Mentoring Through the Glass Ceiling

Back Commentary Dec 1, 2015 By Winnie Comstock-Carlson

It’s an unwritten but long-standing axiom in business: You can’t get to the top alone. You need a mentor in your corner who is older and wiser. As a young, aspiring publisher almost 27 years ago, I certainly had help from all around. The business owners with whom I spoke supported me with their wisdom, as they continue to do today. I’ve received guidance, know its value and am extremely grateful.

Meanwhile, despite numerous studies showing women actually outnumber men when it comes to entry level jobs, the glass ceiling has yet to shatter when we measure women in the executive echelon. According to this year’s research by LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Co., 52 percent of entry level jobs in professional services and finance firms are held by women. Yet women hold only 32 percent of vice-president posts and 22 percent of c-suite positions in those industries.  

Ever heard of the “Queen Bee Syndrome”? Coined in the 1970s, it refers to the idea that women in leadership positions neglect to support other women in their careers, even going so far as to throw up barriers. However, a recent study by the Columbia School of Business and Maryland University debunks any modern relevance to the philosophy. After looking at leadership teams in 1,500 companies over the span of 20 years, researchers concluded that women were more likely to get hired into senior positions at companies that had appointed a female chief executive.

Seventy-one percent of Fortune 500 companies have a mentoring program, but only 25 percent of large U.S. companies have them. That may sound disheartening, but prior to 2007 the number was closer to 5–7 percent. (If your company has a mentorship program, we want to hear about it.)

Mentoring is a win-win. For those doing the mentoring, there is tremendous satisfaction in seeing your life lessons help a young professional grow. For those being mentored, the education can be priceless; leading to promotions, professional success and career satisfaction. But what makes a great mentor? Here are five expert tips:

  • First of all, you have to show up and be present. If you’re not able to invest in the success of your mentee as you would your own, then don’t bother. An absentee mentor can be just as bad, even worse, than no mentor at all.
  • Second, early in the relationship, be sure to have a conversation with your mentee about goals. Particularly if mentoring a young woman, you may need to encourage your mentee to think big — especially if she is early in her career. When times get tough or she gets derailed, you can remind her of the big picture.
  • Third, if you are in a position to, make your mentee responsible for something (somewhat) big. If you work together, let her take the lead on a project or learn new tasks under your counsel.
  • Fourth, allow her to fail. Your mentee should want to avoid disappointing you but shouldn’t be afraid to tell you when she screws up. As a mentor, it’s your job to help her learn from the experience.
  • Finally, give credit where credit is due. If you work together, let the rest of the team know of her accomplishments. If not, send praise her way on social media or through networking. Your opinion means a lot. Sharing that opinion with others means even more.

And of course, ask for nothing in return. Actually, I take that back. What you ask for in return is that your mentee pay it forward and, when she is in a position to, take on a mentee of her own. Now, you’ve given a gift that will keep on giving.