On a warm spring day in Shanghai, I arrived at a neighborhood park with about thirty other women for a mentor walk. It was my first time attending the monthly event, organized by a group of women's communities that wanted to create mentoring opportunities.
I didn't really know what to expect from a mentor walk but I knew that successful women had mentors to help them and what better way to find a new mentor than at an event named "mentor walks."
As a mentee, I was able to sign up for the event for free, though spots were limited to the first thirty to sign up. The mentors were invited to join the event by leaders of each of the women's groups. All of the mentors were female, had 10+ years of experience in their field and held some kind of a leadership role.
On that particular morning, we came together in the center of the park and were separated into mentees and mentors. Each mentor stood in front of the group and presented a quick 30-60 second summary of their career and what career areas or questions they'd be happy to talk about. The organizers reminded us that the mentors were under no obligation to give us their contact details after but could if they wanted to.
After the introductions, the mentees were given the choice to pick their own mentor. You would just walk up and introduce yourself to your mentor and that was it. Each mentor would end up with two, three, or sometimes four mentees depending on the number of mentors available. We were then told we had an hour to walk around the park or sit in a nearby cafe and talk about anything we wanted to.
I can't remember exactly what I talked about on that first mentor walk but I remember coming away feeling energized and excited about what I was doing. The mentor walks gave me an easy and low stakes way to network and build mentoring relationships with people farther along in their careers.
Since that first day two years ago, I’ve gone back monthly and it's one of my favorite networking events. It focuses on building one on one relationships instead of large group or speed dating. Our discussions are always new and different, and I've found people that I'd love to have as long term mentors and others that I just want to listen to for that one hour.
An interesting trend I noticed over the years has been that some mentors return to the event the next month, but this time as mentees because they also want a chance to talk with the other mentors. You're never too old or experienced to learn something new and it was fun to see these accomplished women with an eagerness to talk with someone new.
So how can you replicate this easy-going approach to mentoring in your organization?
The concept of mentor walks can be applied to any community group, especially one that is organized around a shared location. If it’s too hot or cold to walk outside, you could meet at a local mall or coffee shop and start from there. All you need is space for smaller groups to break away and have their own discussions.
You can also adapt this type of event as a breakout session at your next annual conference or gathering as a low stakes way to have mentors, mentees and leaders meet with each other.
I'm constantly looking for new mentors and ways to build my network. But one thing I've settled on is that high quality interactions trump large scale ones. I know one Friday a month that I will get the opportunity to talk and listen to a female business leader and other women trying to figure it out just like me. That's not something I can guarantee will happen at my next networking happy hour.
I’m a millennial and there have been countless studies about how we're navigating our careers differently than older generations. I'm a part of the “79% of millennials who believe “mentorship programs are crucial to their career success.” But I also have learned that mentors can come in all shapes and sizes and even this once a month, for one hour mentor sessions can help me feel like I’m being supported and helped along the way.
It’s refreshing to hear another person’s perspective and the relaxed environment has led me to bring up questions and challenges I’ve been struggling with the past few weeks. I also love hearing the concerns and questions from other mentees as I’m reminded that I’m not alone in trying “to figure it out” and navigate my way through my career.
Sustained mentorship programs are more effective in forging long term relationships but don’t discount the short-term mentoring opportunities as well. A mentor walk or similarly structured event could be the perfect complement to your organization’s formal in person or online mentoring program.