"I was surprised by the cold shoulder I got from other executives," says Garber, chief operating officer at International SOS Assistance. "I've been open to mentoring other women."
Fortunately, a furious search did not end in futility. She met the ideal mentor at a time when she wasn't even looking. She struck up a conversation with a woman sitting next to her in a nail salon. Garber learned that the woman, Delores Brisbon, was a prominent retired COO from the University of Pennsylvania Hospital.
Ironically, they lived near each other and began meeting weekly at Brisbon's house or at a local coffee shop. Brisbon challenged Garber to analyze her organization's main business areas and provide recommendations. They maintain regular contact, and Garber now counts Brisbon as a mentor.
Female mentorship in today's workplace
Garber's experience is an uncomfortable reality for women in the managerial ranks. Despite the need for more women to serve as mentors, the process of building a rapport is not nearly as fluid for them as it is for men. Observers point out that the landscape is changing, albeit slowly, as men are volunteering in greater numbers. Institutions, notably large law firms and banks, are committed to mentoring women. Most observers agree, however, that men seek and offer to mentor more readily, whereas women still need to be found and encouraged.
"It's not as good as it needs to be, but it is getting better," says Elizabeth Travis, professor in radiation oncology and pulmonary medicine at The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. "The diva syndrome is disappearing."
Others scoff at the notion of the reluctant female mentor, believing it instead to be the sum of a power equation.
"No, I don't believe that," says Laurin Kleiman, a partner at the law firm Sidley Austin. "It's a sound bite that gets a lot of press. There are more men in positions of power."
The benefits of mentoring are highly intangible and thus difficult to measure in a results-obsessed business culture. But women who benefited from a mentor's guidance say it helped them advance their career, especially when coming of age as the sole female in a testosterone-dominated industry.
As a high-potential employee at Canada-based Potash fertilizer mining company, Betty-Ann Heggie faced a crossroads. The company was undergoing internal turmoil. Managers were undermining each other. Hoping to avoid the coming storm, Heggie received another job offer that she strongly contemplated taking. One day her mentor, a senior executive, stopped by her office with words of advice.
"There are going to be a lot of changes around here," he said, without delving into detail. "But hang in there. This is a good company with a lot of potential."
Soon after delivering that message, Heggie's mentor was fired. So was every other individual above her in rank. But she stayed on. Without that advice, Heggie recalls, she would have left. She eventually became a senior vice president and helped usher more women into senior positions among the executive team and the board of directors when there were none upon her arrival. There was no mentoring program for women, much less women in positions of authority.
"My strategy was to find men whose wives or daughters were trying to break into business," she says. "That way they were sensitized to it."
Having reliable sources of support helped her fight battles she might have lost on her own. Heggie remembers a supervisor who refused to allow her to participate in a crucial sales meeting on her topic of expertise. The supervisor reasoned that Heggie would be exposed to cursing, a privilege her male colleagues enjoyed as a way to blow off steam. Her initial protestations fell on deaf ears. One of her mentors intervened, and she was permitted to make the presentation.
Vital ingredients of successful mentorship programs
There is no blueprint for designing a mentorship program for women, but analysts agree on the necessary ingredients. Participants should establish a timeframe, likely one year. Both parties should agree upon a schedule, meeting monthly or quarterly. The protg needs to take the initiative to identify issues for discussion and not expect the mentor to produce a curriculum.
For individuals who are unable to find a mentor independently, the consensus is that institutional guidance is necessary to ensure that meetings continue. Most analysts believe that structured mentoring is the preferred route over an informal program, because advisory relationships between men and women do not develop organically. Informal relationships are unlikely to survive for longer than a couple of months.
"The first two meetings happen, but subsequent meetings don't happen," says Cathleen Graham, a vice president at Ruder Finn.
Ann Howard, chief scientist at Development Dimensions International, believes that mentoring participants can take subtle steps to steer clear of rumors about the appearance of an inappropriate relationship. For example, they should keep the door open during meetings. They should get to know each other's family and avoid using nicknames. The organization's leader should communicate the existence of mentoring programs to the entire staff so there is an understanding about the nature of the meetings.
The protg should set the meeting date and plan an agenda of items to talk about. It is not necessary to prepare a document in advance, but the protg could initiate contact in advance to generate some early thoughts about a particular topic.
Michelle Durkin was making a transition from marketing to manager of women's strategy and diversity division at Thrivent Financial. While anxious to succeed and interested in the field, she did not have the background for the position. She was selected for participation in an external mentoring program organized by Mentium.
She was paired with a physician who worked as a senior executive with a large Minnesota healthcare organization. Some of their conversations addressed confidence, owing to her desire to succeed. Durkin prepared an agenda for the meetings, which occurred monthly. The program lasted one year. For the mentoring relationship to work, women should be prepared for an honest evaluation, not comfortable, friendly support.
"It was tiring at times," Durkin says. "She told me the good, the bad, and the ugly."
The role of male mentors
If women are still reluctant mentors, there is no shortage of men willing to serve in the program at Mellon Bank. Now in its fourth session, the bank opened the doors to men this year and was flooded with volunteers, according to Stella Lagudis, chair of the program.
Mentor and protg meet once a month for three hours. The partnership lasts one year. Beyond the one-on-one sessions, all participants meet as a group for skills training or social events. Skills training includes sessions on how to run a meeting as the sole female participant, presentation skills, advanced questioning, and "flexing." Advanced questioning refers to acquiring detail from a proposal to make strategic decisions, while flexing teaches protgs to tailor their communication style to meet audience demographics such as a group of senior executives.
Contrary to expectations, women protgs were more open with male mentors than Lagudis anticipated. With only 50 participants, the program is monitored closely. The bank plans to keep the program limited.
"One reason I embraced the program is that I've worked in financial services for 27 years, and I didn't have a formal mentor," Lagudis says.
The bank evaluates the match after one month to find out if the pairing is suitable. Participants maintain strict confidentiality so protgs are permitted to speak openly. Only two pairings were unsuccessful. Since the program began, the bank has added elements based upon feedback from other institutions with successful programs.
"When we started we built the entire infrastructure, but there were things we didn't know, so we asked other organizations," Lagudis says. "We share best practices. Now people come to us."
What might have sparked a contentious debate about gender roles is now fading. Most women do not believe it is essential to match women with a female mentor. As there are few women senior executives, the numbers prove to be the greatest obstacle. Executive ranks are predominantly male, so women ascending the ladder must adapt to an environment in which they are a minority.
"Some women only go to women physicians," says Elizabeth Tursi, co-founder and co-chair of the Women in Law Empowerment Forum. "I want to go to the physician who gives the best advice."
Recognizing the chain of command and then navigating the corridors of power is the corporate roadmap that men learn to master sooner than women, Tursi says. As such, men are more adept at fostering relationships with the most influential people in their organization. A mentor could quickly become an advocate.
"Lock on to someone who is powerful," Tursi says. "That is who should be your mentor. But some women won't do that."
Women are beginning to achieve parity in terms of possessing graduate degrees in law and other demanding fields. In more traditional fields such as manufacturing, their background does not prepare them for an executive-level position. Linda Henman, a management consultant, says almost without fail that women lack one tangible skill that mentors could help them acquire.
"So many women don't have the financial acumen to handle a P&L statement or a budget," she says. "That cripples them more than anything else. They come in from sales or HR, so it's not part of their experience."
When an individual's skill shortages are less obvious, sometimes a simple approach causes anxiety. Rosina Racioppi, president of WOMEN Unlimited, says women struggle to identify topics they should address with a mentor. Believing they need a "big issue" to discuss, they worry that anything less constitutes wasting a mentor's time instead of viewing it as a productive career development discussion.
Another distinctive trait is the desire many women have to make a personal connection with their mentor. Julie Lenzer Kirk, a consultant, believes that women's expectations of a mentor are too high.
"Men can work with any kind of mentor," she says. "They don't have to like the person, just respect them. Women need more time to get to know the mentor. They would prefer to like and respect the individual."
In a sense, women are no longer competing with men; they are competing with themselves. The fragile level of confidence, the belief that they have to outperform peers, and the crushing fear of being viewed as unprepared or incompetent are burdens of their own creation. Travis refers to research about the "imposter syndrome" - the fear of being discovered as incompetent - and while it afflicts men and women, women seem to suffer it more acutely. There is a narrower range of acceptable behavior for women in the workplace, which might limit their eagerness to seek or offer assistance. The need for a confidence boost is apparent to managers who note its recurrence in conversations with protgs.
"They are seeking approval," Garber says. "I hear a lot of women ask, 'I would like to be a manager. Do you think I would be a good manager?' Like Henry Ford said, 'Whether you think you can, or you think you can't, you're right.'"
Workplace analysts familiar with mentoring point out that men both seek and provide advice naturally in ways they would not consider to be "mentoring" unless someone pointed it out. The teachable moments among men occur while chatting outside an office, having a beer, or playing golf.
"If you ask a successful woman if she had a mentor, 100 percent will say 'yes,'" Heggie says. "If you ask a successful man if he had a mentor, 30 percent would say 'yes.'"
The kneejerk reaction to such a hypothesis is that men are unwilling to share credit for their success or prefer to boast about their individual triumphs - true in many cases. But Heggie digs deeper, believing that the concept of mentoring is so natural to men that they often don't think about it.
During her career, Thomasina Tafur estimates that she mentored 50 women in addition to being guided by skillful mentors. At FedEx, her vice president endorsed mentoring and agreed to foot the costs associated with books and other materials for the network. She used two books regularly, Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office and Caroline 101. She also notes the lack of women who step forward and tutor younger employees.
"You don't see many women taking on the role," Tafur says.
One aspect that Tafur, now a consultant, helps protgs overcome is women's reluctance to tout their own accomplishments out of fear that they will be perceived as bragging. Instead of viewing it as conceit, she teaches protgs to call it "sharing." Women managers should be eager to pass along a compliment they or a staff member receives from a client.
Learning to say no when asked to take on additional assignments is another hurdle. Women managers strive to prove competence, often at the price of taking on too much work. When a senior executive attempts to delegate an additional assignment, Tafur advises protgs to analyze the request to determine if it offers a new challenge or is simply an attempt by the supervisor to lighten his own load. Women need to learn how to say no tactically without being offensive.
"It needs to be a solid 'no' that says, 'I'm sorry, but I'm finishing other projects and cannot make time,'" Tafur says.
Subtle diplomacy in persuasion is a crucial skill Tafur acquired from a male supervisor who taught her how to shape memos for male colleagues in the organization. The supervisor knew his colleagues well and taught Tafur the kind of language that caught their attention.
Mentors should keep in mind that they serve in an advisory role. They are expected to be a sounding board that provides intelligent feedback. Heggie compares the relationship to a parent and an expectant college student struggling to make her own decisions.
"You are just a mentor; it's not for life," Heggie says. "What the protg does is not your responsibility, and don't be offended if she doesn't take your advice."
The future of mentoring
While pace of change at the executive level may be slower than advocates for gender equality hoped for, a new generation of women is emerging that is willing to pay back what they learned to junior colleagues.
Debates about gender differences undoubtedly will continue. Workplace anxieties unique to men and women are as basic as one's personality. For others, mentoring should be as neutral as a performance measurement: simply a means to build the necessary skills to reach the next level.
"With all of the gender speak, we make it sound like it's different for women," Henman says. "It's not." t+d