How Official and Unofficial Mentorship Helps Companies Retain DEI Talent

As companies and organizations become more aware and proactive about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), greater emphasis is being placed on recruiting diverse talent. From my experience, however, if the change is to be sustained, the focus is better placed on retention and advancement (see my previous blog posts about Focusing on Retention, Clogs in the Leadership Pipeline, and Succession Planning). One key strategy in retaining diverse talent is mentorship. In today’s post, we will take a look at why mentorship is important, what a mentorship program might look like in an organization, and the role of unofficial mentorship, otherwise known as sponsorship.

Why Mentorship is Important for Retaining DEI Talent

According to a study by Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, mentoring programs boosted minority representation at the management level by 9% and improved promotion and retention rates for minorities and women 15% to 38%, compared to non-mentored employees.[1] While mentorship happens somewhat naturally for people who look similar to those in leadership, having a formal program allows for a more equitable process and illuminates existing biases.

Some of the most successful companies see mentorship as a two-way street, where the mentor benefits as much as the mentee does. In a mentoring relationship where the mentee is from a different ethnic background, the mentor can be challenged and stretched by the perspective the mentee brings. A VP or senior leader can also expand their sphere of influence by mentoring someone younger.

Leadership consulting firm Heidrick & Struggles published a report called Creating a Culture of Mentorship where they shared their findings from a survey of over 1,000 professionals in North America. David Pruner, partner and member of the Industrial Practice at Heidrick & Struggles says, “Our research suggests that companies aiming to better attract, retain and engage ethnic minority talent should consider a formal mentoring program if they don’t already offer one.”[2]

What a Mentorship Program Might Look Like

For a mentorship program to be successful, there needs to be accountability and participation across the board. Senior leaders must be required to participate and also encouraged to mentor people who are different from themselves. Both mentors and mentees should have a clear understanding that the primary objective of the relationship is career development.

As an example, I recently had the opportunity to work with my colleagues at T-Mobile in launching our program, “Mentor Match.” The goal of Mentor Match is to provide employees with opportunities to learn critical business skills, create new partnerships, and learn how to leverage their strengths to be more effective while also increasing business value. The program is available without a nomination process and allows employees to take charge of who they want to build a connection with within the company. We recommended that mentors be seasoned leaders who have been part of the company for at least one year.

Mentors are expected to actively promote and champion their mentees, to identify opportunities that will allow their mentees to showcase their skill sets and/or develop new ones. Mentors are also expected to leverage their connections to tout the accomplishments of their mentees and encourage mentees to take on new challenges. The process of becoming a mentor includes having a conversation with the manager, completing a 2-to-4-hour training on mentorship, and signing up on the online platform.

Mentees are expected to set goals as well as utilize the Mentee Workbook to prepare for mentor meetings. The process to become a mentee is to have a conversation with the manager, sign up on the online platform, and show up to mentor meetings prepared with questions and areas of growth in mind.

Why Unofficial Mentorship is the “Secret Sauce”

Beyond official mentorship, unofficial mentorship or sponsorship is a key part of retaining diverse talent in an organization. Sponsorship happens when a person in leadership advocates for someone else when they are not in the room. It’s saying, “I’m vouching for this person to join our leadership.” Historically, sponsorship naturally happens when people vouch for others who look like them, are in the same social circles, or whom they’ve played golf with. The key is to extend that natural behavior and become intentional about whom leaders sponsor; to encourage leaders to become aware of their biases and sponsor a diverse slate of people.

For an official mentorship program to be successful, behind-the-scenes sponsorship needs to happen. Senior leaders and CEOs need to communicate this directly to mentors so that they know they are expected to vouch for people who look, live, and love differently from them.

How Mentorship Impacted Me Personally

When I was working at Apple, I had an unofficial mentor. He was the VP of Marketing and the executive sponsor for one of the employee resource groups (ERG) while I was the chair of the ERG. I reached out to him and asked him for mentorship and accountability. We met quarterly, reviewing goals and objectives, and talking through concerns, and he was tremendously helpful in teaching me about how decisions are made at higher levels, understanding interpersonal dynamics, and building executive presence. He connected me to other executives to discuss key cross-functional initiatives and vouched for me when I wasn’t in the room. We are still in touch to this day.

For an organization to grow and succeed, people need to be connected. Mentorship paves the way for those connections to be built. As Mark Livingston, global managing partner of the Natural Resources sector and member of the CEO & Board practice at Heidrick & Struggles states, “Companies looking to better unlock the potential of attracting, developing and retaining [a diverse] employee base should work to foster an environment that embraces mentorship as a part of the corporate culture, further illustrating their commitment to developing their best talent.”[3]


[1] Beheshti, Naz, Improve Workplace Culture with A Strong Mentoring Program, Forbes.

[2] Heidrick & Struggles, Study: Women and Minorities Value Mentoring Programs, But Findings Reveal Opportunities for Improved Effectiveness, Cision PR Newswire.

[3] Heidrick & Struggles, Study: Women and Minorities Value Mentoring Programs, But Findings Reveal Opportunities for Improved Effectiveness, Cision PR Newswire.


This article is part of a series of articles on the importance of retention in DEI. Other articles in this series include:

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