What Stops Women From Mentoring

I enjoy speaking on panels about women leaders. There’s often a feeling of colleagueship and sisterhood among the panelists and a sense that it’s not just us, that we’re surrounded by our tribe.

During a panel I was moderating about mentoring as a means to promote women in industries and occupations where women are under-represented, a young woman asked a great question, “Are our expectations of senior women too high?” The young lawyer in the early stages of her career went on to tell us about a time where she sought out guidance from a senior woman lawyer at her boutique firm and was rebuffed. It caught her off guard. It just wasn’t at all what she expected would happen, nor what she thought should happen, and there were plenty of women there who seemed to feel the same way.

Is it fair to expect that senior women take an active interest in other women’s careers? I’ve been thinking about that question ever since I heard it being asked.

I’ve been a mentor to plenty of women and men and I’ve known lots of senior women who find joy in being allies, advisors, mentors and sponsors. They seek it out and find it rewarding. Yet there are women who don’t initiate or accept the responsibility to actively participate in other women’s career development. That shouldn’t be surprising. Just as not all women think alike, they don’t all act alike either. Just look at election results, for example. We know that women don’t vote as a block and they don’t act the same at work.

There are many reasons why some women don’t offer the developmental support that mentoring provides. They may be closed to it because they aren’t natural givers or don’t have relational savvy. They may not have the bandwidth to take it on, and not least of all, their understanding of how they see their role as women who’ve achieved a great deal in their career may not include opening the door wider for others to follow. And there’s much more to it still.

Some younger who look to senior women for the connection and learning and career benefits that a high-quality give and receive relationship offers expect to get support because they share the same gender. But that isn’t how all women see it. Some may have minimized the significance of being a woman in a company or industry where they have until recently been ‘an only’. Many feel scrutinized for being female and may take pride in their hard work “without anyone’s help”. If they are the only woman, racialized person, or individual with a disability, they may want to downplay their ‘only’ status. They’ve have gone out of their way not to view themselves through a gender lens. Instead, they worked hard to fit in, not stand out. I know of many cases where women insist on exceptional performance from everyone and drive very hard to get it. Women can sometimes hold both genders to a tougher line because they’ve had to hold themselves to an impossibly high standard to garner credibility and respect from others.

This may not make sense to you if you haven’t faced or witnessed discrimination early in your own career. But for those who have, they can find themselves distancing themselves from other women doing what they can to prove they made it in the workplace because of their performance, not because of any special treatment. Having their gender define a good deal of their identity is something they go to great lengths to avoid, not embrace. This is just one of the several ways gender bias can fuel conflict between generations of women.

Women are more likely to put their job before their career. This explains why some senior women show a disinterest in helping high-performing women who show promise. Senior women may neglect the importance of growing their networks and of building currencies of exchange with others who are junior.

Think too about the impact of those senior women who lacked having a mentor themselves. Or possibly for those who did have mentors or sponsors, it’s likely it was an older male supporter because there weren’t many women at the top. They didn’t have the experience of receiving a woman’s mentoring on the unique challenges faced by their common gender.

We need to also look at the greater context of work today to understand why some women don’t want to mentor.

Women persistently find themselves on an uneven playing field. There are so few women in the C-Suite and on boards, that scarcity can often place a chill on woman-to-woman dynamics. Without the reliability of equal pay for equal work, and far fewer opportunities to reach senior leadership levels, the workplace dynamic can set women up to compete with one another.

At the same time that women are frustrated that the salary gap hasn’t closed and we’re living with many examples of poor workplace practices related to sexual harassment, things are changing for the better too. We can’t overlook that there have always been women who support one another. Today, there are far more conversations about how to close the gaps of inequity at work sparked by the #Metoo movement. There are many more diversity and inclusion indexes and many more mentoring programs in the workplace. Women in male-led industries are organizing events where women are given a platform to speak on issues that affect women at work.

Women supporting other women is powerful. There are legacy reasons why it doesn’t happen everywhere and consistently across industries. Nevertheless, when women raise each other up there’s reason to be hopeful. Long may this continue.

A revised version of this article appeared on Forbes.com. Thank you to @mrsunflower94 for the photo portrait.

Addressing the Sponsorship Shortfall

According to a 2010 Harvard Business Review article, more high-potential women reported having mentors than men. Today, women are receiving guidance on how to navigate their careers, are benefitting from having a sounding board, and women in male-dominated industries are getting support from those with more experience in it. That’s all good. At the same time, women are mentored but under sponsored. Let’s have a look at what exactly that means and what we can do about it.

Having someone invested in your career is tremendously impactful, yet women need more than mentoring. They need sponsorship critical to their success. People often confuse the two roles. Sponsors are influential people who are willing to open doors of opportunity so that you can reach the next level of your career. Anyone at any level can benefit from a sponsor. A low number of men and women have sponsors, but because there are fewer women and women of color in the senior ranks to serve as sponsors, these two groups are underserved. This is especially the case in certain industries such as technology and law. There’s no doubt that we need to showcase women and promote them for upcoming opportunities more than we do. But how?

Nothing works to focus the eye like key performance indicators.

People can often fall into the trap of selecting people for opportunities who are most like themselves. This perpetuates homogeneity in many companies. When it’s been senior men choosing the talent for a new, high-profile initiative, it can leave women out in the cold. We need to promote and support women talent more than we do. Fortunately, we can do something about it.

Here’s an example of what one woman who I know did. A large urban land development organization became serious about recruiting and promoting women and established KPIs to measure their success. Although they were eager to get going, the men on the senior team admitted they didn’t know where the female talent could be found. Coincidentally, for years, the only senior woman on the team was also always the only woman speaker at large industry events. As the lone woman presenter, she made a decision that the way to rectify the situation was to give other talented women exposure.

So she reached out to women professionals and compiled a thoughtful list of 100 local women who could be ready to speak on various topics based on their expertise and interests. This resource made finding women talent for speaking engagements far easier. Suddenly the list was in heavy rotation by the senior leaders in her own organization who felt that this is what they needed to discover who the talented women were.

There is a lot you can do to locate a sponsor to satisfy your career ambitions. Here are a few steps you can take:

  1. Speak up to let your ambitions be known. Regarding their careers, research conducted with AMEX and Catalyst Canada (As yet unreleased) report that women’s career ambitions are just as high as those of their male peers. Yet, navigating your career takes far more than working hard. I used to be surprised when the women I coach haven’t yet clearly communicated their ambitions upward, but it is common. Speaking up will get you closer to getting a sponsor. Several clients of mine who are now partners in law and accounting firms had their career goals delayed for years because they were not proactive in expressing their interest in becoming a partner.

Here’s a tip: Observe someone who asks for what she wants, and learn from her. If it’s still a challenge, talk to your mentor or professional coach about how to find your voice. Do whatever you can to develop the courage to say out loud what you are after.

  1. Map your network. You wouldn’t build or buy a business without checking if you have enough funds and support, right? In other words, you need to know your assets. It’s the same with career development. When you know who your people assets are, (the people you know or those you could have access to so you can leverage them), you are far more likely to be successful.

Here’s how: Start first with identifying your career goals and then draw your map. Now stand back and ask three strategic questions: 1) Is my network effective in getting me where I’m going? 2) Do I have the right people assets to achieve my career goal? 3) Are there any suitable allies who could act as my sponsor? If yes, go ahead and meet with those people.

  1. Can your mentor be your sponsor? Mentors help define career goals and direction. They provide guidance, feedback and support. Traditionally, your mentor is different from your sponsor, who opens doors and suggests you for roles and high-profile assignments. Yet, mentors too can be sponsors. Clearly, they have to know you and your work.

Here’s a tip: Give some thought to which of your mentors could also be a strong sponsor. This could be a topic of conversation to raise for discussion the next time you get together to see if this is a role best done by them or someone else.

Let’s all address the sponsorship shortfall.

A senior woman on a panel about success and growth for women leaders in male-dominated industries said it best: “Women are in the limelight, but aren’t always in the spotlight.” In other words, they can be overlooked for opportunities — even if they’re experienced — because their performance is being scrutinized when they are the minority.

One of the ways we can correct this is by addressing the sponsorship shortfall. As a woman seeking to move up a level of leadership, you can avoid the trap of being overlooked by leveraging your relationships. A sponsor will champion you so that you are rightfully in the spotlight to be seen by others who also can elevate your career.

Photo credit: Tim Gouw. Thank you.   A version of this article was published by Forbes here.

Receiving praise: we often shut it out

Leaders aren’t perfect. One common challenge is accepting acknowledgements and praise. I discovered early on that from time to time I had a cynical view about people’s motives when they offered words of appreciation. It wasn’t until my late 20’s that I recognized that I had many experiences where I viewed praise as a disingenuous tactic meant to get something from someone else. Perhaps you can relate to that, or maybe you feel undeserving, or you have a belief that you don’t ‘need’ recognition to do a good job, or that you don’t see the reason to praise others because the duty of performing work should be satisfaction enough.

There hasn’t been a leadership program I’ve been a part of that hasn’t addressed recognition as a leadership imperative when working with people. Yet we haven’t moved our point of view to learn what we can about how we receive appreciation from others, and from what I’ve observed, most of us aren’t great at it. Accepting praise so that it ‘goes to work on us’ in positive ways is important because it gets to the heart of people development and creates a culture of learning. We are modelling an attitude one way or another. Appreciating that giving praise is central to causing leadership in others may be more or less widespread if not underutilized, but accepting it when it’s offered is an undervalued art. Let’s start with the 2 types of recognition.

Appreciation as a connective and transformative tissue

By appreciating with praise, we connect by letting someone know that what they did mattered and how. Leaders do this to inspire and develop others by lifting them as they climb. Acknowledging is different. It can be a tool for transformation because you are recognizing not what they’ve done but who they are and that is what makes it far more powerful. It creates a new future for someone to live into. By way of example, when I was a consultant in a Big 4 firm, long before I was a coach who started a business of my own, I was surprised to be told by my manager that I was a talented presenter and seller with potential. Although I enjoyed doing both, I was unaware that this is how I was seen. That moment was big for me. From then on I saw myself as a presenter and a business developer and it was the start of defining myself in new ways that had a positive impact on the long view of my career.

So if the rewards are clear, what gets in the way of taking recognition in? In my many years of coaching leaders, one of the reasons I’ve found is that we can spend a lot of time comparing ourselves to others instead of to ourselves and so we feel undeserving against a high yardstick. Misunderstanding humility is also a reason. Leaders who are humble don’t think less of themselves, they concern themselves with others and take care of themselves. And if we apply a gender lens, women can come up short with our own high standards, reluctant to take credit or embarrassed to be seen as potentially self-promoting.

My Turnaround Story

I learned a lot about accepting appreciation from a watershed experience some years ago when my plan to offer well deserved praise to someone special didn’t go at all the way I expected. When I was 12 my parents were in a terrible car accident and my favourite teacher took me in to live with her family while my parents were convalescing. Decades later, I was moved to search her out and thank her for her extraordinary kindness. I adored her as my favourite teacher before this act of generosity, and I regretted not having the opportunity to show my appreciation. It took many unsuccessful phone calls until I found her. She answered on the 2nd ring, I identified myself and quickly confirmed that she was my former teacher from the 6th grade. She told me that she had only taught at my school for one year, something I didn’t know and it made her generous act feel even more special that I had received it. I sensed her nervousness, and I also felt my own as I explained the reason for my call. I thanked her for taking me in, which was met with silence from her. We moved on. I waited until the right moment and thanked her a 2nd time and she met my appreciation with a deflection. This time I knew for certain that the change of topic was deliberate. It was on the 3rd try when she listened to my offering and accepted it. The call turned out to be a crucible moment for me for reasons I didn’t expect.

The sting of feeling my acknowledgement pushed aside, no matter what the reason, was a powerful lesson about the importance of refining how I received appreciation from others. Since then, I’ve been able to respond to acknowledgements by receiving the message given to me more fully, although I’m not perfect. I learned much later that success on our goals holds for a time until the goal post moves, and the goal post continues to move! Then there’s simply more growth possible. It’s not a burden, just part of a life worth living. It’s counter-intuitive, I know, but receiving – or taking if you prefer, is a generous act in its own right. Think about it for yourself. Are you receiving praise and acknowledgement in a way that respects the offering and promotes your own self growth and models it for others?

 

‘How Women Rise’ in the Age of #TimesUp

A group of 25 of us sat around tables at a recent professional development workshop and shared what we considered to be our major strengths. I was taken by the insight of a woman early in her career sitting beside me who said she had a natural talent for making things easy for other people. She went on to reveal that she was thinking through the merits of transitioning from “order taker” and “obliger” to someone who gives direction, a leader at work. I know that Sally Helgesen, the co-author of a new book ‘How Women Rise’ would say that as women, there are self-limiting habits that undermine our success that are mostly specific to us, just as there are those specific to men. The “disease to please” trap, one of the many prevalent bad habits among women described in the book, may have been at play in this case. Striving to gain favour from everyone has its advantages, however, as women continue in their career beyond the early years, exerting authority and holding people accountable becomes far more important.

When I heard about the idea for the book ‘How Women Rise’ by Sally Helgesen and her co-author Marshall Goldsmith, I was intrigued that they used the framework from Goldsmith’s earlier book ‘What Got You Here Won’t Get You There’ to focus on the behaviours that get in the way of women leaders. Goldsmith’s original book is a classic. It’s a go-to resource in my coaching and leadership library and one I’ve recommended. It describes the habits of leaders at any level who mistake a strength overdone as a lot of a good thing, pridefully believing their habits are at the core of their identity. Mostly they don’t recognize that their success is in spite of their annoying habits and not because of them, which is why they persist. The original book was based on Goldsmith’s experiences with his executive coaching clients, who it turns out are mostly male, and the opportunity to look at self-limiting habits through a gender lens presented itself years later.

It’s a touchy matter that in the age of #metoo and #TimesUp this book’s focus is on changing women’s own behaviours. We are in a time of great social awareness about how women in the workplace are hired, paid and treated. Learning about what women need to do to have satisfying careers made me excited in anticipation for what they found to be gender specific behaviours, but I was also skeptical about the discovery of more expectations from women. We’ve recently experienced a major shift in how we listen to women and spotlighting the structures that block their rights and ambitions is where the Time’s Up movement is heading. I mean, how much more do we as women need to look at ourselves? A lot more, it turns out, and that may not be a bad thing either. This book isn’t naive about the obstacles that women face although its focus is to bring a gender perspective to how we lead and manage, and offers practical advice. Some of the stories are near-facsimiles of the predicaments of the women clients I have the pleasure of working with and support. The 12 bad habits that hold us back are common and I dare you to not see yourself, woman or man, in any of them! Most recognizable for many women are the central behaviours of the perfectionist trap, overvaluing expertise and putting your job before your career.

Being woke means that we are listening to many more women’s voices and drawing attention to the inequities that are unfair, discriminatory, biased and racist, such as bosses, structures, and organizational cultures. This book deserves to be a classic because the strengths overdone they describe are ubiquitous and the new positive habits they promote will improve women’s career mobility. I’m hopeful that a book with such high ambitions as this one isn’t ignored in the cultural moment we are in right now. For sure, it takes a dual focus from all of us on what is within our control such as our own behaviours, along with a critical eye on the environmental factors to end widespread employment disparities. This book addresses the former. The career of the young woman at the workshop will benefit from ‘How Women Rise’ as others will by gaining an understanding of the consequences of believing too much of a good thing, is even better. This book is for all women and those who work with them to support the behavioural changes we want to see in the workplace that will lead to realizing women’s potential. This book’s lead co-author is Sally Helgesen, a woman writing about women. The next book in what is becoming an interesting series will be by her co-author Marshall Goldsmith, writing to men about how to work with women.

The 12 bad habits common to women from ‘How Women Rise’ by Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith are:

Reluctance to claim your achievements

Expecting others to spontaneously notice and reward your contribution

Overvaluing expertise

Just building rather than building and leveraging relationships

Failing to enlist allies from day one

Putting your job before your career

The perfection trap

The disease to please

Minimizing

Too much (emotion, words, disclosure)

Ruminating

Letting your radar distract you