The Benefits of Structured Mentoring Circles for Female Employees

Mary E. Donohue, EdD
Pamela McElvane, MBA, MCPC
Donald Loney

Mentoring circles, when used with the existing Lean in Group framework, increased female employees self-assessed career engagement, team value, and trust in leaders and team reflecting the Values and Leadership Competencies of the global utilities organization (Organization) in our study. This paper shares the story of how mentoring circles brought to life alignment within female employees at any career level. For this study, applied the Donohue Mentoring System™ (DMS), a customizable mentoring software from the Digital Wellness Center, to better understand A) how mentoring affects female employees’ career engagement, defined as a strong interest in remaining at and moving up in the company. B) how mentoring affects mentees’ attitudes towards their employer and the culture of their workplace, defined as team value where mentees increase their ability to understand the value of work as it relates to the goals of the organization. And C) how mentoring affects mentees’ team trust and work satisfaction defined as an increased ability to accept and act on change directives from senior leaders.

Using a case study that included 52% of participants, triangulated with 245 journals and results from pre/post testing as well as communication with mentoring coaches, the DMS team was able to discover that mentoring, when delivered through email software, has a positive effect on female leaders’ confidence in their ability, and it reframed the executive leader/manager from a one-sided conversation to a  “learning break,” that helps develop positive feelings of alignment with the organization and its values. Mentoring also increases the overall work satisfaction of female leaders by enabling them to understand how to become the own their career story at the utility.


In the fall of 2019, the executive team helmed by the Learning and Development directors, wanted to add new skills competencies to their online training because they concluded they were not doing enough to develop women leaders. The executive team wanted to create a program that developed sticky learning modules for female team members. In the year prior (2018), the utility produced a list of values and competencies that were developed from within the organization and designed to engage and encourage others to grow and flourish. In addition, the company wanted to offer a unique opportunity to the people volunteering and participating in their Lean-In Circles across the organization.  The team consulted with the DMS because of prior collaboration. To make the best use of the Lean-In Circles, the DMS team suggested using structured mentoring circles, defined as one mentor advising two to four mentees. The logic behind this choice was based on the research that stated, “When you teach others in your team rather than rely on outside resources to solve problems, you meet this need, and the result is that individuals build teams that are more creative and efficient in generating internal solutions.”[1] The mentoring circles were based on encouraging team members to work with each other and leadership to problem solve and to reduce feelings of isolation.  This is particularly helpful for female team members as mentorship is a critical part of female talent development.

Customization of the Program

After the trademarked benchmarking process in the form of a pre-survey, the team determined how far mentors and the mentees had progressed along their learning journey. Using their lesson library accumulated over the 12 years the DMS has operated, nine customized conversations were chosen that brought to life the utility’s stated vales and leadership competencies. This series of conversations builds one upon another to transfer problem-solving capital from senior leaders to junior leaders in monthly lessons, with one

conversation building on the next. Each of the nine conversations is delivered via email. Each lesson is composed of three emails, much like a typical ESP (Email Service Provider) program does to engage prospects or customers. The emails, sent over a period of four weeks, contain a structured learning curriculum, a video that explains the lesson for quick digestion, and a link to a learning journal that is mandatory for mentees and suggested for mentors. The journal allowed the utility’s learning team to anonymously follow the engagement of the learners. The DMS software allows each team to receive the same information at the same time, minimizing fluctuations in training and messaging while maintaining customization. The DMS also provides mentor and mentee coaches who follow the progress of the teams and assist should a team fall behind in their lessons or their meetings. If the team runs into trouble—for example, if a group isn’t melding well—the coach documents the problem and works with the company to solve the setback. The utility saw a 93% graduation rate from DMS with this program.

Mentoring Circles Result #1

The first question the learning team wanted answered was “How does mentoring affect female employees’ career engagement?” We discovered that the well-chosen and talented leaders, the mentors, inspired female employees’ feeling of goodwill toward their employer and boosted their confidence as a leader. The mentees learned to be a good leader through conversations with their mentors and with others in their circle, rather than be subjected to the typical “I talk—you listen” leadership training.  Mentees appreciated the “realness” of the conversation, as a mentee stated: “I feel it was less formal training and more of a connection with someone who knows the ropes. A relationship-building exercise.”

During these conversations, mentors gave mentees the resources to solve problems that arise every day in the workforce and to use these solutions to advance their career. The DMS requires leaders to articulate, through the nine foundational conversations mentioned earlier, how to get the job done. The curriculum draws their problem-solving talents out and transfers this knowledge to their mentees. Each mentoring lesson highlights a specific goal for each conversation that involves using the perspective of the senior leader (the mentor) and the mission of the utility. The mentors rose to the challenge and in the process developed relationships that last. According to one mentor: “We agreed that we are having a good time with this program. Will be hard to end it. Maybe we don’t need to end it.”

The mentors also found themselves learning and having fun. In one case, a mentor not only shared her learnings with her mentees, but was kind enough to share with another company who was starting a women’s mentoring program in another country.

Mentoring Circles Result #2

The second question the learning team wanted answered was “How does mentoring affect mentees’ trust and attitudes towards their employer and the culture of their workplace, or team value?” We discovered that mentoring reframes the employer/employee relationship as that of a “engaging learning break” during a crisis. Research demonstrates that learning “a focusing on learning defined as … picking up a new skill, gathering new information, or seeking out intellectual challenges reduces stress[1].”

Why is this significant? Change is hard, but drastic change—for example, the changes brought on by Covid 19—increases the stress on women in the workforce. Besides the added pressure of working from home and quarantining in the same residence as extended family, children and/or a partner, finding time for work meetings, and finding a space to meet or work can be a difficult and unsettling experience, as the data reveal. Other researchers have found that women in particular are reporting more stress than men during Covid. In July of 2020, Stats Can reported that:

A greater proportion of female participants than male participants reported that their lives were “quite a bit” or “extremely” stressful during the COVID-19 pandemic: 30.5% vs. 24.0%. Results from the 2018 CCHS indicate a similar pattern, where 22.9% of women and 19.1% of men reported that their lives were quite a bit/extremely stressful.

Having a mentoring program in place, and especially during an event like Covid, provides a learning break for women to absorb and deal with the stress that sudden and disruptive change brings. We found that mentoring for mentees fostered more positive attitudes towards their employer and the culture of their workplace. They felt that the mentoring relationship was a restorative because it acted as a safe space to talk out ideas and shared stressors. To confirm what we were seeing in the interviews, we reviewed mentee and mentor journals where comments related to learning as a stress reliever. In their journals, mentees shared why they felt mentoring was working. In particular, mentoring resulted in deeper conversations and more collaborative relationships with other mentees in their circle. As well, they reported how their mentor helped them step into their leadership roles and understand how to be a better leader increasing their positivity toward the team and their value of the team.

For example, when asked why the program worked, a mentee wrote: “Some of the best learning and growth happens through simple connection and conversation, and by creating a feeling of psychological safety and support.” This feeling of safety was felt by others in a mentoring group whose mentor said that by the end of the program her group was “… chatting about the lockdown and safety and what we learnt from it, specifically … about managing oneself.” Mentoring provided mentees an opportunity to learn in a safe space with colleagues and leaders, enabling the employee/employer relationship to be reframed as that of a “safe space learning break” during a crisis.

Mentoring Circles Result #3

The third question the learning team wanted answered was “team trust and work satisfaction defined as an increased ability to accept and act on change directives from senior leaders?” We discovered that mentoring allows mentees to be realize that at the utility they are the hero of their own leadership story, and the utility supports them. One mentee summed it up well when she said that rather than feel alone and stupid, her mentor and her circle enabled her to reframe her self-view. Before she entered into the mentoring program she was negative and doubted herself. This self-view began to change during the process. In her journal which she allowed us to replicate anonymously for this paper she said:

[To be] happy and productive at work, personally and in a great environment (was my goal), [I wanted to] disrupt the negative thinking and look into more of what the thought is. Change from “It is stupid” to “It is an extra step.” From “I am dumb” to “I do not know the answer; can you please help?” I try to catch myself.

Changing from a mindset from “I am dumb” to “I do not know the answer; can you please help?” is the key to growing into your own career. Mentees were surprised that mentoring circles could produce this effect. Mentees, at the start of the program, had low expectations: “I guess you could say that my expectations were low, but I was willing to try it out.” Or worse: “I actually didn’t have any expectations.  I just was going to see what happened.” Mentees seemed to be convinced this was another management hoop to jump through that would not further their careers.  However, they ended up being happily surprised by the mentoring circles approach because the felt a part of leadership tribe when in their mentoring circle. Another participant explained:

As stated, I had low expectations.  I went in with an open mind but didn’t expect much.  I certainly am so glad I participated in this program.  It was really nice focusing on my professional and personal development as well as connect with like-minded people.  The experience was unique, because it was the first time I think I was ever able to focus on me, and me only.  What did I get out of the readings was how I was going to use the experience to change. The group conversations also allowed for each individual to reflect and share.

A tribe, as defined by Seth Godin, is “a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea. A group needs only two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate.”[1] According to the mentees, mentoring was a way to communicate, tribal conversations, that “empowers us to have the confidence to move forward.”

Being connected to a leader/mentor enabled mentees to view leadership through a new lens and to understand how they could build their skills and develop into ethical leaders at the utility. One mentee shared: “This experience was incredible. We were open and honest about the good things, as well as humble about challenges.”

When discussing what she learned from her tribe’s leader or mentor, one mentee stated she learned to be authentic: “I feel that to make a change to the deficiencies in communication, I am (now) better prepared to be an active part of that change.” This was a dramatic change from her pre-mentoring experience when she felt her communication “is not the best.”

Within the modern workforce development suite of tools there are relatively few experiences to frame one’s own leadership story. Learning and Development at large companies are at a particular disadvantage to provide these development “perks” because it is too costly to customize this journey for potential leadership candidates. Yet structured mentoring circles provide the mentee this experience in a cost-effective manner. It enables a leader to build her confidence and begin to examine and change her self-perception based on information from her mentor and her fellow mentees. When asked, mentees overall reported a higher level of work satisfaction because they were able to create and chart their own leadership story based on their mentoring circles experience. When asked what the utility accomplished with this program, mentees responded en masse with a united theme illustrated by one mentee’s quote: “To empower us to have the confidence to move forward.” When asked if the utility reached their goal, the answer is best summed up by this quote: “Yes, by using current leaders as mentors, they are able to achieve a personal level of developing future leaders. The small circles create a place for growth and trust to help develop each future leader.”

The utility’s use of the DMS enabled the company to create a series of experiences that enabled women to shift from feeling isolated to feeling empowered, by telling creating and experiencing their own leadership story in safe learning space—structured mentoring circles.

Alignment with Quantitative Data:

The DMS uses the Donohue Scale™ Team communication is defined as a cohort’s ability to ensure the message sent is the message received by team members. Effective communication results in adaptability (embracing change), collaboration (team problem-solving) and a commitment (engagement) by the team, resulting in the reduction of workplace stress by an average of 29% according to studies, thereby increasing the performance and productivity of teams. However, our response to the post survey, may have been confused by the study questions, as we didn’t get as high a response rate as we traditionally, our response rate 15% for the post survey, where we usually like to see 20%.

Using the Donohue Scale the results from the utility’s Lean in Mentoring Circles are shown below:

Pre Mentoring Circle Data

Post Mentoring Circle

Areas for improvement

The area of improvement for the program includes finding time to work on the program given pre-Covid travel schedules and peer mentoring.

Travels time zone jumping and its negative effects on completing the program where highlighted by some a few mentors. One mentor stated that “It was great that the company tried this and encourages continuous growth. My mentee simply didn’t have time, and I struggled with this as well.” We also saw this with a limited number of mentees. One mentee was particularly late in starting the program. When the DMS mentoring coaches contacted her she reported as she found it hard to start the program when traveling.

One final thought that the mentors brought up was that mentoring may work better between leader and subordinate rather than two equally positioned people. This is a theme we have heard from other mentors across all corporations that have used the program.


The purpose of this paper was to understand the effect of structured mentoring circles on female employees’ self-view and development. We found that Mentoring Circles bring to life the utilities Values and Leadership Competencies and moves mentees to feel more connected to their career, their team and have more trust in leadership. These circles produced the following outcomes:

  • Provide a framework for employee’s leadership stories which helps to establish values, track and promote growth, and build confidence.
  • Small mentoring circles help to foster growth and trust.
  • Provide a safe space to deal with stress and develop a more positive attitude about the workplace, particularly for women.

Overall, the DMS email software mentoring has a positive effect on female leaders’ alignment with the utilities leadership confidence in their ability, reframes the employer/employee relationship as that of a “learning break” during a crisis, and increases the overall work satisfaction of female leaders by enabling them to understand how to become the hero of their own career story at the utility.