In my article published last month, we looked at the phenomenal pace of change happening in the workplace—how we all are impacted by technology, culture, and environmental influences. A series of pressing questions followed: How do we best prepare youth for the jobs of tomorrow? Whose responsibility is it to close the skills gap? Can there be a partnership between the academic and business sectors? And, what would that look like?

We are embarking on a big idea here—bridging two sectors, education and business, in a new way—for the benefit of our youth. More specifically, this article will explore putting these two sectors together through the program introduced in my last article: Project Based Mentorship®. This means of fostering a partnership between businesses and educators can benefit overall economic development, better train our workforce, and better prepare youth for 21st century jobs.

But, before we realize the benefits, the bridge has to be built. And, both sectors need to be proactive in its construction. Although this series focuses on the educator, I also encourage business leaders to reflect where they fit within this discussion.

So, how would an educator begin to develop relationships with local businesses? In this article, I will be sharing some suggested practical and doable first steps to do so.

Identify Internal Resources

One of the first things to identify is where a Project Based Mentorship® program best fits within your model. Perhaps you’re already testing project-based learning and need heightened focus and direction within its design. Or, maybe you want to enhance the way your students interact with the community and want to put this program to the test. Find and sit down with your fellow educators who want to be part of your pilot mentor program and who intend to work with students in finding projects that fit their interests.

You will also want to identify who can act as your mentorship coordinator and community liaison. Resources aside, your team of educators needs to determine who has the inclination, public relations, language, and sales skills to serve in this position. You may consider people who already represent your school in the community at-large or who are members of and have relationships with various organization and business leadership boards throughout the community.

Set Your Targets

Once you have identified the internal resources that will drive this work forward, it’s time to build out a Target List. Start by assembling a list of industry leaders whose business services and employee skillsets relate to the interests expressed by your students. Prior to reaching out to the corporation, visit their website and understand that your extensive research can go a long way when courting a company. Here are some questions worth asking yourself:

  • What is the corporation’s posture in the community and proclivity for engagement and giving?
  • Does your school have a relationship with your city’s economic development department?
  • Does your state have an active labor secretary?
  • Does your school board know business leaders in the community?

These entities can best provide information regarding which companies are moving to town, have won new contracts, or are philanthropically active.

Now that you have your Target List, it’s time to identify the Target Positions and Departments you want to deliver your initial correspondence to. In my experience, you are best off starting conversations with a senior manager of corporate social responsibility, the chief executive officer, the director of human resources, or possibly the director of public relations.

You have the target businesses, you have the target people, and now you need to deliver a Target Invitation. The same way a political candidate does a listening tour with town hall meetings, I suggest hosting a series of small breakfasts on your campus where you invite 6-8 business people to conduct your own listening tour. There are many names it could go by: The Principal’s (or Dean’s or President’s) Community Roundtable. Or you could steal my book title, with my blessing, and call it the Teach to Work Roundtable Breakfast. (I would wholeheartedly suggest to have a book accompany an invitation or be a breakfast giveaway as they depart!)

The purpose of your breakfast should be stated in your invitation. Here is a simple template to guide your drafting of the invitation:

“We all live together in this community. As educators, we want to learn more about your employment needs. We want to begin a series of conversations to better understand where the industry is going and how technology is impacting you. We want to think about ways we can better prepare our students to meet your needs. And, we cannot do this without better understanding you.”

What business leader could say “no” to that invitation?

For your gathering, I suggest preparing a conversational list of thoughtful questions that can be sent in advance, such as:

  • When you are hiring, what are the most important characteristics a future employee can exemplify?
  • If you had to suggest three priorities for educators to better prepare youth for employment, what would you offer?
  • What kinds of technologies are you currently using? Are you envisioning some of those changing in your future? If so, please describe.
  • What obstacles do you most often experience with new hires? What preparation would you like to see that would overcome that?
  • Can you help us to understand how soft skills and hard skills apply to your culture? Can you share two examples?
  • What can we do to prepare students for tomorrow’s jobs?

With these questions guiding the conversation, you’ll be better able to pitch your request for the businesses to team up with your students and provide mentors. Toward the end of the meeting, your goal is to learn more about what the company would be willing to do:

  • Would you be willing to work with us on developing a new mentorship model, where you and your key employees would have a role in education?
  • Would you be willing to underwrite this Project Based Mentorship® experience? Your funds would go toward experiential learning, administering the mentoring program, field trips, research, and bringing learning to life for our students. (optional)
  • Most importantly, we think your knowledge, skills, and support would be a wonderful addition in student preparation. This role would be adjunct, defined, and project-based and would work around your schedule of availability. Your participation will make a huge difference in our students’ motivation and in their work-readiness.

Remember, all of the steps laid out above are setting up the opportunity for you to listen. Indeed, anyone in sales, development, or marketing understands the importance of this fundamental first step. Whether you are a business person who seeks a better understanding of your consumer, an advertiser who assembles a focus group to understand procurement trends, a political candidate who gauges their message by audience polling, or even someone engaged in an avid courtship toward a new romantic interest. The first rule of thumb for success is always, always, always: Know and Understand Your Audience.

As in business, it is incumbent upon schools to know your audience—and with regard to this mentorship initiative, your target audience is your neighboring business community. If you’ll recall in my first article, we examined the pace of change in work culture and the growing need to partner with businesses to better prepare youth for 21st century jobs. I cited examples of how SAP and Accenture have worked closely with both non-profits and educators to help teach new skills.

As you embark on creating your new relationships with potential mentors, you (and your breakfast guests) can gain insights as to why other big Fortune 500 companies are dedicating vast resources, finances, and employee time to mentoring youth. Consider the numerous reasons corporations engage in these mentorship opportunities.

Exploring the War Stories of Corporate Mentoring

I am continually astounded at the myriad reasons companies give for their participation in mentoring programs. I encourage you to look into the logic behind other companies’ corporate social responsibility decisions. I like to call them War Stories. In your conversational dialogue, being able to cite what other companies are doing makes you a student of their world. And, companies always like to hear what peer companies are doing and why.

I welcome you to use my research. In both my book and subsequent newsletters, I have interviewed corporate social responsibility officers from a wide variety of businesses including companies rooted in manufacturing, consulting, media, finance, pharmaceuticals, and technology. Some notes from my Pfizer case study are available here, and several of my other corporate studies are detailed in my book. I have continued to interview corporations and schools post-publication, and you can see those reports on my blog page. The following is a snapshot of reasons why corporations engage in mentoring:

Pipeline: One of the biggest business concerns today is the skills gap. Companies are not finding job applicants with the skills they seek. Through active mentorship, internship, and apprenticeship programs, companies are able to proactively train their future pipeline of employees.

Moreover, as Gallup reported in its “Great Jobs, Great Lives” study, students were twice as likely to be engaged in their work and internalize a sense of well-being later in life if they had several career experiences while in school.

Hiring Advantage and Culture: In this day and age, Millennials—and others—seek out companies that have a social imprint, care about community, and have active programs that involve employees. By having an active corporate social responsibility program, an applicant is more likely to select a company over another that does not engage in civic-minded activities. In addition, mentorship programs, more so than random charitable endeavors, can further a corporation’s culture, morale, and corporate purpose.

Loyalty: Companies find that when they give employees an opportunity to give back, they are giving the employees a new experience—one they may not have had of their own accord. These employee volunteers are acting as ambassadors for their company. Mentorship makes them feel valued and important and provides opportunities to socialize with other mentors at the corporation. Cumulatively, this results in less turnover because there is an increased sense of happiness and loyalty between the employee and the company.

Leadership Training: Employees who become mentors also grow during the mentorship experience. As Susan Warner, Vice President of Worldwide Communications at MasterCard, says, “Leveraging the unique skill sets of our employees and allowing them to bring their whole self to a volunteer experience has proven to be a win-win for all.”

Employees find themselves being viewed as their company’s expert; they are valued in this intergenerational relationship; and through speaking to small groups of youth, employees build confidence that transfers to their corporate journey. Companies report that these mentorship roles develop new leadership skills, jumpstart a young professional’s understanding of their own impact on the next generation, and offer a new sense of responsibility to all participants.

Integrated Employees: Companies report that having robust volunteer programs introduce another dimension to company life, bringing a broader sense of purpose to the different layers of the organization. New collaborations form when working in the program, whereby an entry-level staffer and a vice president might be paired to come to a school together, forming a unique bond.

Interestingly, employees who queue up for the volunteer roles report feeling happier and more satisfied with their jobs. Teamwork often improves as a result of volunteer programs, and more fulfilled employees exhibit better job performance. Higher morale, improved employee productivity, and overall better employee retention result.

Community Relations: Mentorship programs make it clear that a corporation cares. The goodwill trickles throughout the community, from youth and their families, to a business district, to local political arenas. A new face on the corporate landscape paves a road to better relationships as the mentorship effort publicly states, “We want to help our community.” A culture shift unfolds as employees share stories about their own community efforts, and quite frankly, these often supersede the stories about a corporation’s products or services.

Sales: Not to be missed, corporations will also reap financial benefits. For all the reasons above, employees are happier and more motivated, and that attitude can be sensed by customers and clients. Moreover, as news of the company’s mentorship efforts make waves in the community, customers become more aware of and loyal to the company’s brand.

Get Your Ducks in a Row

As I have emphasized above, before courting any companies, it is wise to get your ducks in a row. What will a mentoring experience be like for them? I have found companies value mentorship opportunities that have structure, rigor, and training.

Your preparation for your breakfasts will demonstrate how easy it will be for a corporation to plug in. Therefore, you will ideally already have a key point person throughout their experience, a mentoring game plan, bios of your teachers, and a list of areas of expertise that would be ideal for your mentorship program.

How can we tap into the treasure trove of knowledge just outside our school walls and harness it effectively and efficiently? I urge educators to think about it from the mentor’s point of view. From the moment he or she sets foot on your campus, they should meet your school liaison and begin forming a relationship with your designated partnering educator. Their experience should feel orchestrated and organized. The more you can define the mentor’s job description and expectations, the more comfortable they will feel.

My experience suggests that these opportunities also work best if the mentor is trained and there is a clear understanding between the educator and mentor about how the Project Based Mentorship® tasks will be organized. Of course, the beauty of this concept is it fits squarely in a mentor’s wheelhouse of knowledge.

Start Small, Start Early

I suggest starting small and early. Make the commitment minimal: perhaps a few hours a month.

Then, plan backwards. Create a calendar with benchmark dates, such as the following:

  • April: Spring Cultivation Breakfasts
  • May through July: One-on-One Meetings
  • August: Training
  • September: Fall Semester Mentoring Begins

Finally, mentorship opportunities offer a win-win-win for the educator, the business, and the student. This new-fangled partnership (corporate mentors teaching skills to youth) will make enormous strides in closing the skills gap. Just by listening to business perspectives, educators will begin to learn more about the future of work, the inherent challenges employers face, the shifts brought about from technological change, and most importantly, employers newest hiring needs. This effort will begin to bridge a tenured divide between two sectors that have been traditionally siloed with seemingly divergent missions.

Ultimately, my objective, my vision in writing this article (and my book) is to help you take these first steps toward closing a dangerous and growing divide. Learning how to partner and pitch a business begins with a dyadic encounter—simply to ask and listen. This first gesture will help educators begin to understand the future of employment. What you do with that knowledge is the next step.

This post originally appeared in Education Reimagined.

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