Alison Martin

Unlocking mentoring for a digital workplace

22 Jul 2021   |   Culture Leadership

Alison Martin

Unlocking mentoring for a digital workplace

22 Jul 2021   |   Culture Leadership

Mentoring has always been important to the workplace. It’s the way the next generation of leaders learns how to act and succeed.

But in a digital workplace, mentoring has new challenges and opportunities. Natural mentoring doesn’t happen as much when you aren’t rubbing shoulders with the people around you and it requires some level of structure and formality. But this also opens the door to connecting people from diverse backgrounds to learn from each other through the mentoring process.


Access to relationships

Alison Martin says that the key to success in any workplace is access to relationships. If you know the right people and they are on your side, you are much more likely to advance and succeed.

Yet, diverse talent is twice as likely to leave your company. One of the main reasons is the lack of relationships that help to advance someone’s career. If people don’t see a path forward for them, they will likely seek it out elsewhere.

Alison and I talked about the difference between formalizing mentoring and letting it happen organically. She said the biggest case for formalizing the relationship is that most people will naturally reach out to people who look like them, just 20 years ahead of where they are. Formalizing a relationship and being aware of these biases allows people to interact with a different set of people.


Taking diversity seriously

Alison says that most companies are interested in improving their diverse talent pool, but there are clear differences between those that are serious and those that are just trying to be on trend.

Those that take things seriously usually have strong metrics they are tracking and a clear strategy in place. If you don’t have those, it’s not likely that you’ll follow through with making your workplace more inclusive.


Challenges and opportunities of digital mentoring

In-person, organic mentoring is great and definitely contributes to how people grow in their career. Digital mentoring programs are only successful if everyone takes the program seriously and is committed to intentionally implementing it. It also helps you make sure that no one gets left out of the system. The ability to connect with people who live in very different circumstances also is a great application of digital mentoring.



Engage Mentoring Website

Welcome back to The Digital Workplace podcast. Today our guest is Alison Martin. She is the founder of Engage Mentoring. Hey, Alison. How are you doing today?

Great, Neil. How are you?


I’m doing well. We’re both talking about how we’re feeling that stress of meeting anxiety and business in the digital workplace. But that’s the life right now, isn’t it?

It really is. It really is.


So Allison, one thing we do to make sure that as we bring guests in to ensure that you are a real life human, is we ask a CAPTCHA question to prove your humanity to go through. So I didn’t prepare you for this. But here’s your question to certify your humanness. What’s the first thing you pack when you’re going on a trip? Assuming that we’re going on trips again soon, what’s the first thing that goes into your suitcase?

Clothes. I mean, that sounds so simple but just picking out what outfits I’m going to wear based on the geography and where we’re going is probably the hardest hurdle and then everything else is supplemental to what I’ve picked out.


Are you the type of person that packs early or like just right before you leave?

No, I actually just got back from an international trip a couple weeks ago, the first one post COVID, we went to Greece, and I was packing within hours of us taking off, I started packing. So I’ve taken for granted that I’ve gotten really good at it. So I didn’t do it until the last minute.


Excellent. Well, that sounds like a very human thing to say. So you are approved.

I appreciate the validation there.


Yeah, just in case you were wondering when you woke up today. So Alison, tell us about Engage Mentoring. What is it and how does it help companies?

So Engage Mentoring, we’re actually a platform that facilitates mentoring, as you might guess. But the unique thing about what we do is we actually help companies do a better job of attracting, retaining, and developing diverse talent through strategic mentoring initiatives. So we actually specialize in external mentoring programs where we have partnered with national nonprofits that provide mentorship opportunities for diverse student populations. And the employers who sponsor our programs are able to give their employees the opportunity to access mentors inside and outside of the company, while also impacting the next generation of future leaders by serving as mentors themselves and developing their leadership capacity even further. So the end result is companies not taking a one size fits all approach to leadership development and providing some unique opportunities for their diverse talent, and also doing a better job of attracting new talent in the organization, which is such a critical thing for employers to be thinking about right now.


So when you think about what’s the first problem that this solution solves for companies, because you mentioned lots of different things. You talk about leadership development. You’re talking about diversity. You’re talking about, just in general, increasing societal awareness. What’s the first play that people come to you and say, can you help me solve this one thing, and then he’s like, actually, I can do lots of it.

So diverse talent is twice as likely to leave statistically. So they just tend to, and especially if they don’t feel supported, don’t feel developed, and they don’t see a path. So they see a path elsewhere. And so we can help stop that. I mean, it’s a real problem, because obviously, it impacts your bottom line. And what happens is, if diverse talent comes into the organization, they look up, they don’t see a path, and they leave as a result, that’s going to continue to happen. So you spin your wheels trying to bring in diversity into your organization, because not only is it good for business, it’s also the right thing to make sure that your employee population is reflective of the communities you serve. But that is the most at risk talent if you’re not really investing in the development and I would say particularly access to relationships.

So over the past year, especially, DE&I has bubbled up to the surface in companies where previously they weren’t really doing a whole lot. So you’ve got companies in one camp who have been trying a lot of different things over the years and trying to move the needle and create environments that are supportive of the advancement of people from a variety of different backgrounds. You’ve got other companies in the camp of it being more of a recent priority. But in either case, I believe access to relationships needs to be a critical part of that strategy. So mentoring is nice to have if you’re just looking at it as a generic leadership development opportunity. But when you consider diversity and access to relationships being a critical piece of that strategy, and the fact that they are twice as likely to leave, I believe that that mentoring actually is not a nice to have, but a need to have when you think about it from that lens. So the problem that we can solve or help solve is the fact that diverse talent is the most at risk population for leaving. So from a retention perspective, that’s where employers, many employers are really struggling.


What are some signals that you find when you’re interacting with companies for the first time that suggest to you, okay, this company is taking it seriously, and they have a good shot at figuring this out versus, oh, this sounds like they’re just like going through the motions because they feel like they have to?

I think the first piece is the fact that they’re measuring. So if I asked an employer, what is your retention rate? What does it look like from a diversity perspective? I think even knowing those numbers is a strong indicator to me that they’re not only assessing that, but they’re really taking a look at it. And the second piece is that they have some staffing, some dedicated staffing that are really looking at this, and that they have a strategy in place, or they’re actively working on what their strategy is. So I would say metrics as well as the strategy are the two indicators to me that they’re really taking it seriously. And they have goals attached to what it is they’re trying to accomplish.


Unpack this idea of access to relationships a little bit more, if that is one of the key drivers of whether somebody is going to stay in a company or not, apart from the diversity of discussion. Why are relationships so important, and specifically access to those relationships?

It hits on the key drivers of employee engagement. So there’s an old question that I used to chuckle at back when I worked in the industry. I took one of those employee engagement surveys that asked if you had a best friend at work. And the driver behind that was, do you have someone at work that you feel like you can confide in? Do you have someone at work who cares about you as a person and cares about your development? So we were all scoffing at this idea of, “No, my best friend was from college. I don’t have a best friend at work.” But the idea there is you have someone that you can confide in at work. And so that is universally needed for everyone and mentoring and access to relationships actually hits on many of the key drivers that indicate whether an employee is engaged. So do I have someone at work who cares about my development? Do I feel like I’m supported enough to do my best work? Do I feel like I have development opportunities and that I have places I can go to if I need a question answered, those types of things.

So again, and I’m going back to the lens of diversity, if you don’t mind for a second. If you don’t formalize the mentoring process within an organization, organizations will tend to perpetuate themselves in terms of gender and ethnicity makeup. And the reason for that is not anything malicious, but just the reality is we tend to mentor and sponsor younger versions of ourselves, just naturally. So we know that people move up in an organization based on access to relationships, sponsorship, and people who know their capabilities and are willing to sponsor them into advanced roles. And so if you have a senior leadership team that is not terribly diverse, that’s going to tend to naturally perpetuate itself, unless you do put some things in place that allow people to access relationships that might not otherwise have naturally occurred. It’s not malicious intent. It’s truly just how we connect and how we identify with others, and what we tend to do as we’re kind of thinking about how do we impact the next generation?


And what’s the difference between formalizing these mentorship type things where it’s like, hey, this is your person, this is your sponsor, your mentor that’s going through, versus going in and trying to change the mindset of those who are in leadership, from a monoculture type perspective and say, hey, just go find somebody. These are some loose rules. Let’s make it really organic and fun. Talk about the difference between the formal and informal relationships.

Sure. It’s both/and. So I think it’s important to teach unconscious bias and also teach the hallmarks of how to be a good mentor, particularly to your senior leadership, and to encourage them to be intentional on seeking out those relationships and also be intentional about reaching outside of their comfort zone. In a formalized mentor, a good formalized mentoring process, there is the ability for mentees to do those selections and to also have the same encouragement. Mentees, by the way, have the same proclivity as mentees often tend to want to connect with somebody who’s 20 years out in front of them, checks the same diversity category, ideally, follow the same career path to really get that perspective. And so you have to encourage it on both sides. And that’s where my good friend, Amy Waninger, she does some work in that area of even just taking a look at how diverse is your personal Board of Directors.

So we can all be challenged to really take a fresh look at who you spend your most time with and how diverse is that group of people, because I think the more well rounded individuals have more diverse perspectives in a variety of fashion. So to answer your question directly, I think, it’s not an either/or. It’s a both/and. So I think encouraging that those informal mentoring structures should raise some conscious awareness around how are you seeking those out and through what lens are you looking, but also giving a formal opportunity for people to make those connections and it really is an easier manner, I guess. And having those in place, I think, does a lot to really build a culture in an organization.


Let me put you on the spot a little bit here. Imagine that there’s a relationship, mentoring relationship between an older white male cisgendered guy that’s out there, and let’s just say a younger, Latina woman who’s come in, got a lot of great stuff going for her. They say, okay, we’re going to set up this mentoring relationship. What are the things that, if you could be in those conversations and hear what’s going on, what are the big advantages you feel like, on both sides, that both can teach each other in the business world that they would need to learn? Not to stereotype what everyone knows about those things, but just in general, what would you feel like those discussions, the most productive discussions would look like?

So I think, on both sides, is really preparing them for those discussions and getting really clear about what the mentee’s development opportunities are. And on the mentor side, really asking good questions, sharing relevant experiences that are particularly related to that mentee’s development opportunities, but also being open and asking good questions and really getting to know one another as well. Because I would say, and actually, there’s statistical data that shows that being a mentor actually does more to develop your leadership capacity than being a mentee. The reason for that is it allows you to develop empathy, develop perspective, really get to know people who have had a different life experience and a different career path than you, and to really develop more empathy in that way. So I would say for the mentor, it’s really an opportunity to view perhaps a little bit of a different perspective and a different career path.

But at the same time, it should always be centered on what the mentee really needs from a developmental perspective and not assuming that either. So really understanding what, in this case, what her goals are, and asking good questions and sharing relevant experiences on that front. And I think for the mentee, in this scenario, just making sure that she’s really prepared ahead of time to, again, really focused on what she hopes to accomplish from the relationship, to what she hopes to better understand and based on what the mentor, what their experiences and what their career path has been getting really clear about some good questions to ask as a way to really better understand from that perspective as well.

I think that you highlighted very specific gender, or ethnicity identifiers, gender and ethnicity, and I think at the end of the day, it’s not really that different. It really truly is about just getting to know the person. So you did a check with me earlier to make sure I was a human. And at our core, we are all human. And so I think that the fact that we use certain identifiers in order to dictate who we spend our most time with, and who we have most in common with, I find that when you really get to know somebody at their core, we’re not that different.


It’s almost like humanizing those markers. And just saying, like, yeah, we do have differences. And there’s a history behind those differences. But to recognize that, yeah, we all have very similar things about us, but also recognizing the differences. It’s complicated, right?

It is.


Yeah. Let’s talk about the digital nature of mentoring. We’re here talking in 2021. A mentoring program like you’re discussing would have been great to have in 1960 to be able to put that in place, but we’re here talking 60 years later. What are the advantages that we can take advantage of right now, in a digital world, in the digital age, we have all these tools at our disposal that actually give us an opportunity to do this even better than we could have done before?

Well, there’s multiple things there. And I can unpack, and as you said, we are currently in 2021. And so on the heels of 2020, where the opportunity to get together in person was not even available. And we hope that never happens again. However, what we also saw in terms of trends was EAP, which is an employee’s ability to connect to mental health professionals and that sort of thing, the use has quadrupled in 2020. So the need for connectivity was really significant when we were all working in isolation. We’re hoping that things are normalizing a little bit more but the fact that many people are working remotely, they’re not working in an office where they’re able to walk down the hall and connect with others, that need for connectivity is still there. And so being able to offer a program like this where it doesn’t require people to meet in person, it also opens up the opportunity for you to connect with people from a lot of other different geographies and that sort of thing.

And I think that, as the world gets smaller, I think there’s a lot of value there, too. So a lot of times when we seek out mentoring relationships, we want somebody who’s in our backyard, that we can go and meet in person and have coffee with, but the way that our program is structured, it allows you to connect by phone, or by video conferencing, and really build a relationship that way. And it opens up a whole world of possibility to really, again, develop empathy and understand what it’s like to live in certain parts of the country and those types of things. And so that’s where I think our program really rises to meet a need. And as you said, it could have been useful in the 1960s. We didn’t know that then. But I think particularly for the reasons that I identified earlier, it’s very useful now and the way that it’s administered allows for a lot of access, without having to go meet in person as previously we would have expected a mentor or mentee to do.


You talked earlier about external mentoring. Let’s go back to that topic and what that means for companies. How can they get involved in that?

Yeah, so in Engage Mentoring, we teach this idea of the four mentors you must have, which include someone who you aspire to be more like, someone who can advise you on your career path, so a career mentor, someone who is a peer mentor. So those are often the most overlooked is having someone who does a job relatively similar to yours, but that you can let your hair down and really grow in your current role that you currently occupy more effectively. And then finally, a competency based mentor, so someone who can help you with specific leadership competencies. So having said all that, the internal mentoring programs can really help with connecting you to someone who maybe occupies a position you’d like to hold in the future, who can advise you on the corporate culture and help you get the lay of the land and also give you some additional visibility.

External mentoring programs, I think, not only serve a need of helping with shoring up specific competencies, but also just giving you the opportunity to let your hair down and be maybe even a little bit more free in what you’re challenged with in terms of how do I navigate specific situations, then perhaps you can be with an internal mentoring program. So I think there’s a lot of validity to having both. And so having access internally for the reasons that we identified earlier, but having an external network that really is there to support you and to help you achieve your goals with an outside perspective that isn’t clouded by internal politics, if that makes sense.


Yeah. What are some success stories you’ve seen come from those types of relationships?

There’s so many. So I hear a lot. I literally was just working with a client yesterday in our client liaison actively participates in the mentoring program, and she was talking about, she’s Indiana based, and she was talking about her mentor being from California, and also from a very different industry, and how she’s surprised that it worked. So because our mentoring is actually, the relationships are matched based on topics. So in other words, I can say I want to work on my public speaking skills, and I want to connect to a mentor, and I can also apply additional identifiers if I wanted to, or I just can use that to connect. And so the basis of our conversations are going to be about learning about that particular skill or competency. And all the competencies are non-industry specific. So it allows people to connect.

So I hear a lot of the, I think the most common theme I hear is, when the initial connection was made, it didn’t seem like a traditional mentor, the idea that you have in your mind, someone, like I said earlier, 25 years out in front of you, followed the same career path and checks the same diversity category. And so I hear a lot of that, when that initial request came through, or the initial connection was made, I wasn’t sure exactly what we were going to have in common. But as we got to know each other, it was just evident how not only did I feel like I was able to help this person, but also, I learned more about that particular industry, which was a benefit to me as well.

So I think the common theme that I hear, and I mean, you ask for specifics, success stories. We’ve had students who have made connections with mentors that resulted in internships. One of our partners in Indiana, in particular, is the commission for higher ed which allows all the 21st century scholars to have access to our mentoring program. And we’ve had some great success with that. We’ve had some really active, there’s one gentleman in particular who’s a CEO of a credit union who actively participates, and he just loves, loves, loves connecting with, whether it’s a college student or other employees from other industries, and it’s just a huge advocate of, I mean, just the value of being able to make those connections from a mentor perspective, and impact someone else’s life and career in an hour per month is something that’s pretty incredible. And he’s also talked about what how this has really impacted the culture in his workplace, in his establishment with his employees.

So lots of success stories like that. We love hearing those. For us to be able to look at how do we help students really make those connections to potential employers in a meaningful way, and help them successfully transition into a workplace, ultimately, that’s what we’re driving towards, is helping employers do a better job, not taking one size fits all approach with their employees, but attracting and developing the next generation of talent, too.


Alison, as I think about the dynamic of what mentoring is, and how it goes through, one fear I have, or as I think about myself out in the future is, if I’m going to be a mentor, again, coming back to the idea, okay, I’m a white male, how do I avoid just teaching somebody else, hey, here’s how you’d be a white male in the world of business, and trying to replicate myself, even if you look differently than me if you come from different backgrounds, and instead really trying to be inclusive of recognizing that some things in the business role need to change, or it’s not just about, here’s how I was a successful. Just do what I did, and it will work for you. How can people like me break those assumptions?

I think it’s a lot of listening. I think that’s part of it. So, we’ve all had our various paths. And so I think the opportunity is really to get to know one another. And there are, again, many things that you bring to the table in terms of reflecting on your own life experiences. And that’s what it’s all about. So, being a mentor is sharing perspective, sharing experiences based on your particular journey, not necessarily telling somebody what to do. So I think, the real opportunity is both sharing and listening in that respect. The other thing that I would mention here, too, is typically mentees seek out mentors. Mentors don’t go knocking down people and saying, hey, I want to mentor you. But I think that being an open leader, being accessible to people, also, little things.

I’ll share with you. We partner with the Point Foundation to serve LGBTQ students in our program, and one of the students who connected with one of the participants in our program happens to be a chief diversity officer, but she was sharing that the student who connected with her was trans. And so the person that connected that was the mentor in this scenario had the pronouns after her name. And that’s why she was selected was because she figured that was an indicator that she was safe. And so I think there’s a lot of things that we can do as individuals to really demonstrate inclusivity and accessibility, and also just to demonstrate that we are open to sharing our perspective with others. So, I was beating up people earlier for tending to mentor and sponsor younger versions of ourselves, but it is what we tend to do, but there are a lot of ways to demonstrate openness, inclusivity that will attract mentees that will not only will we be able to help an impact, but that will open up our own perspectives and really get to learn more about other people’s journeys.


Yeah, that’s great. Alison, I love what you’re doing. I feel like the whole business model, the idea of mentoring is very much a shift towards a more human centric workplace, which is definitely something we advocate for and appreciate the work that you’re doing. Where can people go if they want to learn more about using your services or becoming a mentor? How can they get involved?

Well, I’m glad you asked that, Neil. They can visit We have programs that help workplaces. And so that’s the area I’m actually responsible for. We also now have ways for individuals to get involved in mastermind groups that allow them to not only connect to mentors but learn how to be a mentor themselves as well. So there’s a few different ways to engage but if you visit our website at you’ll be able to learn more.


Great. We’ll put that in the show notes. Alison, thanks for being on the show. We look forward to hearing from you again soon.

Thank you, Neil. I appreciate the opportunity.


Alison is the Founder and Chief Partnerships Officer at Engage Mentoring, a leadership development program that helps companies attract, develop and retain a diverse pool of talent working with companies to aid in moving the needle with their Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion efforts by providing leadership development opportunities for diverse talent that is so critical to retain and access to diverse talent pipelines.

She also facilitates our Project Lead for Women Mastermind series. This program is for high-performing women leaders who want to make significant progress on their goals, get unstuck, and move fast.

She authored the book, “Learning to Lead Through Mentoring” in 2013. Alison also founded the Pass the Torch for Women Foundation, a 501c3 dedicated to providing mentoring and resources to support women in all stages of their careers.

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