By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)
By now, we know that mentors and sponsors are critical for our career advancement. We need mentors who can be our sounding boards and give us advice, and we also need sponsors who push us toward stretch opportunities and have our backs behind the scenes.
Mentor and sponsor relationships with women may come more naturally than those with men, but there simply aren’t enough senior women to go around. We ask a lot of senior women. It’s time we ask senior men to do more to help level the playing field for women in the pipeline to the top.
Caroline Ghosn, Co-Founder and CEO of the online mentoring platform Levo League, explained, “Given the ratio of women and men in leadership today, having one-to-one mentoring interactions with only senior women won’t work on its own or be available to everyone who needs them; this is a necessary but not sufficient part of the mentorship puzzle. We need to do two things. First, we need to cultivate relationships with male mentors. Second, women can try turning to resources – like Levo – that access the relatively scarce group of female mentors through technology and provide a one-to-many system of mentoring.”
Levo recently invited Warren Buffett to serve as a mentor within its Office Hours mentoring series, and the company plans to open the doors to more male mentors in the future. Ghosn suggested that women can advance more rapidly by keeping an open mind about the gender of their mentor or sponsor, and making an effort to reach out to senior men for advice and advocacy. Here’s how.
Challenges to Male Mentorship
According to the 2011 Center for Talent Innovation report The Sponsor Effect, senior men shy away from mentoring or sponsoring junior women because of assumptions about what that relationship entails. In a Harvard Business Review blog post, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founding president and CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation, writes, “However, fear of being even suspected of an illicit sexual liaison causes 64 percent of senior men to pull back from one-on-one contact with junior women; conversely, for the same reason, 50 percent of junior women are hesitant to have one-on-one contact with senior men.”
“It’s an unfortunate situation,” Ghosn commented. “If I sit down with Sheryl after work for a drink to get some advice it looks one way. But if Sheryl turns into Sam and we do the same thing, it’s viewed differently by society. That perception barrier makes mentorship difficult.”
But the reality is that the majority of people at the senior level – those with the experience to provide you with good advice or the ability to pull strings on your behalf – are men. And as women flood the entry and mid levels of the workforce, we all have to find ways to work together. If companies can’t make it possible for women and men to interact in mentor or sponsor relationships, they risk losing key talent as women leave for companies that have made the effort to build an inclusive environment.
Ghosn herself benefited from a male sponsor at her previous role at McKinsey. “He was the reason I applied for a challenging fellowship. I didn’t feel like I had all of the qualifications, but he pointed out that I had a lot of skills that were useful to the position. He said ‘You can’t underestimate yourself.’”
She applied and got the fellowship. She recalled, “He sponsored me by putting me in a position with a lot of responsibility and pushing me. There was also a lot of value in terms of helping me build confidence.”
One way to seek out male mentors and sponsors is to look for those with working wives, sisters, or daughters. “During the Office Hours with Warren Buffett, he shared that at 82 years old, he has witnessed a changing cultural dynamic. When he was growing up, he was encouraged to work and pursue his ambitions, while his two sisters, who he said were just as smart as he was, weren’t encouraged to work. He said that kind of thinking has amounted to a waste of human potential.”
She continued, “He said, ‘As a CEO, if someone told me there was untapped potential in my company, I would mobilize the resources to access it.’”
Tips for Success
Senior men can counter the perception barrier to meeting with junior women, Ghosn says. For example, they can make a rule that they only meet with proteges – both male and female – during working hours, for breakfast or lunch, but not after work. “It creates a level playing field and changes that perspective,” she explained.
She also advises everyone to reexamine our own prejudices – it’s important not to make assumptions when we see senior men mentoring junior women.
Women seeking male mentors and sponsors can also benefit by being specific and vocal about their needs. Ghosn says, “On Levo, our mentors are more likely to answer questions by people with a complete profile who ask thoughtful questions.”
Similarly, in the office, being specific can go a long way to securing helpful advice. “Mentoring is not about turning to another individual and asking them to solve something A to Z. It’s about going from one level to the next, asking a person who has particular expertise on something specific about how to get to that next level.”
“Demonstrate to your mentors that you are really listening to their advice. Use it well,” she added. “It really shows that you are respectful of their time and are appreciative of it. One thing I’ve really learned through my experience at Levo League is that people really want to help you. Moreover, they want to help people who want to help themselves. It’s our human instinct to build that community.”