” The app can also enable opportunities for mentees to provide feedback and express needs and questions.

While Zendesk is demonstrating considerable investment and innovation in this space, effectively mentoring and enhancing gender diversity remains a learning journey for Zendesk and other companies. There is no one-size-fits-all mentorship methodology for all companies to adopt; mentorship needs often differ based on individual employees’ experiences, industry, and position. There is value in allowing staff to express what they would like to be mentored around, and in building programs that accommodate these preferences. A deeper understanding of the target audience will ensure that the mentorship program can work towards a clear definition of success, and have a higher level of impact. There is great opportunity to innovate, as well as explore how technology — such as apps — can support this process while enabling scale. Ultimately, mentorship programs — as one component of a holistic strategy to advance gender diversity — can support organizational change and reinforce a culture of progress and inclusion.

At the heart of UC Berkeley's Business School, the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership educates equity-fluent leaders to ignite and accelerate change.

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