Adacats Mentorship Program: A growth journey

Image of Mary Moore-Simmons

Last year, the Adacats (GitHub’s employee resource group for marginalized genders) started a mentorship program. We’re sharing insights and fun stories from this experience for anyone interested in starting a program of their own.

The pilot

In July 2019, the Adacats surveyed members about what we should focus on for the next fiscal year (July 2019 through June 2020). Many of our members expressed feelings of being stuck in their careers. They felt unable to understand how to progress in GitHub’s high-growth, ever-changing environment.

In response to this feedback, we created an advancement program. This program paired volunteers from the Adacats wanting to advance with more senior staff to help them grow in their careers. The program began as a pilot in the engineering department with 10 pairs. We checked in with our pairs monthly. We then a survey to get feedback on how to improve the program.

By taking an iterative approach, we benefited from valuable feedback which we used to make improvements.

The feedback

We received great feedback over the first six months:

  1. I’m going to get instantly promoted! The mentors and managers of those being mentored noticed a mismatch of expectations. These mainly revolved around how quickly those being mentored would improve a skill set or get promoted. Program members expected to be promoted faster than their managers or mentors thought they should be.
  2. We need more structure. The initial program paired mentors with those wishing to be mentored. We suggested they meet regularly and create a plan for growth. Other than this we gave little direction. We immediately received feedback that people wanted more direction and documentation.
  3. Managers felt awkward and uninformed. Managers of the people in the program were unsure how much information should be shared with the mentor about performance. They weren’t sure what their report and program mentor were working on or how to help.

Mentorship program availability

We took feedback and made changes to the program:

  1. Renamed the program and clarified expectations: The program is now named the Adacats Mentorship Program. This ensures we focus on overall growth rather than promotion. Growth is a journey and can take many forms. While a promotion is a great form of providing additional opportunities, it’s only one of the ways people can grow in their career. We wanted to show the program provides a more diverse set of growth opportunities.
  2. Documentation upgrade: We added documentation and more guidance. This included a detailed growth plan template for mentees, specific expectations for participants, resources for mentors about how to mentor people from underrepresented groups, and published guides on the promotion process at GitHub.
  3. Added structure to manager interactions: We created a manager guide to explain the purpose of the program and how they could get involved. We added an initial meeting, where the mentor, mentee, and manager met to discuss what information should be shared. We added six-month check-ins for the mentor, mentee, and mentee’s manager. This ensured everyone is openly communicating about the mentee’s progress.

Throughout these iterations, we never lost the true focus. That this is someone else’s growth journey. The mentee and mentor know how to navigate what works best for them. In our kickoff meetings with the pairs, we remind them these structures are guidelines. This is when we explain the reasoning behind each activity. They can then decide which tools are most useful for their growth.

In May 2020, we rolled out the program for marginalized genders throughout GitHub.

Lessons learned

We’ve come a long way from the start of the program. And we’ve learned a few valuable lessons:

  1. Ship to Learn: This was critical throughout the whole process. It’s also one of GitHub’s leadership principles. We provided documentation and structure only where necessary based on feedback we actively solicited from our program members. Adacats work is done on a voluntary basis in addition to our jobs. Creating this program would’ve been overwhelming to do all at once. This method allowed us to slowly build the program over time.
  2. Bring managers along: We missed a key piece at the beginning of this program. That piece was helping a mentee’s manager figure out their place in the program. This caused confusion and push back we could’ve avoided.
  3. Share the work: We attended all of the manager and staff meetings at GitHub. We were able to let them know about the program, answer questions, and encourage participation. Sharing our efforts significantly increased participation and proactively answered manager questions and concerns.
  4. General Learnings:
    1. Marginalized groups need help selling themselves on self-reviews. Mentors can help by reviewing mentees’ self-reviews.
    2. People from marginalized groups are over-coached and under-sponsored. This can be alleviated by including training on sponsorship for your mentors.
    3. People want more junior mentors than you might think! We experienced a shortage because many felt they were too junior to mentor, but mentees actually want mentors closer to their current experience level.
  5. Mentorship programs work: We placed a lot of attention on how to improve and iterate quickly. The feedback for this program however was overwhelmingly positive. We also saw real changes. Some people were promoted and others moved to teams that were a better fit. Some gained valuable skills and opportunities as a result of their participation in the program.

Thank you

We’re excited to see how this program evolves. We want to say thanks to the program members for taking an opportunity to grow with us. We’re here to help advocate for their success at GitHub… and throughout their careers!

Want to start a mentorship program of your own? Contact us, we’d love to hear from you.