My (on-going) Tryst with Mentoring and Employability

Few months back, I was invited for a guest lecture by an up and coming university in a small, tier-II town. In my interactions with the bright and capable students there, I had a huge sense of déjà vu. In each of these young person, I could see a part of myself. While they had a good head on their shoulders, the recruiter in me knew that there was still something amiss. I thought hard about my interactions with students from IIM’s and IIT’s and began to delineate the delta that they brought with them, because I felt with every fibre of my being that I could help these students bridge that gap. This is exactly what I needed 30 years back but wasn’t destined to get.
I could classify this difference into three buckets:
1. Exposure — being from small towns, there is a certain delta that these guys miss. I know we hear so much about penetration of internet and how the world is becoming a global village but no matter how far you can go with the virtual world, you still miss the resilience that comes from living in cities where diversity in thought, people and culture is much more evolved and enmeshed into your everyday routine. It toughens you up, make you question your ideologies and builds perspective.

2. Social Skills — The ability to talk about gay marriages without getting judgmental about it, to rationally discuss conflicting opinions without getting personal and truly uphold a sense of self-respect when conversing with seniors from the corporate world are skills that come when you go out of comfort zones and build your social network further; a privilege that students from smaller cities cannot always afford. I’ve always believed that the difference between living in a small flat in Mumbai and a Kothi in Chandigarh is this — You learn to rough it out and learn to be more accepting of all cultures

3. Self Perception — Students tried too hard to be “them.” They dressed the part, trying to mimic their peers from tier I colleges and playing it “cool” but in that process, they often forget who they truly are and what they stand for. They forget what it’s like to be comfortable in one’s own skin and lose their true identity along the way.
These are not issues that can be resolved with a one-off workshop on “grooming skills” or a so called “campus to corporate “program. It’s a much more deeply ingrained issue of creating equal opportunities of employability for all students of this generation, and it amazes me how many companies are offering such disconnected solutions as a patch work to innocent institutes, without creating any breakthrough results. 
Having worked so extensively in human resources and behavioural sciences, I went back to the drawing board and thought about what I can do differently. I took a five-pronged approach to creating equal opportunities of employability for this genre of youth:
1. Tapping into my Network: Realizing that we cannot do this alone, I reached into my network to find people who felt the same way. We found a couple of great friends who shared my passion and some felt even more strongly that I did. I have this example there was an old friend who gave up his job when he turned 50 to take this mission of employability forward.

2. Identifying the Scope: While brainstorming with the group together, we realized that we cannot boil the ocean and hence defining the scope for mentoring was vital. We debated what she should and shouldn’t do. I’ve always been a firm believer of teaching someone how to fish rather than giving them the fish, and we ensured that our scope lives up to that philosophy.

3. Selecting the Institute: Selection of an institute where we could make an impact was critical. The institute had to be one which genuinely wanted to make a difference to their student’s life and had a progressive vision. The choices we made were not easy, especially since a lot of institute’s work with an extremely short term focus on “getting placements” rather than “building employability.”

4. Selecting the Students: Selection of the potential students we would be enrolling into our program was also key. We wanted our mentee’s to have diversity in thought, religion, gender and ethnicity. We did not want to enroll toppers only, or have anyone who did not have passion and drive to make an impact.

5. Designing the Program: We spread this program over ten months, detailing the tasks for each month. Each session would start with what was covered last time and a small assessment around it. Individual development plans and one-on-one mentoring sessions were included into the program along with effective measurement tools that tracked parameters both before and after the program is completed. This mentoring program is about individual attention and individual development. It is paced program at the level each student is and it is about customization. For us it is not one college, it is about one student.
Being working professionals, we had no choice but to do this over weekends. This meant giving up watching movies, catching up with friends and resting during our afternoon siestas. Sometimes it also involved making choices that pained us, like staying away from home and not being able to spend enough time with loved ones. It was most certainly not easy and it entailed a lot of sacrifices from all of us — but when we see the kind of transformation these students have had through this project, all of those sacrifices and effort feels completely worth it. 
We are keeping our fingers crossed now after having mentored 30 students. It is not an instant gratification and we will know the results in perhaps another year. There is no short term booster here and there are no short term accolades. We are on a learning journey here
Today, when I see these kids embracing the challenges of the corporate world with utmost confidence and applying what they’ve learnt from our mentoring to their work, I know that we’ve truly made an impact. That we have disseminated the knowledge that comes with our experience to the future workforce of our society, and enabled it to become that much stronger, comfortable in their own skin and ready to take on the obstacles of the future.

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