Making it Work
Is mentoring important to women's careers? 100% of respondents
in Professionelle's survey on that topic a little over a year ago
agreed. Perhaps that's why our first public networking breakfast,
held in February 2009 and based around a facilitated discussion on
mentoring, sold out so quickly!
We have always believed that one way Professionelle can make a
significant difference to professional women is by tapping into the
wisdom of our whole community. When we then take those insights and
feed them forward to other women and to employers via articles,
workshops, networking and talks, we ensure that the knowledge of
what works for working women circulates for everyone's benefit. The
recent breakfast and this follow-up piece are examples of that
With fifty professional women in the room, and questions shared
among the tables, we had a wonderful opportunity to first to
present our perspectives and then to hear back from everyone. We
also invited further reflections by email after the event, and I'll
be quoting from those responses in this article.
To see what an event like this is like - and the calibre of the
women who attend! - watch the 3 minute video below.
Diversity and Congruence
Without fail, Professionelle's get-togethers bring a diverse
group of professional working women together. And this breakfast
was no exception. In fact, this time we had a wide range of ages
and more ethnicities than before. Work-wise, we had contractors,
small business owners, full time and part timers, as well as women
from not-for-profit organisations, the media, financial services,
professional services and corporates. To ensure women got the most
out of mixing and mingling, we pre-arranged the seating
arrangements and ensured no more than three women from the same
organisation shared a table. Our members really do value this
Thank you for organizing the networking breakfast
last week. It was really good. As with the workshop I attended last
year, I was very impressed with the diverse range of professional
women that attended.
Perhaps it's surprising then, amid such diversity, how much
congruence there was in the responses to the discussion questions.
Or perhaps it's not surprising - professional women who gravitate
to Professionelle seem to share some key attitudes and values, as
I'll highlight further on.
We'll Go Informal, Thanks
I was struck by how many tables wove into their responses an
emphasis on preferring informal to formal mentoring programmes.
Informal refers here to the mechanism for a mentor and mentee to
find each other. One table reported:
Arranged meetings between mentor and mentee don't
typically have chemistry.
Our view, confirmed by research, is that women want to find a
mentor who "inspires" them, "someone they want to be like" …
factors that HR cannot be expected to be able to predict. Like our
members we think that rather than pre-assigning people to this
important relationship, HR departments could instead create
opportunities for a mix of seniorities and departments get together
- much as we were doing at this breakfast! - and to design the
interactions to break down the usual peer groupings.
The seniors tend to stick together. You need to
get the mix going at mixed tables.
One example of an informal mixed-seniority meeting was from Air
New Zealand where, we heard, Rob Fyfe holds internal lunches, at
which he talks informally with a small group of employees.
A beautifully simple example of what a company can do to
facilitate people finding each other came from Vero. New hires are
given coffee cards that they can redeem at a local café; the idea
is that they can invite senior managers for a chat and a coffee to
find out both about their roles and them as people.
Providing staff profiles on the organisation's intranet could
also help identify individuals who could become mentors (or
mentees!) When accompanied by clearly signals that no formal
mentoring programme will be offered, these tools give motivated new
hires valuable support as they set out to find someone with "a
generosity of spirit" to help them advance.
Navigating the Workplace
As we said in our introductory words at the breakfast, research
shows that mentors - especially from the same company - provide
most value to mentees' careers by helping them navigate the
politics and inner workings of their organisation. One table
agreed, commenting, "It can take 7 to 10 years to get clarity on
'how things get done around here'."
I suspect that for some new graduates the word 'mentor' in fact
conjures up an Obi-Wan-Kenobi figure, more suited to knightly
quests than to navigating organisational realities. For these
people, in particular, HR departments can help by providing
information on what mentoring is, and how to get the most from it.
Another valuable intervention was felt to be senior women leading
by example in talking about their mentors, and the value they had
gained from such relationships.
It was widely agreed that a successful approach to a mentor, and
a predictor of a successful relationship, involved the mentee being
proactive. The two main parts to this were:
- Active research of who might make a good mentor, and what links
might need to be forged to meet them.
"Put yourself into places where you might meet them. BNI,
Professionelle. Bring about a situation to meet them."
- Careful preparation beforehand in thinking about your goals.
"Identify your needs and what you're looking to get from the
relationship. Then you'll have a frame of reference to discuss when
you meet the potential mentor. Another table offered:
"Your purpose matters. Are you looking to develop skills? Do
you want sponsorship to push you up the organisation?"
One member wrote to us afterwards and described a "failed"
formal mentoring relationship. It was, she said:
…a situation of me as mentor for a junior lawyer.
She didn't really understand why she wanted a mentor or what I
could help her with or what direction she was headed in. In
hindsight, maybe I could have helped her more with those questions,
but I'm not really a career counsellor.If someone wants to achieve
the same sort of things that I have achieved, I'm more than happy
to show them the ropes.
So, I guess that this is another example of where the mentees need
to know what path they want to be on and the mentors need to be in
a position to guide them on that path.
We're Worth It!
Another table that also tackled the
how-to-make-a-practical-approach issue reminded us that the value
from a mentoring relationship can flow to a mentor as much as to a
Galia wrote about research that confirms this too). In particular,
the table advised,
Don't assume that people will be too busy to
mentor you or that you have little to offer someone so senior.
People in senior roles can get isolated. You bring them that vital
perspective from another part of the organisation and from a
different generation. You can share your learnings with them.
While many people appeared to have had good experience with
internal mentors, there were risks associated with them.
- Trust and being able to talk in complete confidence were seen
as essential attributes of a relationship - but potentially
difficult when there was a working relationship that also needed
- Competition between mentors and rising mentees was another
- External mentors could sometimes bring a fresher point of view,
untainted by being within the politics of the organisation.
Careers progress and goals change. One member described an
excellent mentoring relationship that ran out of steam when her
goals fundamentally shifted. As a result of some of the things she
heard at our breakfast meeting, she is now proactively looking for
a mentor to help her tackle a new set of objectives. She wrote:
My first mentoring relationship was with a
young-ish female partner at my firm. We got on very well and she
liked my work and went out of her way to ensure that I progressed
through the firm's ranks. She did all sorts of great things for me,
including getting me onto important jobs ... making sure that I
worked with the real dealmakers in the firm ... getting me "in"
with her group of other young-ish partners... giving me tips on how
to deal with "quiet times" so that it didn't look like a period of
She was a legend, and under her guidance I progressed very
quickly. However, it all turned out a bit hopeless when I decided
that becoming a partner at that firm was not one of my goals - in
fact it was something that I wanted to run as far from as possible.
She still thinks that I should be at the firm and doesn't
understand why I left. Fortunately it hasn't affected our
friendship, but as a professional mentor she is no longer very
[Before the breakfast meeting] I guess that I had pretty much
given up faith on mentoring as a concept. I had reached the
conclusion that mentoring was more beneficial to people who are
starting out than to people who had already reached a level of
seniority in their career. Needless to say, I have changed my mind
over the last 10 days or so while thinking about the content that
My conclusion after the breakfast mentoring session is that I need
a mentor whose experience is aligned with the direction I want to
head. My primary goal is to create my own client base of people
that come to me, rather than to a branded firm. I have given a lot
of thought to it and have set up a lunch with a friend who has been
very successful as a sole-practitioner accountant - she could be a
potential mentor for me. Even if that doesn't work out, it has
become a lot clearer in my mind what sort of mentor I now need.
One insight is that even the best mentor is unlikely to be able
to advise you in all stages of your career. In fact, it isn't
unusual to have two or three mentors at one time, each meeting a
different group of objectives or needs.
Galia also had the inkling of an idea as she listened at the
breakfast to mentoring stories like the one above. She's still
working on it, but it flows from the realisation that there are
several broad reasons to take on a mentor and these will tend to
correlate with particular career and life stages. It may be
possible therefore to develop a diagnostic questionnaire that helps
women identify what could be right for them. Once it's off the
drawing board, Galia will be keen to test drive it with breakfast
I'll finish by reflecting on a common thread that seems to mark
out 'Professionelles': they are action-oriented. They don't wait
for opportunities, they go looking for them. Such searching, of
course, is what brought many to our site in the first place!
This trait may explain why we heard such clear themes at the
breakfast around proactivity and responsibility.
I also think that women in general - and I can speak for
professional women in particular - place real value on having
personal connections. It isn't "all business", the people really
matter. In a mentoring relationship that personal connection
doesn't mean the sessions have to become shoulders-to-cry-on or
cheerleading-ego-pumps. Instead, it makes it easier to build trust
in the other's commitment to the relationship and to absolute
© Professionelle 2009