Nichole Higgins, finalist for the National Mentoring Awards for her contribution to the CIPD Steps Ahead Mentoring programme, shares her story.
When I signed up to volunteer as a CIPD Steps Ahead mentor in 2016 I never could have imagined that would be the start of a journey that would lead to me being a top three finalist for ‘mentor of the year’ for the UK’s first National Mentoring Awards. Not only that, but it’s also led to an exciting career change, as my journey from mentor to Steps Ahead Ambassador, turned into a permanent role working full time on the programme, as part of the CIPD’s Social Impact and Innovation team.
From the moment I first heard about Steps Ahead I was intrigued, I had been looking for an opportunity to volunteer and it seemed like a good fit with my skills. It wasn’t so long ago that I was helping my children find their first job and I felt I could really make a difference to other’s lives. Steps Ahead appealed because it’s about giving individuals (who are jobseekers) the support and confidence boost they need to help them find a job. Getting a first or new job can have a massive impact on people’s lives, and I liked that the programme allowed me to play a role in that.
Mentoring jobseekers – the how and why?
My own personal life experience has allowed me to understand that people sometimes stumble into unfortunate and unforeseen circumstances that can just change their whole life plans (myself included). Most of the time people just want someone to guide them, listen to them and genuinely show an interest. Mentoring for me gives me great satisfaction in just simply giving back and being able to help. I have never mentored someone and not learnt something, which for me personally has been priceless.
I may hold the title as ‘mentor’ in these scenarios, however for me it’s more like team work, working towards a common goal with my mentee. Normally it‘s about building their confidence and seeing them move that much closer to their goal. Because I see us as a team I always say ‘we’ when I talk about what we are striving towards.
Being unemployed can be extremely demotivating and at times it can feel near impossible to deal with emotionally. I like the fact the Steps Ahead Mentoring is a programme solely designed to help people back into work. I have a huge range of personal experience of the world of work; from being self-employed, being a manager in various companies and sectors, working on zero hours contracts, in temporary jobs and permanent jobs. I also hold an Undergraduate and Masters degree. Having this range of experience helps me to motivate the jobseekers I work with to think outside the box and together we can work towards an option that works for them, no matter where they are at in their career journey, or what their life circumstances might be.
As a mentor, although I feel give 110 per cent, I cannot always guarantee that my mentee will secure a permanent job by the end of our mentoring relationship. However, I always ensure that I provide them with the tools to enhance their chances. This includes emailing them daily positive uplifting quotes to brighten their day and keep them motivated. I also seek to build a relationship with the recruitment agencies that my mentees are interested in and I keep in regular contact with the jobcentre Work Coaches, this allows me to create a mini team for my mentees and solidifies the support available to them.
However, I have encountered challenges as a mentor, and one of the biggest has been building that initial trust with my mentees. Some have been very wary, and worried that I was somehow spying on them to report back to the jobcentre, which they think will affect their benefits. Some of my mentees have also been unemployed for long periods of time and as a result their motivation levels can be at an all-time low. I have overcome these difficulties by having very open and honest conversations and explaining my past experiences with other mentees. This has been very powerful and helps reassure them of my neutrality and the independent support I can offer them.
All of the mentees I have worked with so far have fed back that I helped them find work or lifted their confidence which has allowed them to be more proactive and feel more positive about looking for work. Many have thanked me personally which I must say is truly gratifying. For me, one of the most rewarding things is that I have been able to continue to help many of my mentees months after our formal relationship has been completed. Sometimes they just need a vote of confidence or a bit of advice and it’s great to stay in contact and see them progress.
How else have I been involved in Steps Ahead Mentoring?
I became a Steps Ahead Mentor in 2016 and, after realising that more could be done to promote the programme in jobcentres, I also volunteered as a Steps Ahead Ambassador. In this role I have connected with my local jobcentres and attended job fairs to promote the programme and sign people up. As a mentor myself it puts a face to the programme and reassures new mentees about what they can gain from taking part. It also raises the profile of the programme amongst jobcentre staff and the Department for Work and Pensions more broadly, as Ambassadors play a crucial role in spreading awareness at a local level. I also became an internal Steps Ahead champion which means I actively recruit and promote the programme to internal staff, which I have been successful in.
As I gained more experience of Steps Ahead as a volunteer, my passion for the programme grew as I saw the difference it could make to people’s lives. I was fortunate that my voluntary experience, coupled with my wider CIPD customer service experience then led to the opportunity to join the Steps Ahead team as a staff member. It‘s great that my passion is now also my job and I continue to volunteer, alongside my full time role with an amazing team of colleagues.
How it has helped me develop as a person?
My involvement as a Steps Ahead volunteer has definitely assisted in building my own confidence, especially when it comes to public speaking and delivering presentations. Being a mentor and an ambassador has also given me the drive and hunger to want to improve myself. This led to me wanting my own mentor and I am now in a mentoring relationship with one of the senior leaders/directors at the CIPD. I wanted to see what it is like to be a mentee and take away any learnings or techniques I could use to help others. I am also currently studying a certificated life coaching course which is also about further enhancing my mentoring skills.
I also feel that my experience as a mentor has made me a better person. It has allowed me to meet and help people from all walks of life, regardless of their age, race, gender, education or employment. I also feel it has given me the confidence to co-chair our race at work group, EmbRACE, which is also a volunteering role, and there is lots of cross over with the challenges I see some jobseekers facing.
Making the step to become a mentor is one of the best decisions I have made. I can whole heartily say that being a mentor is absolutely life changing in every positive way you can think of. I am truly humbled to be a top three finalist for mentor of the year at a nationally recognised awards and regardless of whether I win, I will continue to have so much love for Steps Ahead. We’re always looking for new mentors, and we have recently extended the programme so we are working with both young people and parent and carer returners. You can sign up here but also feel free to contact me or a member of the team, as we are always happy to talk you through the programme.
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