As a female executive who had a 30 year corporate career, one of my passions is to help younger women navigate the corporate maze & advance their careers. As a result, I mentor & work with many Gen Y & Gen X corporate women. This week I want to focus on one of the biggest sources of frustration that I hear from Gen Y women as they enter the workplace. This is a continuation of one of my blog’s last week where I highlighted the corporate likes & dislikes of Gen Yers. In many cases, the areas of frustration for Gen Y women stem from the 3 dislikes highlighted in that blog.

One of the complaints I get a lot from Gen Y corporate women is the lack of mentorship or guidance they receive on the job.  This is a very real problem that especially affects Gen Yers.  After years of observing Gen Yers in and out of the workplace, I know that they have received a lot of guidance and support from their Baby Boomer parents and teachers.  Quite legitimately, Gen Yers have almost come to expect that guidance from the older and more experienced people with whom they come into contact. When you arrive at your corporate job, you believe that your boss will be that coach or mentor to you & will help ease you into this new corporate world.  Although all Gen Yers are surprised & shocked when this does not happen, Gen Y women particularly are bothered by it.

So here’s the insider secret about mentoring:

  1. Not their “Yob”: From experience, I can tell you that  being a manager or a leader is not synonymous with being a mentor. In fact, I hate to break it to you but you may even find your boss not to be a very effective manager or leader. Don’t be surprised if you work for someone who is not a good mentor & not a very effective boss. The reason is that corporation’s put people in managerial/leadership positions for many different reasons & rarely is the reason that the person is a good manager or mentor.  Corporations exist to make money and that is one of the key drivers in how they run their business.  The managers & leaders that they have in place know that & that is where they spend their time & effort. Why? Because that’s what’s going to get them a raise, a good bonus, that next promotion.  Mentoring or guiding their staff is not part of that equation. It’s not their job.  If it were, then everyone would be happy with their bosses and the workplace wouldn’t be filled with so many unhappy & disengaged employees. So get that out of your head right now.  Don’t expect your boss to be a mentor.  If you are lucky to land a good boss that is a good mentor, count your lucky stars & stay with him or her as long as you possibly can.
  2. It’s Up to You.  Since you can’t expect your boss to be your mentor, you have to find one yourself.  The good news is that every corporation has good managers & leaders among the ineffective ones.  One of the key ingredients that makes a good manager/leader is his or her interest & involvement in mentoring. Your job is to find one of them.  What I tell the women I coach is that you need to observe your workplace closely because it will give you the signs of who are the good mentors.  So listen, observe & ask people who have been there for a few years who they think the good leaders/mentors are & why. It won’t take long for you to get a short list.  From this list, you are going to pick your mentor.  For those of you who work in companies that offer mentorship programs with senior managers, you may have already been assigned a mentor that may or may not be on that short list.  If they are not & you have the option of switching to another mentor without creating an awkward situation with your existing mentor then do so. If it would create a problem or if your company does not have a mentoring program, then here are some tips for picking a mentor.
  • Closely observe the people on your short list.  You want to make sure you & the mentor you select resonate well together.  Take every opportunity to talk to the people on your short list whenever possible. Talk to people that work for them, get a sense of what they like & don’t like, their particular style.  Watch them in meetings or in the cafeteria.  
  • How are they perceived by senior management? Equally important when picking someone from your short list is how this person is perceived by the top brass in your organization.  The more clout & credibility & stature they have, the better for you in the long run.  An insider secret is that sometimes there are good leaders & managers in the company that may not play the ”game” that their higher ups are playing.  Although you can still learn an awful lot from these people & they will help you navigate the maze,  the fact that they are not on the inside can hurt you as you try to move up the ranks.
  • Don’t overlook male mentors.  Another misconception that young women have is that the more senior women in their organizations will automatically be willing to mentor them.  Nothing could be furthest from the truth.  Actually, there are  female executives who are not good mentors.  Women that have reached senior positions within corporations have done so at great sacrifice, working harder than their male counterparts only to earn less than men doing the same job.  It hasn’t been an easy climb for them & women that reach those positions don’t always feel they have an obligation to help those that come after them.  If they worked their hearts out to get there they think you should, too.  You want to stay away from this type person if she is on your short list.  There are many men who over the years have learned to appreciate the value that women bring to the workplace &  make great mentors.  Some of them have wives who are executives & daughters aspiring to have corporate careers so they are sympathetic & open to mentoring younger women.
  • Prioritize your short list with the mentor you most want at the top.
  • Approach that mentor & pitch yourself to them.  Executives or senior managers (myself included) are always flattered when a young person asks them for guidance.  Before you approach the mentor, you may also want to let your boss know that you may be seeking an outside mentor just to see how he/she feels about that. This will depend a lot on the corporate culture & your personal relationship with your boss. In the conversation,  you can compliment your boss & say that in certain cases, you would feel more comfortable getting feedback from someone outside the team. When you speak with your mentor, the goal is not to burden them with more work but to ask if you could perhaps have lunch with them once or twice a month & ask their advice or get their feedback.  It’s important here that you never trash your boss to the mentor.  In fact, you would say quite the opposite or if you really can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.  
  • Accept the person’s response even if it’s a no.  You may get a no from the executive or  manager you approach.  They may or may not tell you why.  Chances are they may be too busy to help you.  Don’t take it personally.  Move to the next person on your list & do the same thing.  Now, if you approach the top 3 or 4  mentors on your list & they all say no,you may want to stop searching.  There are probably other reasons at play that you are not privy to that makes mentoring you not an option to these executives. Again, never take it personally.  There are organizations out there that don’t have mentoring as part of the culture.
  • Find a mentor outside the company.  I always tell young women to join local associations in their line of work.  From the beginning of your corporate career, you should be networking & getting to know people in other companies in your field or even outside your field.  There are senior executives & managers from other companies that are members of these associations & they are a great mentoring resource for you. Apply the same techniques as I described above &  this time you will find a good mentor.  Sometimes an outside mentor provides better insight & opportunities than those found inside your own company.
  • Keep it positive & career focused.  Please remember that it truly is  a small world out there.  Never talk bad about your company or your boss because you don’t know if this outside mentor is connected to your company in any way.  Also, try to keep the conversation centered on career advice & not around the inner workings of your company or anything than can be perceived as confidential corporate information about your company.

In upcoming blogs, we’ll get into some other areas of frustration that Gen Y corporate women have raised & some tips to help solve the problem.

In the meantime, what have you done in your company to find a good mentor?  Any techniques or advice that you can provide young women as they navigate the maze? We’re all ears…