A woman's guide to mentoring: "Sisters are doing it for themselves"
Rachelle J. Canter, Ph.D.

"I want a job where the firm mentors me, provides lots of developmental experiences, and plenty of feedback." When I heard these words from a client, my immediate reaction was "Get in line."

Mentor as Career Guardian Angel

Everyone wants a mentor.  But finding a traditional mentor these days -- the seasoned professional who takes you under his or her wing and views your career development and success as a personal priority, showing you the ropes, helping you avoid obvious and hidden pitfalls, providing you with the contacts and experience to ensure your success....  Well, how many of us can claim to be the beneficiary of such a guardian angel for our careers?  It is like looking for a needle in a haystack. 

I remember that when I was working on my doctoral dissertation on achievement in women, one of my graduate school friends would comment, can you imagine what our careers would be like if we were at The University of Michigan?  Michigan is where the stars in the area of achievement in women were located.  We made do without mentors, just as you probably have done, too.

The truth is, the classic image of mentor as lifelong career guardian angel is largely outdated or fictitious.  For most women, it never existed.  And you may be surprised to learn that the evidence is mixed on the importance of a mentor.  Career experts generally state their importance, and anecdotal evidence for importance (and common sense) support their contention.  Who would not benefit from this kind of help from above?

The Evidence for Mentors

A study by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) in the 1980s found that knowledgeable insiders cited help from above most frequently as a factor in the success of a sample of women executives.  In fact, this factor was mentioned in every single case of success. 

Subsequent research in the 1990s (primarily with male executives) does not find the importance of help from above, perhaps because the amount of change in organizations makes lasting mentoring relationships hard to find, much less maintain. Mentoring may be useful, but so rare as to play no substantial role in success.  Another study of successful executives by CCL found mentoring "rare or nonexistent. " 

A 1996 study by Catalyst found that managerial women at the biggest U.S. companies differed with male chief executives about the reasons for the continued relative paucity of women in the executive offices:  men attributed it to a lack of significant line/operating or general management experience, women to male stereotyping and exclusion from informal communication networks.  Few attributed their problems with advancement to a lack of mentors.

Characteristics of Good Mentoring Relationships

At the very least, the evidence on mentoring is mixed.  So what characteristics are associated with effective mentoring?

  • Mentoring relationships are voluntary. Mentoring programs are springing up all over, like mushrooms.  They are the latest panacea to stem a host of ills, like turnover, dissatisfaction, under-performance.  Many of them assign mentors to individuals.  While this is not necessarily a disaster, failure to match compatible styles and personalities, for one, can undermine good intentions.  Remember, some mushrooms are poisonous.
  • Mentors can teach, not just do.  Remember that old saw, those who can't, teach.  Well, the reverse may also be true:  those who can, can't teach.  Just because Harry or Sally knows how to negotiate a deal does not mean that he or she necessarily knows how to teach someone else how to do so.  Observing can teach a lot, but much of the critical information, such as how to size up a situation or how "to know when to hold them, know when to fold them" is likely to be stored in someone's head.  Few formal mentoring programs select people based on their ability to teach and many do not provide any training or ongoing supervision to ensure that they do.  A warm body is the primary criterion for mentor selection.
  • Mentors and mentees are accountable for their participation.  Everyone is over-extended and over-worked.  Time is scarce.  Under these circumstances, when something slips in the schedule, it is apt to be mentoring activity.  Unless there are clear consequences for non-participation, mentoring or being mentored are likely to lapse.  You get what you reward.
  • Mentoring is a partnership with clear responsibilities, timetables, and measures of success part of the upfront partnership agreement. 

Obstacles/Risks of Mentors

Mentors, when they exist, are generally viewed as positives.  A word or two about obstacles, or risks, inherent in the mentoring relationship.  The chief one is confidentiality, and the other is limited time.

Confidentiality is the chief risk of mentoring.  To be most effective, mentoring requires honest discussion of needed skills or room for improvement, the ability to acknowledge lack of knowledge or ask stupid questions, and permission to make mistakes and fail.  These are not things it is easy to do as lawyers and other experts.  The very real, and in many cases, realistic fear, that asking for help or acknowledging areas of relative weakness can haunt you in the future can make mentoring a high risk proposition for a mentee. 

Limited time for mentoring is another obstacle.  Time is in short supply for mentors and mentees.  How to get enough time and attention to make a difference without wearing out your welcome or becoming a burden?  In the following section on mentoring alternatives, I propose some ways to address the potential problems of confidentiality and time.

Mentoring Alternatives

Making effective use of mentors is seeking them in all the right places.  What follows are examples of different mentoring relationships that can add value to your career.

Single versus Multiple

Multiple mentors are preferable and more feasible.  Rather than awaiting the guardian angel, it makes more sense to ask for help or advice from more than one person.  Ask Ellen whose closing ability is renowned in the firm if you can watch her.  Ask Bill who is known as an organizational whiz if you can discuss what process and forms he uses to negotiate major deals so effectively.  If you make your requests modest and time-limited, your chances of assistance are greatly improved.

Formal versus Informal

Your firm or company may provide you with a mentor as part of a formal program.  Whether or not you have a formal mentor, you can still make informal requests of people who are particularly accomplished in a particular area for assistance or feedback, provided your organization has no rules against such requests.  Remember it is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.  Men tend to have mastered this principle better than women.  Now is the time to learn it for yourself.

Internal versus External

Mentors are generally assumed to be within your organization.  In-house mentors have some distinct advantages:  they know the organization, the players, the culture, the clients, the work.  This knowledge makes them invaluable to you.  However, their insider status also brings equally heavy baggage, namely the risks of asking for help and the institutional memory that can track your requests for help and acknowledgment of your areas for improvement.

When I hear the stories of clients and review their formal performance reviews, if they have them, I am often struck by how one false step -- one error in judgment, one poorly written brief or angered partner, can haunt a career.  Yet no one starts out knowing everything about the practice of business or law (well, that is, except for a few colleagues who shall remain nameless!).  Everyone makes mistakes.  Everyone needs opportunities to ask questions and learn from experience.  How can this problem be avoided?

External mentors can serve a valuable function by providing information and assistance without the risks associated with internal mentors.  Professional organizations such as Women Rainmakers can be a useful source of external mentors.

Another important source of external mentors is outside experts.  What an outside expert lacks in insider knowledge, they may more than compensate for with their knowledge of interpersonal influence and change, for example.  An outside consultant or coach can provide invaluable assistance without the risks or obstacles of confidentiality or time.  They may be specialized in helping their clients assess their skills and impact, analyze the styles of those around them, act as sounding board, provide expertise in how to implement change, build skills, prepare them for crucial tasks, help them pursue new assignments and fight old battles, and/or provide ongoing assistance to turn needed changes into reality.

For example, I recently coached one extremely capable and hard-working, but under-recognized,  female executive in how to present herself to her bosses, focusing on providing less self-congratulation and less detail, and more of the hard-hitting results she had achieved.  We worked on presenting a shorter and more on-point message.  The boss noticed and was impressed -- and her responsibilities have expanded.

Group versus Individual

Mentors come in many forms.  Remember that brainteaser where you are supposed to connect nine dots without lifting your pen?  The answer turns out to be starting the line outside the grid and the point is we limit our solutions by making unconscious, and mistaken, assumptions about the solution.  We think of mentors as providing individual advice.  But group mentoring can also provide powerful and ongoing assistance from the leader and from other participants. 

Whether participants are drawn from within your organization or from several organizations, group mentoring provides a way to mentor more people while simultaneously building relationships among group members.  Group programs allow a mentor to expand mentoring assistance to more people.  An experienced organizational insider, an outside expert, or a combination of the two can be effective leaders for a group mentoring program.

Participants assume a more active role than is customary in individual mentoring relationships.  Mentors and mentees are partners in the development process.  Mentees set the agenda and take a leadership role in all their development activities, from developing their career plans to seeking developmental assignments.  Ongoing meetings provide a forum to discuss development issues, receive feedback and coaching, and exchange ideas as a group. 

The traditional mentoring arrangement is a one-on-one relationship between an experienced, successful insider and a less experienced protégé.  What this arrangement lacks in network-building and group discussion, it compensates for in individual attention devoted to the mentee.  Observation and modeling of the mentor's behavior and informal, candid discussion of individual priorities is the focus.

Organizational Versus Individual

There are a variety of organizational mentoring alternatives. Women Rainmakers is an example of an entity that provide programs, publications, and products to assist with rainmaking and other associated professional skills.  Corporate programs like Menttium 100 provide outside mentors to corporate executives in major cities.  Published information in the form of books, articles, and assessment tools by the Center for Creative Leadership or Catalyst are part of an ever-expanding array of materials available to assist with career management and skill-building. 

The absence of a career guardian angel does not spell an end to dreams of wise career counsel and assistance.  Mentors are everywhere, as long as you remember to take the initiative to find them.  Sisters  are doing it for themselves and for their careers.

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