A turning point in my career was when I faced an opportunity to take on larger responsibilities but feared that I was not ready. One of my longtime mentors, who had observed my career for a number of years, told me he knew I was ready for it and that I would, in fact, excel in the role. He offered the following advice: “What you don’t know, you will figure out.” While to some this may seem like common sense, it led to one of the most significant mindset shifts in my career.
Each of us is ultimately accountable for our careers, but we do not go it alone. Mentors have been most important at decision points in my career. They served as sounding boards and provided insights based on their own experiences. In some instances, they helped reduce the learning curve or provided a new lens through which to view specific questions.
I use the term mentors broadly to include the entire spectrum of relationships with experienced individuals who help support and guide your career journey. These include brief coaching sessions, ongoing networking relationships, regular interactions, and sponsors who advocate for your career advancement.
The Challenge for Women Leaders
According to a Wall Street Journal Women in the Workplace report, women still face significant challenges in the workplace in terms of balancing priorities outside of work, access to opportunities and promotions, and inequality in pay. For women of color, the journey to executive-level positions was described as breaking through not a glass ceiling, but a concrete one.
A recent Atlantic Monthly article titled When Potential Mentors are Mostly White and Mostly Male described how unconscious bias influences leaders’ selection of protégés. It explored how psychological factors often lead people to gravitate toward those who are most like them.
Given these challenges, the question is how high-achieving women can approach this critical career advancement tool. Here are five components of my approach to mentoring throughout my career.
1. Own the journey.
Take ownership of who you want to be and for the development of your narrative. This cannot be outsourced. While mentors can contribute to this process, you have to own it. This doesn’t mean you must have each step in your career path fully mapped out, but you need to spend time understanding what your key strengths and interests are.
2. Think expansively about sources.
Approach the mentoring process like an adventurer. Seek out the various pieces that will continually contribute to, nurture, and grow the core commitment to who you want to be. Principal sources include formal mentoring programs, managers, current and former colleagues, informal networking initiatives (including peer-to-peer networking), employee networks, and conferences. Beyond these in-person connections, steep yourself in a wealth of leadership resources such as books and magazines to support your leadership journey.
3. Determine others’ willingness and ability to mentor.
Your goal is to find people with skills you’d like to acquire or experts in areas in which you would like to expand your knowledge. Not every senior leader is inclined to mentoring or would be a mentoring fit. Reach out anyway. Most senior leaders also have a lot on their plates, but once you confirm that there is mutual interest in establishing a relationship, identify what communication style and frequency works for them and follow through. Use scheduled time wisely to address specific questions or goals.
4. Be flexible on duration.
There will be mentors for the various seasons in your career, and not every mentoring relationship needs to be long term. Some of my most powerful mentoring encounters were with guest speakers at company events. Two prominent examples are Marshall Goldsmith, world-renowned leadership coach and bestselling author of Triggers, and Robert S. Kaplan, Harvard Business School professor and bestselling author of What You are Really Meant to Do: A Roadmap for Reaching Your Unique Potential. Both brief coaching sessions occurred during conversations with the authors after their presentations. I asked a question, and they provided remarkable insights. Not every mentoring relationship will lead to sponsorship or advocacy. Mentoring is about building relationships. Advocacy is often the fruit of such relationships.
5. Seek diversity.
Senior women leaders help reflect for other women what is possible, and, in many instances, significantly expand women’s visions for themselves. This critical role of women uplifting other women cannot be overstated. However, in much the same way men can fall into the trap of selecting mentees who are like them, women can fall prey to seeking out mentors who are similar to them in terms of culture, states in life, and other factors. Aim for diversity in your mentors and sponsors. Some describe this as a board of directors — a set of individuals, each of whom plays a different role. Think of them as a variety of resources you can tap into. In doing so, you gain complementary perspectives and skill sets and enrich your journey.
Fulfilling and inspiring careers often involve three elements: curiosity and commitment to ongoing development, putting forward your best efforts, and embracing the journey wholeheartedly. Seek, strive, and put your heart into it. Along the way, you will find the right people and resources to support the journey.
Chinwe Esimai is Managing Director and Chief Anti-Bribery Officer at Citigroup, where she overseas the firm’s global anti-bribery program. She was born in Nigeria and is passionate about inspiring immigrant women leaders. She shares leadership insights for immigrant women at chinweesimai.com.