When I got serious about my mentors, I got serious about my career.
Like many mid-career women, I was at a professional crossroads. After being promoted to an exciting management position, the questions of “How can I be successful in this new role?” and “What’s next?” loomed large. For years, I had benefited from “accidental” mentors. I had great supporters and champions – influential people in my life who served as a sounding board for big decisions – but I lacked a true mentor.
This changed when my colleague Sara Luther and I sat down with one another, confessing we were both looking for more out of our careers. While mentorships are often between an older, more senior leader and a younger employee, our mentorship is one of equals. We were both promoted at the same time into equivalent roles, we’re both working mothers, and we both knew we needed to be more intentional about our career growth.
Sara and I started to hold each other accountable with consistent check-in conversations. We didn’t wait for someone to tap us on the shoulder for our next thing. Together, we explored what we both wanted professionally. We championed one another, we challenged each other, and we pushed each other to invest in ourselves, seeking opportunities outside our comfort zones. Since then, our careers have gone in different directions, and that’s due largely to our mentorship experience. We’ve both moved closer to our “true north.” Today, Sara is the General Manager for Lucas Group’s HR division, while I’ve transitioned to VP, Sales & Marketing Enablement. We came into these new roles at the beginning of the pandemic and amidst a significant leadership transition here at Lucas Group. We’ve continued supporting one another through these changes, and I know for certain I wouldn’t be where I am today without Sara.
Do you have a Sara?
Two in three women say having a formal mentor has been essential to their career development, according to a SHRM/DDI report. Mentorship is crucial for women’s success because we often have difficulty building social capital at work, particularly in settings where fewer women are in senior roles. Mentors are more likely to advocate for their mentees, lobbying to have them given high-profile assignments, laterally moved into more visible positions, or promoted.
Yet only one in three women have had a formal mentor. So why the mentorship gap? From my own experience, I know that it’s easy to fall into a pattern of informal advisors but making the leap to intentional, formal mentorship can be tricky. Here’s what helped me:
Just ask. I get it: rejection stings. Asking someone to be your mentor can feel a bit like asking a random stranger in the grocery checkout line to be your friend. But as the age-old adage goes, if you never ask, the answer is always no. And with mentors, you likely have a basic relationship established. Perhaps you work together or share mutual connections on LinkedIn. Remember, most people are flattered to be approached about mentorships. And the majority of women leaders are ready to mentor– they’re just waiting to be asked.
Clarify needs and expectations in advance. Mentorships can mean different things to different people. When you first approach your mentor, be clear about the type of intentional relationship you’d like. What will communication look like? Perhaps you’ll meet for coffee once a month or connect on a Zoom call. Maybe you’re looking for weekly check-ins, or someone you could email or text when you run into a workplace challenge. No matter what you need, remember mentorship is more than just a casual conversation: it’s a specific commitment to hold one another accountable.
Review your professional goals. When Sara and I formalized our mentorship, neither of were clear on our professional next steps– and developing these goals became part of our mentorship accountability process. You might be in a similar situation at a career crossroads. If you don’t have a clear plan or unsure about your career trajectory, you might need support with career mapping. Or, you might have a very clear idea about what’s next and be looking for guidance from your mentor to support your goal achievement. There’s no “right” answer about your needs. What’s important is that you spend time reflecting on these needs before reaching out to your prospective mentor. Doing so helps ensure you’re both are on the same page about what you need from each other.
Finding your own “Sara” is important– and it’s just as essential to be someone else’s “Sara.” Mentoring others, especially younger colleagues, can be a humbling experience that reminds me to “live what I preach.” If I’m giving career advice to someone, I stop and ask myself if it’s advice I also need to take! Most of all, I believe in paying it forward, holding the door open for women behind me so we can all succeed together.