confident woman mentoring male colleague

Graham Oates, Chief Executive of Norrie Johnston Recruitment, the executive search and interim management agency, considers the role mentoring can play in helping women develop their skills, experience and careers.

When creating our report “Women, Pay & Progress – closing the gender pay gap” we asked 10 successful women what advice they’d give to their younger self if they were embarking on their career today. The answer from many was to use mentors – someone who has already successfully made it to the top and has the time and inclination to ‘send the elevator down’ to the next generation. They argued that being able to draw on an experienced person’s 20:20 hindsight can only help with confidence, early career decision-making, work-life balance issues, pay negotiations and so forth.

Dr Sue Black, the technology evangelist and digital skills expert who in 2016 was awarded an OBE for services to technology felt that even very early on in a career a mentor will add value.  She urged aspiring women to “take into account what your strengths are and what subjects you like most when choosing a career, then find at least one mentor.  This should be someone who is in the kind of job you want to be in but who is further along the career path and, crucially, someone who has a similar outlook on life and with whom you have shared values. You’ll then have someone you can turn to for careers advice from day one. Having a mentor can make all the difference when you don’t know what to do.”

Lara Morgan, Motivational Speaker, Author, Mentor, Venture Capitalist suggested mentors should also be part of the people strategy for women starting their own business “surround yourself with talented A grade players whom have better skills than you in different areas to complement the way forward…get a mentor, a business club membership and a grey haired (experienced) executive whose been successful in your industry.”

Benefits for the Mentee

A good mentor can provide a mix of both professional and personal benefits. They are a good sounding board, providing careers advice, insights and a fresh perspective.  They provide a ‘safe space’ where a female executive can speak frankly.  On a practical level they can help identify the skills and experiences which are needed to progress the younger executive’s career or give them advice when they’re tackling a particular task or stepping up to a new role. While for the longer-term, mentors also provide invaluable influential connections to draw on.

Do these many benefits actually translate into something meaningful? Research by Catalyst found that women with a mentor increased their odds of being placed at mid-manager or above by 56% over women without a mentor.  That’s not to say mentoring will completely resolve the imbalance between the number of men and women at the top of the corporate tree.  In fact, Catalyst’s study suggested men gained even more from mentoring than women! However, this study does suggest that having a mentor certainly helps women flourish in their careers.

What’s in it for the Mentor?

Mentoring can also be good for employers too – in terms of finding the talent they need and keeping it within the organisation.  For instance, the Deloitte Millennial Study found that millennials planning to stay with their employer for over five years are twice as likely to have a mentor within the firm.  Mentoring staff is also a very cost-effective way to both develop emerging talent, create a leadership pipeline and keep the company’s top performers and their mentors engaged and energised.  Furthermore, having staff externally mentoring young people can be the ideal way to find potential hires.

Corporate benefits aside, there’s also plenty for the individual mentor to gain from the relationship. Leadership, communication and coaching skills are enhanced and the mentee’s enthusiasm, passion and ideas can be invigorating. They will have a different perspective and insights into what makes the younger generation tick which can be incredibly insightful for a more seasoned manager.  As Julie Trell, head of Telstra’s start-up accelerator Muru-D, said at the Vogue Codes 2017 summit it’s easy to think you’re too busy for mentoring, but it’s really important to “pay if forward.” “You learn more by teaching.”

What Constitutes a Mentor?

If the benefits are good all round, what should a young female executive look for in a mentor?  The first thing to remember is that they can come in different guises. They may be part of a company’s staff development programme, meeting with the mentee on a formal basis and perhaps focused on a specific goal such as helping the younger executive develop their gravitas.   Some mentors may be like business coaches, not someone’s direct line report, but helping identify skills gaps, providing feedback and direction, advice for handling certain situations and so forth.

For others, their mentors are found through networking or perhaps alumni groups. These valuable business contacts provide practical support, other useful connections, work and business opportunities in what is a mutually beneficial relationship.

A powerful alternative or even supplement to a mentor will be a sponsor – someone senior within the company who will champion a high performing female executive, push for her promotion and lobby for her to receive the kind of highly visible development opportunities which could advance her career.

Whatever type of mentor/sponsor women go for, they should aim high – especially if the mentor is within the company they are working for; Catalyst’s study showed that those with highly-placed mentors receive more promotions.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly I’d urge anyone going down this route to find a mentor (or mentors) they get on with.  After all, it could be a valuable and immensely rewarding relationship which lasts an entire career.

 Norrie Johnston Recruitment’s report – “Women, Pay & Progress – closing the gender pay gap” is free to download here

About the author

Graham Oates is Chief Executive of Norrie Johnston Recruitment.

Norrie Johnston Recruitment is a senior executive search and interim management agency. To find out more visit:

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