Women in leadership continue to be grossly underrepresented in private industry—some reports stating that just 25 percent of executive and senior-level positions are held by women. It’s no wonder that 93 percent of executives acknowledge that changes need to be made to talent recruitment, development, and retention efforts. Starting a mentoring program can be a great first step to mitigate these persistent inequities. These programs have particularly effective tools for growing spheres of influence among women. And, even better, they can help boost engagement, job satisfaction, and retention for all employees, because a rising tide lifts all boats.
Mentees benefit from having a sounding board, learning the ins and outs of an organization, and being able to ask questions that might be difficult or embarrassing to ask a superior. Mentors benefit from being able to reflect on their own professional journey, and from gaining insight into the workplace experiences of others. All in all, mentorship programs benefit mentors, mentees, and organizations as a whole.
Leveraging Mentoring to Create Opportunities for All
Workplace inequalities that block opportunities for women and other underrepresented groups aren’t just unfair—they’re bad for business, too. After all, diversity has been found to boost business performance and diverse companies have proven to be more innovative. By helping women overcome barriers to professional advancement, mentorship programs can address talent gaps and build stronger businesses.
Research shows that mentoring programs are powerful tools for underrepresented groups. Mentorship programs become especially critical when one considers the fact that, in some cases, only 25 percent of women hold leadership positions. That number becomes even smaller for women of color. Thirty percent of women say mentoring programs were “extremely important” to their careers compared to just 23 percent of men. Why? Leadership coaching experts and researchers Jill Flynn, Mary Davis Holt, and Diana Faison have found that it’s all about gaining influence and being exposed to those who have confronted similar challenges. They write in their book, The Influence Effect: “This draws on a thread that connects all our findings: what works for men at work won’t work for women. When we try to apply advice created by men and for men, it doesn’t feel right to us. In the same way that wearing a business suit designed for a man is uncomfortable for a woman, listening to ill-fitting, poorly tailored advice creates friction and slows us down.” The critical dimension that mentorship programs must take on is avoiding a “one-size-fits-all” approach. They have to truly support both the mentors and the mentees’ experiences.
So, there’s great power in mentor relationships that draw on shared experiences and perspectives. However, because of the lack of representation of women in leadership positions, these mentor relationships are far too scarce. Your organization can begin to turn the tide. Renowned women’s leadership expert Linda Tarr-Whelan notes that it can be accomplished through “The Power of One,” which requires a commitment from women in power to make a conscious effort to empower other women. Sound counterintuitive? That’s because it is. However, Tarr-Whelan writes in Women Lead the Way, “Whether we like it or not, accountability for changing the status quo rests with women and the men who share our values. At least for the time being, we are missing the legal tools other societies have used to bring about balanced leadership.” Spotlighting women role models and hearing the demands from women about their needs, strengths, and roles is a positive first step. “One form of engaging, mentoring, is the next step up from being a role model. For every woman who has made it over an old barrier, many energetic, talented women are looking for advice and assistance,” Tarr-Whelan writes.
And there’s good news. Something surprising often happens to those who use their power to lift others up through a mentoring relationship. The experience often elevates the mentor, too.
Mentoring Is Good for Mentees and Mentors
There’s no doubt that mentoring programs foster stronger, more qualified workforces. But there’s a growing body of evidence to suggest that there are unique benefits for mentors, too. A meta-analysis has found that mentors exhibit five common career outcomes: job satisfaction, organizational commitment, turnover intent, job performance, and career success. We’re all asked to do more with less in today’s workplace. So, how can adding the responsibility of mentoring to our leaders’ plates bring about these results? Mentoring ties us to our humble roots, invites self-reflection, encourages us to exhibit positive behaviors, and focuses our strategic thinking.
Linda Tarr-Whelan explains that women who have overcome obstacles and advanced into positions of power realized by mirroring how others are successful, they could advance in their career development paths and become "one of the boys." In other words, they lose sight of the barriers and challenges they’ve overcome and begin thinking like other leaders in the organization, which have traditionally been mostly white men. Mentoring prevents us from becoming disengaged and helps us remain open and honest about barriers that are still in place for women and other historically marginalized groups in the workforce.
Mentoring also forces us to think strategically—something that can be lost in the day-to-day bustle of work. “When you reach out to a woman or girl who is looking for advice and counsel, you often gain as much as you give—or more,” Tarr-Whelan writes in Women Lead the Way. “One-on-one interactions helping someone else succeed improve your ability to visualize how to be successful yourself. You also end up modeling positive behavior and developing more structured plans, which can position you to be seen as a leader by others. In addition, leadership is all about empowering others, not doing everything yourself. Making a conscious effort to mentor will serve you well as a leader and help you avoid feeling isolated or toppling into the martyrdom pit of trying to do it all.”
Create Your Company’s Mentoring Program Today
Mentoring programs can create more qualified, engaged, and equitable workplaces. For mentees, a mentor can be a critical source of information, sounding board, and an example of how to overcome obstacles and progress into positions of power. Mentoring programs also benefit mentors by keeping them grounded, inspiring them to think strategically, and encouraging them to demonstrate positive behaviors. In the end, mentoring programs are good for mentees, mentors, and organizations alike.