On January 21, 2021, the Alberta Mentorship Program hosted a community call with one of our pilot sites, the YMCA of Northern Alberta, based in Fort McMurray. As a new mentoring program, they have been finding it a challenge to recruit mentors and mentees. This has been made even more challenging because they are trying to start the program during the COVID-19 pandemic when our normal networking and meeting practices have been interrupted.
The team met with our mentorship mentor and project manager Cheryl Whitelaw to talk about the recruitment conversation. How do you reach potential participants and demonstrate the value of being part of a mentorship program, even in these trying times?
“The pandemic has made it harder in so many ways,” admits Cheryl. It is harder to convince people on the phone. It is harder to find mentors who can commit to the program because a lot of people are out of work or feeling job insecurity. Even mentees are not sure if they are ready to commit because the world is changing from day to day.
But a lot of our strategies for recruiting mentors and mentees can still work with these extra challenges.
“This is a skillset that requires practice and polish,” says Cheryl. “The more you do it, the better it gets.” It sounds cliché, but you will learn how to describe your program better. You will learn how to overcome objections better and to connect what you can offer to what the participant values.
It can be helpful to tag team some calls. By listening to each other, you can learn new ways to connect to potential participants. You can also add to the conversation if your partner does not have an immediate answer. Then while debriefing after the conversation, you can reflect on what went well and what can be improved.
“These are not simple skills,” says Cheryl. “Just by jumping in, you are learning.”
Many organizations that are trying to start a mentorship program will face similar challenges. The following questions and answers could help your organization find the participants who will benefit from your new mentorship program and set the foundation for growth.
How do we reach the bigger organizational partners?
If you do not have someone in your personal or professional network who can help you speak to someone at a larger organization, the best place to start is with the Human Resources (HR) department.
Think of it as an informational interview. Have some clear questions to ask with a good description of your program. It is often helpful to have a specific goal: we are looking for mechanical engineers who would like to be mentors, for example. Because HR people are in part responsible for recruitment and professional development, they are likely more willing to have this conversation.
How many times should I call someone?
Getting a call back can be hard any time, but this is even more of a challenge during COVID. People may not be in their offices or may be working at home and dealing with their children. It can take longer for people to return your calls or emails.
Cheryl has a three times rule. But she is clear about this with the potential client or participant. She will leave them a message the third time saying, “I am persisting because I think that this opportunity is valuable to you. But I am going to stop after this because I don’t want to be a pest.” This clarity sometimes gets people to call back, other times that person still does not respond.
Depending on the importance of the contact to your organization’s purpose and goals, you may decide twice is enough or that you will try five times. The most important thing to keep in mind is that you never want to sacrifice an ongoing relationship for the sake of a single project or event.
Can we recruit from our own organization?
"At the beginning, you need to use whatever you need to use to find the mentors,” says Cheryl. Whether it is people within your own organization, friends, or colleagues, it is okay to recruit them as mentors.
Pairing depends on where your mentee is at. For someone who needs more foundational mentorship around language, Canadian culture and workplace, or the Canadian job search, a close professional match will not be as important. For mentees who are closer to employment-ready, an industry-specific match will matter more.
What do I say if mentors and mentees say they are interested, but they do not want to commit to something a month or two away?
This is another of those challenges that are made more difficult with COVID. With economic or job stability in question, mentors and mentees are worried they will not have the time later. They may be genuinely interested in participating, but they are reluctant to commit.
A good question to ask to get at the heart of the reluctance is:
“This can help to overcome the feeling of being overwhelmed," says Cheryl. “It will help them to get clear about what they really need to do.” With this answer, you can talk to them about how mentorship might align with their priorities.
It is also good to be clear about the program expectations, so mentors and mentees know what the time commitment is.
It can also help to show that this commitment can be flexible. Meetings can be by phone or video rather than in person. Or they can shift the timing to when it works best for them week-to-week. Knowing that they can have some control over their time can help them commit.
What if potential mentors say they want to be paid?
There will be some people who will expect to be compensated for their time and expertise. Often there are two reasons for why people are looking for compensation:
If a potential mentor needs to be paid for their time for financial stability, they may not have extra time to volunteer right now.
If a potential mentor is looking to be valued, you can compensate them through other means than financial. You have currency through recognition and public acknowledgement:
Having mentorship is a great fit for people who want leadership jobs. Mentoring reflects well on who the person is and what they value. Mentoring shows that you have been working on your leadership and people management skills.
This shift to other forms of compensation will work for some people and not others. That is okay. You want to recruit mentors who are ready and able to volunteer.
What if mentees only want to join if the mentorship relationship will get them a job?
Some potential mentees lose interest in your program because there is not a job waiting for them at the end of the program. This can be in part because the job search process is different in other cultures. In some places, direct referrals and recommendations can help people get a position.
In Canada, most mentorship programs do not directly link mentees to jobs. The goal of mentorship is about improving the mentee's skills so they can get and sustain their jobs because they are better prepared for the work and the transition into a new job. Mentorship can make someone more hirable.
Mentoring can also provide more than just job search support. It can help mentees with on-the-job challenges. For a newcomer to Canada, this can really benefit that transition period for a new job.
“Many people who have a job have a mentor," says Cheryl. “It is something that is really valuable because you will grow in ways that you don’t even know.”
Because expecting a job is a common misconception from mentees, you just want to be really clear from the beginning about the expectations for mentorship and the end goals. Right now, during the pandemic when many people are financially insecure and need a job, any job, it is also good to be respectful. Our goal is always to be persuasive, but not pushy. A good pitch might not be the thing they need now, but it could help them in the future.
When do you stop and say thank you for your time?
This is a good question. When we are trying to sell someone on our program, we want to make sure that we are persuasive and encouraging, but not pushy or aggressive. We want to be respectful of our potential participant’s time and our own.
Pay attention to what the person is saying. Sometimes they are clearly not interesting, giving a lot of excuses or not calling back. Other times you might be less sure. If you are in a call or a meeting and you are not sure if the other person is really interested or not, Cheryl says we can shorten the conversation with two good questions.
Maybe they are interested in being a mentor to improve their resume. Maybe they are interested in mentorship because they had a good mentor and want to give back to the community. The way you would highlight your program to either of these responses would be different.
When you know what draws them towards being a mentor or mentee, you will be able to match your pitch to their values.
Both questions are ways to shorten the conversation. “This may seem counterintuitive,” says Cheryl, but it can help you have more productive conversations. If you know that the person is interested but not committed, you can leave the door open for future recruitment but move on more quickly to the next person who might be ready for your program right now.
“Sometimes a ‘No’ is a Positive No,” says Cheryl. A clear NO with a reason can save you time. And, if circumstances change, you may be able to go back to them in the future or they may come back to you.
Should we do different orientations for mentees and mentors?
There is no right answer to this question because it can work either way.
It can be useful for both mentors and mentees to be together. It’s another networking opportunity. There is a good portion of the orientation information that is relevant for everyone. It can also be helpful for everyone to understand what is expected of not just themselves but their mentoring partner.
If you choose to keep the groups together, have breakout sessions or find ways to keep everyone engaged. If you run through half an hour of information just for mentees or just for mentors, half your audience might get bored while they wait. Instead, alternate information for each group or show how it is important for both mentors and mentees.
You may find it more efficient for your participants to run two separate sessions that are focused on what each group needs to hear. You could bring in a guest mentor or mentee to illustrate the perspective of the other group while creating a safe space to ask questions and learn.
If you are not sure which dynamic works for your organization, try one style and then another to see which combination works best to prepare your participants for their mentoring relationship.
Catch up on the recruitment discussions in our previous Community Calls and Boot Camps:
Need Program Resources? AMP has samples and templates for you, your mentors, and your mentees. Review our Resource Guide.
We encourage you to use the informational graphics in this article and on our social media accounts for your own program recruitment and promotions.
AMP Community Calls are provided support from the Government of Alberta - Labour and Immigration, Workforce Strategies.