For most hairstylists, the time between graduating beauty school and working on your first client is instrumental in helping build technical skills and confidence to have a successful and long-lasting career.
However, depending on which salon they choose to join after beauty school, some may feel like they’re either being thrown into the industry too fast or stuck doing mundane tasks without the proper guidance and help in developing their skills.
“It’s a really tough industry to start out in. I don’t know of too many industries where you do a year or two of school and often come out making just a little more than minimum wage,” says Heidi Kenney, a Contessa-winning colourist and owner of Heidi Kenney Hair Studio in Yarmouth, N.S. “You can make a lot of money in this industry or not, so when I speak to students in beauty school, the number one thing I tell them is that no matter if it’s less pay, go with the salon that’s going to give you the best mentor.”
For Kenney, she can relate to many hairstylists who may be struggling to find the mentorship they’re looking for since she recalls searching for mentors when she was first starting out in the industry.
“I didn’t start off in my first job having good mentorship, so I was messing up a lot and that’s why I really believe that education is important and mentorship,” she says. “I would start seeking out mentors—and I still do. I still travel and sit in with people that have been my mentors and get their help and opinion on things. I think it’s something that we always have to be searching out.”
“When I was young, I was looking for people to inspire me and help me get to the next level,” says Edwin Johnston, a multi-award-winning hairstylist and owner of Cutting Room Creative in Nanaimo, B.C. “A lot of times, you have to go out yourself and look for it.”
PRO TIP: Even if the salon you’re interested in is not hiring (or offering apprenticeships), consider reaching out anyway to express your interest and increase the chances of having them contact you if any opportunities become available.
Sharing is Caring
Johnston works with his wife, Fiona, to help mentor their salon team. They have a training program that all employees must complete within one year (most complete it within six months) before they can work their way onto the floor to cut or colour hair.
“Everything we do is about the training and mentoring that we do with our team,” he says. “Our cutting system has 14 techniques that we teach. They get a demo, do a hands-on component and then they test out on their own model by themselves, so we have all three ways of learning; they’re watching, listening and doing. Then, they graduate onto the next technique. If they don’t, they have to redo it and then catch up with the rest of the group. It’s not easy, but the whole idea is to elevate their skill set and mindset to build them up so when they work on clients, they can be successful in retaining them and growing their business.”
“It’s about wanting people to be successful when they do that first haircut on a client and to have a good experience,” adds Johnston. “Otherwise, they’re going to get frustrated and drop out of the industry, which is what can happen, unfortunately. It’s about how you motivate them every day, keep them interested and offer them more mentorship; teaching them skills and then trusting that they’re going to be able to grow and help to retain the amount of people that come into your business.”
At Moods Hair Salon in Vancouver, owner Chad Taylor also has a mentorship program that is not only geared towards their apprentices, but also for stylists and management. “We encourage mentorship at all levels to create a consistent culture for our team and for all of our guests,” he says. “Having a system of mentorship creates a culture of learning and growth, and attracts like-minded humans to our team. It’s been an important way for us to recruit and retain staff over the years.”
“We’ve developed an education program with weekly classes on live models to support the learning of our apprentices so that they’re building their skills and progressing in their careers,” adds Taylor. “We take the foundation skills that they already have and build on them. For any new stylist that joins our team—regardless of their experience in the industry—we offer six months of custom classes to cultivate the skills that define a ‘Moods’ stylist.”
“Mentoring has always been incredibly important, but I think it’s even more important now because it provides a sense of community. Having a sense of purpose and moving forward with training and education provides our team with a sense of accomplishment and growth.” — Chad Taylor, owner, Moods Hair Salon, Vancouver
At Kenney’s salon, new hairstylists will work alongside her for three months to watch and assist in everything from shampooing clients to foiling to blow-drying. “I don’t have a set program, but I have certain milestones for them to achieve,” she says. “They may want me to formulate everything for them for the first little while but when I know they can do it, I’ll ask them to come to me with their colour formula if they’re unsure and then I’ll approve it or maybe add to it, instead of always giving them all the answers. It’s about making them think for themselves while hoping that you’ve provided them with all the lessons they need to be able to make the right decisions.”
“If you have something you’re good at, you should be sharing it. It elevates the industry and it’s really rewarding. Mentorship is my way of giving back.” – Heidi Kenney, owner, Heidi Kenney Hair Studio, Yarmouth, N.S.
Leading by Example
For Daniel Benoît, master hairstylist and co-owner of Montreal-based Salon Pure, not only does he help mentor his staff, but he also teaches classes outside of the salon.
“I’m teaching classes almost every weekend,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll have 10 people or just one person—it depends on what they want. I love teaching; this is my expertise. I’m really lucky—I have some people who’ve been seeing me every six months for 25 years. It makes me really happy to see that.”
When you’re teaching for as long as Benoît has, he says it’s important to continue to elevate your own craft as well. “If I were to just teach the same techniques every time, people won’t pay,” he says. “I don’t believe somebody that just works behind the chair can teach without learning something new, so I’m pushing myself to get something new every season.”
“It’s important to bring somebody in who’s really strong to help bring your team to the next level,” adds Benoît. “Try techniques together! If you really want to teach somebody, you have to learn something new.”
For Taylor and his team at Moods Hair Salon, he says they’re always looking for opportunities to bring in mentors and iconic hairstylists to teach their staff. “We find it incredibly inspiring to learn hair skills from them and sometimes, more importantly, how they’re able to facilitate leading their team—either backstage at Fashion Week, at an industry education event or in a more intimate classroom setting,” he says, adding that mentoring his team not only benefits them but also benefits him as a mentor. “I definitely feel that I’ve learned so much from mentoring our team. When you have to translate your skill to someone else, it really reinforces why you approach things a certain way. When I overhear our stylists teaching these same skills to our apprentices, it gives me another perspective and language to explain it in the future.”
PRO TIP: For owners who don’t want to (or cannot afford to) bring in someone into their salon to mentor, Benoît recommends going out and learning new skills that you can bring back and teach to your team.
Benefits > Risks
While mentoring can take a lot of time and investment on a salon owner’s or stylist’s part, there’s no doubt that the benefits outweigh the risks. In addition to building your team’s skill sets so they can take on more clients, it can help with client retention, selling take-home products and more.
“If you want to grow your business with like-minded people, mentoring is definitely the direction to look at,” suggests Johnston. “It’s like finding diamonds in the rough. Who can you help grow your business? It’s a two-way street because the person has to be willing to learn and see things differently. For me, mentorship is a way of opening up your mind to see different possibilities, whether it’s different possibilities on how to blow-dry or cut hair; how to talk to people; how to recommend or use product, and how that can be another success for you. There are so many things you can mentor people about.”
Another challenge that newer hairstylists may encounter is how to build up their own clientele; finding new clients and retaining them, all of which mentoring can help with. “Hairdressing is all about networking. Clients don’t just magically show up in your chair. You have to mentor people on how to find clients, approach someone and hand out your card. Helping them with little mini scripts so they sound professional and have confidence,” says Johnston. “Some people just can’t do that. If you can’t communicate properly and sell yourself, it’s going to be really hard to find people to sit in your chair.”
PRO TIP: While many newer hairstylists may think social media is the go-to platform for finding new clients, Johnston says it’s important to remind them that having a more personal approach— whether it’s through in-person meetings, direct outreach via email or phone calls, or client referrals—continue to be effective ways of building your clientele.
For those who may be looking to transition clients to their staff, mentoring is a great way to create a seamless transition for your clients.
“Making sure that my stylists are well mentored is only insurance for me that when I want to work less behind the chair and pass off clients,” says Kenney. “As far as being a mentor, it’s worth every minute that you invest in your staff; you will get that back in return by having loyal staff, and also financially, it will come back because the work will be good.”
“Clients love to hear that you’re an educator as it instills a lot of confidence that you really understand your craft,” adds Taylor. “The other advantage of taking the time to mentor our team on a variety of skills is that stylists are able to see more clients throughout the day. A lot of the work can be shared with other teammates, which keeps us on time and allows for our clients to spend less time in the salon, which benefits everyone.”
Did you know? In addition to offering mentoring for in-salon skills, many salons (including Benoît’s, Kenney’s, Johnston’s and Taylor’s) offer mentorship for photo shoots and the Contessa Awards!
What to Look For
In addition to mentoring her own team, Heidi Kenney, who is an educator for Matrix, recently taught a group of 10 hairstylists—ranging from salon owners to booth renters—as part of the brand’s Mentor.Me, a mentoring program for hairstylists and students consisting of seven classes. Here are her top three tips for those searching for a mentor.
Time > Traffic
“A lot of people will choose to go for more walk-in type salons to start in because they’re really good for building clientele; you’re not sitting and waiting for those appointment-only clients. But sometimes those don’t have the best mentoring. You have to decide what direction you want to go in, but I always would tell people to begin by choosing a mentor first.”
“Whether it’s students applying for an apprenticeship or new hairstylists looking for their first job, I always think it’s a good to ask, ‘Is there mentorship within the salon?’ When you come out of the school, you’ve only learned the tip of the iceberg. So, it’s fair to ask that in an interview to know the type of environment you’re walking into.”
Walk Before You Run
“I think a lot of people will finish school and do booth rental or just open a small salon in their home, without working under a mentor right out of beauty school, and there’s a lot of failures and no resource to help you fix it. We’re all going to make mistakes, but having a mentor so you know how to fix it or so you have someone that can help you become more confident and not be so afraid to try new things, is key.”
Here’s what you need to know if you want to start mentoring.
“Pre-COVID, we would go to our local beauty school to speak with students and spend the afternoon showing them the different possibilities with hairdressing as a career. It’s an important part of the building block of how to differentiate yourself from your neighbouring salon, because you’ve gone in and communicated with these young kids.” — Edwin Johnston
“If I’m teaching students or a beginner’s class, I don’t want more than eight per class. I want a smaller group so I can get to know who they are. If they’re more advanced, I can go to 10 or 12 per class but it depends on what they are looking for.” — Daniel Benoît
“For anyone that’s running a salon: if you don’t have time to mentor, you should hope that somebody that works for you (or all of your senior stylists) are willing to do some mentoring because it just elevates the whole industry really when everybody works in a solid way and does great work.” — Heidi Kenney
“Mentorship requires a commitment from the mentor and protege. It’s an opportunity to exchange ideas and learn from each other. Put ego aside and be open to learning new skills and technique. Think about people that inspired you in your career or life and what it is about their approach that resonated with you. Mentoring is not just about sharing a skill; it’s about being able to step back and allow your student to adapt this knowledge and make it their own. Mentoring goes beyond hair skills and includes leadership, problem-solving and customer service skills.” — Chad Taylor
“Open communication is key. If you don’t have communication, it doesn’t matter what systems you have. If you don’t communicate daily on how things are going to be, then you’re going to fail. You need to have weekly meetings and open communication. People need to know what their expectations need to be. And when people do a good job, you also need to acknowledge that. There’s nothing better than telling the team about it and celebrating that.” — Edwin Johnsto