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How a Mentorship Program Can Help Both Mentors and Mentees

Vish Khanna often tells people he’s self-taught because he’s never had formal professional training in marketing.

But, he says, that’s not the whole truth.

“The reality is … I was taught by a series of mentors over two decades,” says Vish, the 2015 Content Marketer of the Year who now works as the chief commercial officer at HealthPrize.

“A lot of what I do and how I think about marketing and commercialization is driven by the experiences I had as a young professional learning from some fantastic marketers,” he says.

Knowledge gain is just one of the reasons the Content Marketing Institute launched its year-long mentor program in 2021. (Applications for the program will open again in 2024.)

Benefits of mentoring

The long-term benefits of mentoring programs are significant. A five-year Gartner study of Sun Microsystems mentorship program conducted earlier this century explored the impact of mentor-mentee relationships inside the company. Among the findings:

  • 25% of employees in the program saw a salary increase as compared to 5% of the workers who did not participate.
  • Mentees were promoted five times more often than those without mentors.

But the benefits don’t stop with the mentees. Mentors at Sun were six times more likely to be promoted than non-mentors.

Mentors were 6x more likely to be promoted than non-mentors. Mentees were 5x more likely to be promoted than non-mentors, according to @Gartner_inc study via @AnnGynn @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

A Deloitte-sponsored study detailed the non-monetary benefits of mentoring, including:

  • 87% of mentors and mentees say they feel empowered by their relationship and have developed greater confidence.
  • 82% say their mentoring relationships help foster meaningful connections not only between the mentor and mentee but across departments and the organization as well.
  • 84% say their relationship provides two-way inspiration.

A study by DDI, a leadership consulting firm, found 67% of women say mentorship is highly important to advancing and growing their careers. Yet, 63% of that group say they’ve never had a formal mentor.

All that research points to the value of participating in a mentorship program either as a mentor or mentee – and, in part, the positive impact on equity and inclusion a formal mentor can have.

Mentor perspective

Over the years, Vish added the mentor role to his experience, first as a coach for his child’s sports team and later in his professional world – building marketing teams in a way that requires mentorship.

As he explains, Vish hires marketing makers, not marketing managers. “I’ve got to find the right person and nurture their skillset and ability to play that type of (manager) role, and that demands mentorship,” he says.

For the past two years, he’s also participated as a mentor in the Content Marketing Institute’s program. “A good mentor-mentee relationship is very much peer-based. I just may have a decade more experience.

“I was surprised by how much these conversations with my mentees have made real changes in their day-to-day workflows and how I do my job. I’ve made substantial changes in my approach to marketing based on what I’ve learned from my mentees.”

I was surprised how conversations with my mentees led me to make changes in how I do my job, says @CMIContent mentor @bediscontent via @AnnGynn. Click To Tweet

CMI mentor Deanna Ransom, executive director of Women in Revenue, agrees. “What I have truly enjoyed is the opportunity to be able to both give and receive from the relationship,” she says.

Vish says he touches base with his former mentees every month or two and sometimes asks for advice because they know Vish’s business challenges really well.

But that strong relationship started with an approach Vish learned from working with many startups and product planning – asking dozens of questions right away to identify the mentee’s challenge(s).

“Run through 20 questions through a pipeline, and you’re going to hit a bunch of holes. It’s just the nature (of things) because not everybody has everything tightened up,” Vish says. “You get there (identifying the challenges) pretty quickly – what’s happening on a tactical and structural level in somebody’s marketing engine – and then figure out.”

But before asking any questions or sharing any thoughts, Vish and his mentees signed a non-disclosure agreement. He says the document lets both parties speak honestly and openly about their real challenges.

Mentee perspective

Vahag Aydinyan, content marketing manager at 7shifts, was a mentee in the CMI program last year. It went so well that he and his mentor, Megan Gilhooly, will continue meeting monthly in 2023.

While Vahag has had some short-term mentors, the CMI program was his first in a formal program. As a new content marketing manager who needed to scale a team of one into a team of four, he was eager for a mentor’s input.

He says two outcomes from the mentorship have been helpful:

  • Learning a lot from a person who has gone through the same stuff in her career. He says he could tackle challenges easier because he had someone to help him.
  • Receiving validation for his ideas and solutions from an experienced professional before he shared them in the workplace.
@vahaging says having a mentor like @MeganGilhooly let him receive validation for his ideas before he shared them in his workplace via @AnnGynn @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

The mentoring pair usually met once a month, though sometimes he would ask to jump on a call to bring up a topic important at the moment. “I come with notes … the more prepared you are for this kind of meeting, the more you get out of it,” Vahag says.

Among Vahag’s advice for mentees:

  • Be clear with expectations.
  • Make sure to put in enough thought. Make it easy for your mentor to help you.
  • Be open to the mentor’s advice, even if it’s something you may not want to hear.

How to find a mentor

An Olivet Nazarene study found 61% of mentors and mentees work at the same company. But there are advantages to working with a mentor who doesn’t have the same employer.

Divya Bisht, a content strategist at Spinutech, participated in the CMI program. “Having someone outside my company who can give me a fresh perspective on how I’m working on things or why certain things failed or can be better next time around has really helped me grow as a content strategist,” she says.

If you don’t participate in a formal mentor program like CMI’s, you can still find a mentor or mentee. The Olivet study found 25% of mentees were invited by their mentors, and 14% asked someone to mentor them.

Treat your mentor search like a lead-generation activity – you’ll likely reach out to many, with one or two converting into a mentor-type relationship. That’s what Vish says he’s done. He’s reached out to people who have done something that interests him and lets them know he wants to learn more about that thing. A couple of those outreach opportunities turned into long-term relationships.

He shares one example from a previous role in organizing author events. Vish’s hero was Frank Chin, an author and pioneer in Asian-American theater. He asked Frank to attend. The invitation was accepted, and Vish got to spend time with him over the three days. “The relationship continued for years after that,” Vish says.

Expand your search for mentors outside your industry. “One of my greatest mentors who taught me about commercialization in the pharmaceutical industry was a doctor – working closely with him and learning about an entire business world,” Vish says.

After the NDA

Though a non-disclosure agreement is a smart first step, it’s not the only document that should be created. Both mentor and mentee should get on the same page as far as expectations and how the two will work together.

A non-disclosure agreement is a smart first step in a mentor relationship outside your workplace, says @AnnGynn via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

EDUCAUSE offers this helpful guide on mentorships. It details the four phases of the relationship – preparation, negotiating, enabling growth, and closure. It includes a pre-partnership checklist to ensure you’re ready to do it as well as interview questions to identify potential topics and more. I particularly find its agreement checklist helpful to ensure each person understands what the relationship is and what is expected. Among the questions:

  • How much time can be committed to the relationship on a regular basis? Be realistic.
  • Write down goals and analyze them to meet the SMART criteria.
  • Agree on a discussion format. (e.g., formal agendas, topic-driven agendas, check-in conversations)
  • Be flexible. Expectations and plans will change as your relationship progresses.
  • Articulate criteria for success. What does success “look” like?

I’d like to share your experiences with CMI readers. Have you had a mentor or mentee? How did you find your partner? What did you like about it? What do you wish could have been better? Please detail in the comments.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute