Mentoring Diversity

Serving a diverse patient population calls for diverse leadership.

Larry Ambrose

While mentoring is necessary for fostering a new generation of healthcare leaders, the need for a mentoring program is especially acute for minority employees—individuals of color and women. Many organizations have instituted diversity training programs to help understand and utilize the unique contributions of all employees by creating an inclusive work environment; however, minority employees still need other tools with which to be empowered, such as mentoring. In a diversity-driven mentoring program, proteges will prepare for their own career success and learn about the process, responsibilities, and qualifications necessary to be an effective leader. At the same time, leadership will learn the value of a culturally diverse environment, experience cultural and gender differences, and gain perspective in the value of including those factors in their daily decision-making process. The overall benefit will be a broader appreciation of diversity principles with a greater emphasis on integrating those values and beliefs in the daily operations of the organization. This appreciation of diversity is especially important today as healthcare managers must respond to and reflect increasingly diverse patient populations.

Planning a Diversity Mentoring Program

In general, mentors tend to mentor someone who is “like them.” They often do not think about reaching out to those who are different in race, culture, or gender because they are either unaware of the need or they fear the unknown. Therefore, to expect that all employees will find informal mentors is not realistic. Progressive healthcare organizations are recognizing that mentoring access has to be gained through an established process that provides opportunities for all employees to gain a mentor. But even those organizations enlightened enough to establish a structured mentoring initiative may do so without being sensitive to the unique needs of the proteges involved in diversity mentoring. Such needs include finding diverse mentors and understanding how to navigate successfully in a majority culture. It is important for any organization exploring a mentoring initiative to think through the overall purpose, not only for the organization, but also for what the mentors may seek from the experience.

Following are some considerations for planning a successful diversity-driven mentoring program:

  • Understand differences: Designing programs for proteges who are different from their experienced mentors can be a real challenge. In a cross-cultural or cross-gender mentoring relationship, it is critical to understand how different the partners’ assumptions may be about human behavior. Understanding cultural or gender-based assumptions will heighten the partners’ ability to develop the authenticity and trust essential for successful mentoring. To improve understanding, both mentoring partners need to be schooled in basic communication skills—those of listening, empathy, and appreciative inquiry—along with orientation into differing cultural, racial, and gender-based assumptions.
  • Define program goals: Of course, any mentoring program must have a clear strategic intent and specific goals up front. Both strategy and goals should be closely aligned and designed to support the business objectives of the organization. For example, a diversity-driven mentoring program may assist an organization in achieving its strategic goal of increasing the number of minorities in the managerial and leadership ranks by preparing them for upward mobility. Or the program may help to meet the goal of retaining minority employees.
  • Involve top leadership: Executive leadership plays a unique role in championing the success of a diversity-driven mentoring program. First, the program must be sanctioned by the top leadership to have credibility in the organization. Also, top leadership must put diversity initiatives such as mentoring programs in the forefront of the organization and communicate its personal commitment regularly. Finally, senior executives in healthcare should participate in mentoring, thereby setting the tone for employee development, inclusion, and empowerment in the organization.
  • Solicit input from participants: One of the most important tasks for creating an effective diversity-driven mentoring program is to ask potential participants for their input. Individuals who have some degree of influence in shaping the program and have a choice in determining their mentoring partner not only will be of great help in planning but also will be enthusiastic and potentially successful participants in the program.

Larry Ambrose is a managing partner of Perrone-Ambrose Associates, Inc., and the author of A Mentor's Companion.

Perrone-Ambrose Associates, Inc.
2 N. Riverside Plaza, Ste. 1433
Chicago, IL 60606
(800) 648-0543

From Healthcare Executive, September/October 2003