Question: Difficulties in finding suitable mentors for emerging women leaders

We are national telecom organization with a new mentorship program aimed to develop new executive leaders from within the organization.

We have identified more than 20 mid-level managers from various functions who are eligible for the program, 4 of them are women.

We intend to increase this ratio in coming years, but our immediate problem is finding the right mentors for these high-potential women. There are a few very experienced women professionals in our organizations, but all of them in non-executive ranks... lacking the organizational clout to really push for someone's career advancement in key discussions.

Assigning male senior executives, as mentors, may present complexities of its own. Our current culture is a definite "work hard-play hard" which at senior levels extends to after office networking events, weekend events with customers, frequent travel, etc. It is one thing to participate in these after a promotion... but at this stage it might scare away women with young kids at home.

Thanks for your suggestions.

11 Expert Insights

Let me just mention to you that I was myself mentored by my boss, who was a male. Though he was very good in the content area, he was not able to understand my needs fully. Eventually I did get his job(the president of the company) and decided to discontinue his mentorship (he retired).

I did reasonably well and cannot complain about what I achieved in my career. On the other hand I would have loved to have a woman mentor or a woman coach. This never happened.

I would love to coach your women to help them achieve their goals. I believe I can do a very good job, since I have been there and understand what it takes.

If you are interested, please connect with me via Mentors Guild. Thank you for your interest.

Regardless of gender the matching of a mentor with an employee has to be carefully thought out.  In particular, we need to understand the development needs of the employee and the organization's view on that person's "next career step" THEN determine the mentor skills that are most important and select a  mentor accordingly.  We also need to sure mentors don't see their role as the doctor who prescribes solutions but rather a sounding board and counselor who is a facilitator and catalyst for improved self-awareness and personal action generation.

The additional challenge in finding effective mentors for women is the relative scarcity of experienced upper level female managers to serve as mentors.  As a result in many cases the starting point is an internal women's support/learning group facilitated by a qualified outside female resource that, where possible, involves upper level female managers who might even learn to be mentors through their involvement in the group. Eventually these groups will create good mentors.

Perhaps it might help to separate the mentor function into the coaching role and the championing role. Your very experienced women professionals have you concerned about their organizational clout, so they may not be optimally effective in the championing role, but they could still contribute to leadership development via the coaching role. Assuming your new mentorship program had support from people with plenty of organizational clout, there may be interest from among those people in coordinating with the mentorship of high-potential women leaders in the championing role.

The "work hard-play hard" culture you describe certainly might be a limiting factor in your ability to develop women with executive potential in your organization. The power of culture is often manifest in causing people to self-select in or out of the organization. People rarely succeed in an organization without conforming to its culture, so you might expect to see "work hard-play hard" executives, whether women or men. The women with young kids at home will likely choose to succeed elsewhere.

I'll respond to your question through my lens, colored by years in telecom...I learned a lot about how things work!

Why not consider multiple mentors, including from outside your organization, for your high-potential women? I realize that your goal is to develop "from within," but if the resources aren't there then encourage your 4 women to look outside as well.

You could utilize the expertise of the women professionals inside your organization for various learning opportunities other than those a sponsor could provide.  You could also teach your protégées how to recruit additional mentors/sponsors based on their learning/career goals. One of the best mentoring programs I've ever worked with is sponsored by a professional association and the protégées learn very valuable professional and political insights from mentors in other organizations.

While it may not be within your current definition of "mentor," your 4 women could develop relationships with "sponsors" who may be most interested in promoting talent. Not all women leaders are interested in doing this, and the same applies to male leaders. Might you identify senior leaders who are interested in keeping great talent and encourage them to work with these women, not as "mentors" so much as "talent scouts" who could--in several professional conversations--learn and encourage their strengths? The relationship would be more of an organizational "look out" rather than an individual mentor. It's also possible that the relationships with senior male leaders could develop into mentoring with both parties defining which aspects of the "work hard, play hard" culture are a fit.

I encourage you to broaden your definition of 'mentor' and look at your program through the lens of learning, recognizing that mentors can be many and for short or long periods of time.  Even in a highly political organization, younger leaders with diverse values are changing the cultures to be more inclusive.

I wholeheartedly encourage you to modernize your mentor matching methodologies -- for women AND men. Gone are the days where just one mentor is enough. What your up-and-coming leaders need is an entire PORTFOLIO of mentors. (I've been coaching/mentoring, professionally, for 14 years, but it's a lesson I learned beforehand, back when  I  was vice president of telecommunications for a futures/options exchange.) Consider:

• advocacy – which is the real key to upward mobility – requires more than just one boss and one mentor standing up for you
• "single-sourcing" may make sense as a telecom marketing strategy, but it does not when developing your future leaders
• even if one mentor was an expert in everything, there is power and perspective in getting multiple points of view

More at: Creating a Portfolio of Mentors »

P.S. You might also want to encourage the "boys" to consider what your up-and-coming women leaders have to recommend vis-a-vis your "work hard-play hard" culture. They may have some suggestions that not only help with work/life balance thing, but better differentiates your company with your clients and prospects, as well.

I'm happy to further the conversation with you – or your mentors and mentees – directly.  Call or email at your convenience.

Ok ... I admit it.  I hesitated to respond until I sorted out your inquiry in terms of what it revealed about the existing attitudes toward women and accepting them in top leadership/management positions.  What rings through to me is until your organization views these senior leader prospects as fully capable of carrying out those roles as they need to be performed and provided they choose to do so, they don't stand much of a chance of being successful in the company ... not because of them.  Rather because of the preconceived attitude toward them that seems to exist.  Until the preconceived view of these people transitions to today's world you might want to postpone implementation of this program to involve women.

This said, you have received a LOT of good suggestions from other mentors above.  I concur that bringing in mentors in for form of coaches experienced in senior management positions in the corporate world will absolutely accomplish your intention and help those selected and desirous of the opportunity.  This is one reason that I work with such individuals as we recognize that certain circumstances require a varying approach and in this case, providing a woman as one who has lived the challenge and can be an excellent mentor to another intent on climbing the success ladder.  At the same time, I believe that using a coach to work with the senior leadership team of your organization  as a means of creating a different environment and attitudes that will welcome and embrace the expansion involving women as leaders would be a very valuable step that will ultimately determine the degree of success your 'project' will experience.

As Mike says above, you have had much good advice, and I would add, a couple of very relevant challenges.

Why would you mentor these people? Is it for them to survive and perhaps thrive in your current culture? There's a paradox here since you appear to be trying to change your culture whilst at the same time wanting to preserve it, to enable people, particularly the women to survive within it.

If you really want the company to progress and to get the best out of all your people, you may have to look first at your culture as it exists today and decide whether this is the culture you want to have long-term.

I don’t know enough to fully prescribe. I have several random thoughts:

If you are trying to help women learn to be more politically savvy, mentoring is a better option than an external coach.
If you are trying to give high potential women more visibility with senior executives, mentoring is a much better option than an external coach.

If you are trying to help change the culture of work hard, play hard & the required after work activities, don’t forget that mentors learn from the mentoring process as well as mentees. Perhaps assigning a senior level male executive to mentor a female leader would be good for the male executive. Would he really tell her that she needs to abandon her caregiver role with the family to play with the boys? I hope not & facing this dilemma and engaging in dialog might help change the culture one executive at a time.

I would look to your professional association as a source of mentors.  You should already be engaged with your professional association in terms of best practices and advocacy.  So take the next step and encourage them to develop a mentorship program.  You might do this by providing seed funding for such an effort.

I suggest choosing external female coaches vs. internal mentors, male or female. Mentors, in my experience, have agendas and too much at stake to be neutral. Also, mentors, because they're not paid, mentor when and if it suits them.

For the level of proactivity that's needed in your organization, look outside your organization. It sounds like what's being modeled within isn't aggressive enough.

If you'd like to talk more, feel free to contact me.

Men mentoring women. Women mentoring men. Neither is at issue here. The challenge you express is one of expectation. There is an expectation of the conforming to the dominant culture which involves the activities you mention above. Unfortunately, this implies the organization identifying leaders who conform but do not challenge the status quo, thus leaders with no teeth, or non-leaders.

"Leaders are those individuals who can show others a less uncertain world which inspires them to to take collective action."

Your organization does not want leaders, it wants caretakers. Shame on you!

The problem is not with the individuals or the mentors but the organization's leadership.