Supporting Employee Resource Groups through mentorship

We're joined by Michelle Ferguson, global transformational executive, self-proclaimed serial mentor and strategic advisor to discuss how to support Employee Resource Groups with mentoring programs.
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See Michelle's book: Women Mentoring Women: Strategies and Stories to Lift As We Rise

Ryan Carruthers: Hello everyone. Welcome back to another interview and together's mentorship expert series. Today we're joined by Michelle Ronaldo Ferguson, a global transformational executive, self-proclaimed serial mentor and strategic advisor. Michelle spent most of her career at S&P Global McGraw, where she co-founded a global mentoring program, which ignited her passion for mentoring. Michelle is also a founding member of Chief, the only private network focused on connecting and supporting women executive leaders. In addition to all of this, she's also the author of Women Mentoring Women Strategies and Stories to Lift As We Rise. We're thrilled to have her with us today to discuss how to support employee resource groups through mentorship. Michelle, thank you for taking the time today.

Michelle Ferguson: Thanks, Ryan. It's great to be here.

Ryan Carruthers: Fantastic. Before we get into things to help us learn a little bit more about you and your background, Michelle, can you share with us a bit about you, your work, and maybe a little bit about your books?

Michelle Ferguson: Sure. I am somebody who you spent my life in corporate America, sort of rising up through the ranks, you know, for the good part of my career was one of the few women in senior positions, and it never really occurred to me that there was anything odd about that. I'm the oldest of seven children. I have five brothers after me in line. So I grew up in a male dominated environment. I went to University of Notre Dame when it first went co-ed, so we were outnumbered three or four to one. In my MBA program, I think there were 72 of us and there were only 12 women. So it sort of was my natural existence, so it didn't occur to me that there was anything wrong with it. And, you know, was at a cocktail party in 2003, a retirement party for a male colleague and looked out around the room and realized there were three women other than his wife and the weight staff and probably as many people of color in the room. And sort of decided that I like personally and the organization need to do something about that. So, I founded the first Women's initiative out of that. And when we kicked off the women's initiative, the first ERG, we had four breakout sessions, I drew the short straw and got mentoring. At that point, I had only been in, the only mentoring I'd ever done was in a program with high school kids. Very different kind of thing. And sort of out of that breakout group, you know, six months later, we launched a program for 50 partnerships. Initially, focused the mentees were primarily women in that first phase. But we quickly expanded to include our male colleagues cause we were trying, one of our goals was to have a more inclusive environment. So excluding half of our workforce was not a way to be inclusive. And that sort of ignited my passion for both the advancement of women in mentoring. And, you know, I have to say that selfishly, one of the reasons I continue to mentor is that I get a lot out of it as a mentor as well. And I think that's something we often overlook. It's helped my learning and my development. I learned from at least as much from my mentees as they do for me. And the book, actually one of my buddies at Chief suggested that I write a book. She was going to write a book, was in the program and suggested that I do it. I'm someone who's always said that everybody has a book in them, but never executed it on that. So I think, you know, it sort of shows the importance of surrounding yourself with people who uplift you and nudge you and encourage you to do things that you wouldn't do on your own. And like, certainly, it's one of the best things that I ever did. I also took the book as an opportunity to learn. So I learned more about mentoring. I learned how to write a book. I even learned that there have been changes in grammar since I last took a grammar class, which was probably in grammar school. That's me. Well, I'm a mother of two and a grandmother of six. Very important to me.

Ryan Carruthers: Fantastic. Yeah, we'll include a link to your book in the show notes because as a white male reading the book as well, it does expand your perspective on a lot of fronts. So I hope to pull in a lot of those insights into this conversation that we'll have. The topic we're discussing today specifically is how mentorship can support employee resource groups. To kick this conversation off, I'd like to start more broadly on diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. How do you feel that mentorship programs can support DEI initiatives, DEIB and all of the above?

Michelle Ferguson: I think that individuals in underrepresented groups, whatever group that is have challenges that those of us who are white, straight, white people don't have. And certainly women have challenges that men don't have. And I think mentorship is, we all have a role in, you know, dealing with the challenges of the individuals in underrepresented groups. And I think we all play part in solving that. And I think, as a mentor, if someone is in an underrepresented group, one of the challenges they have is I think everybody will automatically look for a mentoring partner who is like them, right? So, if I'm an Asian woman, I'm going to look for an Asian woman. Right? If I'm a male with a disability, I'm going to look for a male with a disability. And the reality of it is, because most organizations are pyramids, right? You're putting a lot of pressure on whoever that person is, that the mirror image at the top. So if you are a black woman in an organization, the senior black woman, every black woman in the organization is going to want you as her mentor. So I think it's the responsibility of the rest of us to sort of ease that burden, right? And I think so, if there is a black woman or whoever who is looking for a mentor and we drill down on what it is they're looking for, what they need out of the mentoring partnership, and I think that's key. A lot of what they need I can help with, right? If they're just looking for general leadership development, right? If they're looking to improve their work-life balance, there are people who are not me, who can deal with that. If they're looking to improve their communication skills, they may not need someone who looks like them to do that. So, you know, I sort of encourage mentees and mentors to just say, almost reserve the mirror image for someone who, if my particular issue is that it's challenging to be the only black woman in the room, then the only one is really going to get that is probably another black woman. It might be another woman of color, right? So to just really drill down on what the mentees challenge is and then on a lot of cases, someone else can have enough sensitivity. And, you know, maybe if they have five challenges and one of them is associated with whatever part of them is underrepresented, maybe instead of a mentoring relationship, they can have a one-off coffee or be part of an employee resource group. You know, if you are Asian Pacific that your challenges in as an Asian Pacific person can be addressed in the ERG and your mentor can support your overall leadership development

Ryan Carruthers: Mm-Hmm.

Michelle Ferguson: I think rather than mentoring, supporting, ERGs, almost they complement each other.

Ryan Carruthers: Interesting. Can you dig into that a little more then? Because I think a lot of HR managers and L&D leaders that are starting mentorship programs are trying to understand if the mentorship program should be specifically within different ERGs or if they should have one mentorship, like an umbrella mentorship program that includes all ERGs, or if it should be bundled into, like, in a company-wide mentorship program. So any advice on that front, I think, would be really helpful.

Michelle Ferguson: So I think in a perfect world, they'd be sitting in the ERGs. But like I said, there's a practical challenge with, there just aren't enough mentors in the underrepresented groups. And you don't want to burn out the mentors either, right? Like I had someone once told me, I have 20 mentees. It's like, oh, like how can that be? Like you do, just to keep it in your head, right? So asking somebody to mentor 20 people is just unrealistic. You know, one of the things we stroked, you know, we tried them at S&P within the ERGs. We tried circles and we couldn't even with a circle, do it. We couldn't find enough mentors to do it. I think they can be broader than the ERG, but if it's determined, then the need is something that someone in an ERG, so whether it's another person with a disability, whatever it is, that if you can drill down, then that's really what you need. Then you can go find, that was our commitment that we'll go find that mentor for you, right? And sort of, like I said, be very precious with the people, right? Those senior mentors, the mentors who are in one or more underrepresented groups, right? Because the more intersectionality you have, the more we do the challenges.

Ryan Carruthers: And I think with ERGs and with diversity and inclusion mentorship programs at large, one of the big challenges is finding the right mentors for the program with employee resource group programs. Should the mentors be internal in the ERG? Or should we be bringing in both mentor, like, should they be coming from all over the organization into these groups?

Michelle Ferguson: Again, depends on the mentees goals. it may be I want to learn something about a particular function, or I want someone who's, you know, a lot of times we saw something like I'm a technical person and that doesn't mean just IT, I'm an editor, I'm an analyst, I'm a tech person, and I want to move into a management role. Right? Well, fine. The fact that you're an underrepresented group might be part of that, but maybe what you need is just someone who's done that pivot. They don't need to be in your business unit. They don't need to look like you. Right? So, I do think it really comes down to drilling down with the mentees on what their goals are and making sure that the mentor can do it. Like I had plenty of people like, come to me and its like, well, you know, you look like you got these just figured out. You've got like two kids, and it's like, I am, and so like, their challenges work, like balance. It's like I am, like I am the last person to talk to about work life. Like, because the assumption is it looks like that you would be good at that. It's like, I can help you with a lot of things. I am a hundred percent, I'm not the per, like, you can probably teach me. Right? So, I do think it's like, and sometimes especially with a more junior mentee, they need a little help getting to what is it that you're, like what is it? And, you know, like, what are the three things, right? Because sometimes you have someone who's got this laundry list of 10 things. It's like, you know, like, and part of the development is what's most important to you, right? What is it that you need to get to whatever, right? Is your goal to have more flexibility in your schedule? Is your goal to get a promotion, right? To really get clear on what the goal is and to ensure that the mentor can support the mentee in achieving those goals.

Ryan Carruthers: Seems like at the start, before you even kick off the program, understanding what the goals of the participants are is probably core to the success of the program.

Michelle Ferguson: The goal. Start with what the goals of the program were, right? So, when we started ours, one of our goals was to get more women into executive roles. That was the initial goal. We changed it as we went on. So we targeted mentees at the level where we seem to be seeing the biggest drop off, right? So your goal might be to increase the DEI, right? So if that's your goal, then of the program that's going to impact how you structure the program and who's in it, right? If your goal is greater representation, then you're going to go about it in a certain way. So you sort of start with the goals of the program to figure out who should be in the program. And then I do think, it needs to be focused on the mentees development goals, and this is the one time that it should be maybe a little guidance, but less about what HR or the manager says and more about what is the – They’re pretty self-aware, right? What is it that -

Ryan Carruthers: Yeah, I think that's a pretty pertinent question, I think for a lot of HR managers and people launching mentorship programs, should the goals be from the top down? Or should they start when they're planning that program, go to the people that are actually going to participate through surveys or focus groups? Like how should they do it? Should they take the goals from top down? Or should they be going from the population up?

Michelle Ferguson: We, I guess started in the middle, right? And we did do, unfortunately one of my partners was a market research person, right? To kind of do, we were more concerned with what the potential, what the people in our ERG wanted and more than what senior leadership wanted or what HR wanted. So we were more focused on what the members of the ERG were interested in.

Ryan Carruthers: But you started with like the overarching goal of we want to get more women into leadership.

Michelle Ferguson: That was right. We were women's ERG, and like I said, I sat in a room that there were three of us, and it's like, okay, we need to do something about this. I do think the other thing to be really careful about is that I don't think the goal of a mentoring program should be to have a mentoring program. And the goal of having a mentoring relationship shouldn't be to have a mentor. You know, I've come across, you know, I was asked to help the launch of a program and the number one goal of the mentees in the program was to build a relationship with their mentor. It's like, I think part of the goal of the program and the mentors is to get those goals a little loftier, right? Like, I could have a relationship with you having coffee with, like, just having coffee once a month, right? That seems to me you need to push on both the program and the participants to get those goals lofty.

Ryan Carruthers: Interesting. This is great. We're spending so much time, like right at the start, but I think that that's like the crucial part of kicking off a program. If I'm an HR manager and I come to you and I say, I want to start a DEI focused or an ERG focused mentorship program, and it's my first time doing it, I'm early in my career in HR, say, what best practices, what 10 step program would you give to someone like me that wants to run a really impactful mentorship programs that changes careers and lives? How would you advise someone like me that wants to do that?

Michelle Ferguson: Okay. So even within a goal of DEI, exactly what is it? So is it getting them into leadership positions? Is it retaining them, right? Is it retaining them at entry level? Like, so part of it is getting clear on that because, you know, one of the challenges is what our stated goal was to get more women into leadership roles, you also need to fill the pipeline. And maybe that's where it would've helped us to have someone who was an L&D specialist, right? And we were a large enough organization that was probably able to make an impact. But to think about again if it is, even if your goal is more underrepresented groups and senior leadership, is that the place to start? Or do you need to fill the pipeline? And can you use a combination if it's DEI. I think it's the combination of mentoring in the ERGs, right? To give them a sense of belonging. Because you are not most likely going to be able to find enough mentors in the ERG for the individuals in the ERG, that's just math. Even with women, right? And there are organizations that 50% of the employees are women, but you're not seeing that, right? If you look at CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, it's still only 10%, right? The higher you get up, the less representation there is. So, if the mentor can provide the sort of the leadership development thing, can the ERG provide the sense of community, right? So again, like what are you trying to accomplish and what's the best way to do it? You know, I think, and going in and realizing that, I think just by virtue of launching a program, you're sending a message that it's important that you're trying to support your employees in the ERGs and to be open to learning, right? You're not going to get it right the first time. Some of the relationships are going to work, some of them aren't. I mean, that's just – and to ensure that both the mentees and mentors know that they need to commit the time to it. And also for mentee, and maybe this is like, is sometimes, the mentee will say like, I want to mentor, I know I need to develop and then can't find the time. So part of it is, and this is probably where management and HR can support that this is important. This is something we support as an organization. So you need to take the time, right? And if your boss calls a meeting over the time that you‘re scheduled to meet with your mentor that you feel comfortable saying, that's not going to work, right? Because I already have, like, if they had, one of the best pieces of advice I got from a fabulous woman by the name of Sue Stanley is to treat your mentoring partner like your best customer. So, I might reschedule something for you, Ryan, but if I have a meeting with an important customer, or I'm trying to close a deal, it's got to be something really an emergency for me to change that meaning. And I think like, part of it's like getting the mentees comfortable enough that this is, and important enough, and that's something the organization can do, like creating that environment where this is valued.

Ryan Carruthers: Mm-Hmm. That’s really great advice. You touched on a couple things about matching in there that I wanted to touch more on. There's a lot of ways you can structure a program. I think the broad categories are like, you have your one-on-one senior to junior relationships. You have groups which are sometimes called circles, and then you have kind of peer-to-peer relationships, which I guess could also be groups so they get all mixed together. But if those are the three ones, one-on-one group and peer, from your experience, what are the most common types of ERG focus mentoring programs? Are they one-on-one groups, peers? How does it usually work?

Michelle Ferguson: Like I said, the group mentoring is really hard. Just administratively, we had no success with it. So like, it was a logistics thing. We just couldn't get around because I think this is the problem with whether it's group mentoring or, anything in group is that if anything happens with the schedule, then you're trying to coordinate with 12 people. And most people don't have that much control, like anybody has that much control of their schedule. So I think just logistically, it gets hard. So that argues for the one-on-one, whether it's the traditional senior person with a less senior person, the peer-to-peer. I think the other time peer-to-peer, like one time that peer-to-peer really works great is with new employees and to get them to assimilate. Like how do you get things done? How do you influence here? And that's where like the ERG wouldn't be as taxed cause at those when they're first coming in, there are probably people who started a year before, two years before that you have enough that you can match and that someone more at your level actually understand, like remembers what it was like. Like I don't remember what it was like to start at Royal Hill Standard reports. It was so long ago. The other thing that can help DEI efforts is reverse mentoring. So in reverse mentoring, you have the less senior person mentoring the person in the ivory tower. And just again, math is most likely that person in the ivory tower is a white male, right? So the reverse mentoring, one of the targets could be, and when we did it, one of the things was around DEI, right? Cause sometimes the person in the ivory tower, the people around them really cautious about what they say, whereas someone in the mentoring relationship will be more frank. And while the goal is to sort of get the senior person more of aware of what it's like to be in an underrepresented group, the reality is that person in the underrepresented group has access to a senior executive. So like, while it's technically reverse mentoring, they do have access that they wouldn't normally have. So I think that's an interesting model for deis reverse mentoring.

Ryan Carruthers: There’s so much we could talk about on the reverse mentoring front. I'd like to talk quickly just to respect your time about kind of measuring success, determining if the program is successful or not. For people that are just starting a mentorship program for the first time, whether they're like planning now or they're running it and they're getting ready to conclude a cohort or something like that, how would you go about coaching them or advising them on how to report on it and show success and impact?

Michelle Ferguson: Right. First of all, we surveyed constantly, right? Partially to adjust, always got like over like 90% of the people were, you know, we exceeded expectation or greatly exceeded expectation or whatever. If you have a large enough organization, it doesn't work if the organization is small. We were able to get questions added to the employee engagement surveys around whether the individuals participated in ERGs or the mentoring program. And in both cases, we could see, and it takes a little bit of time and enough data to have it statistically valid. We were able to see that employees who were either in the mentoring program or the ERG had higher levels of engagement, right? Which we could translate into lower turnover. We never got, you got to be careful with figuring out things, cause you don't want to, like, there's confidentiality issues. So we were content enough to be able to see the higher level of engagement and then overall, we could translate what higher level engagement meant in terms of, it was almost more of employee retention than promotion. That was enough for us, right? Depends.

Ryan Carruthers: And how long would this usually take? Like if they're running a program, should they start reporting like shortly after the program concludes or should they have like a benchmark at the start? What kind of timeframe should they expect between –?

Michelle Ferguson: So one of the things to be really clear about is that a mentorship program is mentoring, not sponsorship and there's a difference between the two. So one of the things we stated up front, and I think most programs do is write, we're guaranteeing you as a mentor, we are not guaranteeing you a promotion. That's too much pressure to put like on a mentor. So, to be clear up. So like be really careful about tying it too closely because that's not the goal of the program, right? You can never have it a school because it's impossible. You can never reach it. And we didn't run a program that was for high potential mentees. It's a whole different thing if you're running a high potential program. So yeah, you can start collecting it, right? What you just have to be careful is whether if you haven't waited long enough, you don't have enough is whether it's valid. You have enough data for it to be valid and that needs to be someone who knows something about statistics and market research, which isn't me. So, yeah.

Ryan Carruthers: Yeah. That's great. Okay. We're running almost at time here. But I want to ask just one final question. For the enthusiastic leader or professional that wants to start a mentorship program, whether it's DEI focused, ERG focused or just a company-wide program, what final words of advice would you give them if it's their first time doing it, they're at the cusp of starting it? What advice would you give to that individual?

Michelle Ferguson: Just do it, right? And I think keep focused on the mentees needs. And if that means you start with five mentees and five mentors and then it grows from that, right? Just like start small and manageable, start with something that has a reasonable chance of success, whatever it is. So yeah, just get it started because it will start, it will feed on itself. I mean, we ended up with a frenzy like people, the buzz was out there, and it was like getting concert tickets, right? Like getting into the program, which was great. And then what that does is it creates, one of our state of goals was to create a mentoring culture. So like if people see, even if they can't get in the program, it's like, oh I could do this, right? This is a good idea. I could do this. If I can't get into the program, can I just find a mentor on my own? So yeah. To create improvement.

Ryan Carruthers: Yeah, I think one of the overarching things I'm getting from this conversation is that you do not need like the 10 step program right at the start. You don't have to have everything sort out, but if you just start, you'll learn on the way and I guess send out a bunch of surveys as well throughout the program.

Michelle Ferguson: Yeah. No, to get feedback on what's working, what's not. Like, what's working, what's not working? You know, and then sharing. The other thing I think is important is the, the survey will give you feedback to help other, you can share what's going well and what the challenges are, right? So that someone who's like, oh yeah, I'm not the first one to encounter this problem, right? And here's how other people did it or here's what's working, right? Like, you know, I had it once, I told a story in the book that like I could tell the mentee was just uncomfortable in my office cause I'm sitting behind my desk and it's like, oh I could just change the location and it sounds like really obvious, but sometimes you struggle where someone else says, I'm just, like, we just met in a coffee shop. That was easier. Or the employee who like could never get away from the office at night. So the mentor scheduled like 5:00 PM mentoring sessions near where the mentee lived, right? So yeah.

Ryan Carruthers: That's great. Michelle, thank you so much for taking the time. Undoubtedly, all these stuff you've shared is going to be great for our audiences. Before we go, where can people go to learn more about you, your work and potentially connect?

Michelle Ferguson: Sure. I'm all over LinkedIn, so it's Michelle Ferguson. And the book is available, Women Mentoring Women is available on Amazon.

Ryan Carruthers: Fantastic. Thanks so much, Michelle.

Michelle Ferguson: Thanks, Ryan.