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Sheila Wellington, past president of Catalyst, a nonprofit research and advisory organization that works to advance women in business, summarized her findings on the impact of mentoring and networking on women in Be Your Own Mentor. She cites an example of a female executive at a Fortune 500 company who was involved in a fundraiser for a local hospital. This woman ran the fundraising event, which exceeded all past records for money raised. The morning after the event, her outstanding success was shared with her company’s CEO by a hospital board member while playing golf. As a result, she received a promotion not long afterward and was identified as a “comer with high potential.” That’s a perfect case in point for how networking can work for you. And you can’t network sitting in your office.

Remember, networking is like anything else: you get out what you put into it. Networking assumes a quid pro quo: something for something. And if you’re not getting anything, move on. Personally, we give an organization a year of our membership. If we get nothing in return, we do not renew our membership. Identify the successful networking groups by asking around. Ask people what kind of connections they have made. Some women go for companionship and to make friends, which is fine but may not be your goal.

So much evidence indicates that no one gets to the top without a little help. And very successful people often receive help from several mentors, not just one. Especially in human resources literature, the word mentor, which is a noun, has become a verb. Many perspectives exist on what exactly a mentor is. Mentoring means different things to different people. A mentor can be a casual relationship or a long-term friendship. Traditionally, some of us may recall the experienced businessperson who took us under a wing and taught us the “ropes” and what “strings” to pull. We wouldn’t think about making a major decision without consulting this person.

One of the critical things mentors can do is teach us the unwritten rules in the business world. What works and what will sink your ship? They know. They have made those mistakes. Why not learn from their mistakes rather than make them again yourself? A mentor can help you strategize and take an honest look at yourself.

Some people think mentoring is a womanly task. Just the origin of the word mentor reveals a feminine origin and emphasis. We owe this word to the age of Homer. In the Odyssey, Mentor is the trusted friend of Odysseus who is left in charge of the household during Odysseus’s absence. The goddess Athena, disguised as Mentor, guides Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, in his search for his father. The mentor who was so nurturing wasn’t really an old man; “he” was really a “she.” The “she” was Athena, who took the form of an old man to help the young and vulnerable.

Go a step further. One can argue that the archetype of a successful mentor is the mother. Mothers praise their children’s accomplishments and offer criticism for bad choices. The job of a good mother is to teach their young as much as they know and as much as the young can absorb. Finally, as with all good and healthy mothering and mentoring relationships, it is important to know when to let go and push the young out of the nest.

Sheila Wellington of Catalyst makes a powerful claim regarding the fundamental importance of mentoring: “In my experience, the single most important reason why[md]among the equally talented[md]men tend to rise higher than a woman is that most men have mentors and most women do not.” Her opinion is substantiated by 30 years of research on women conducted by Catalyst, the preeminent source of information and research on women and the workplace. Mentors may be more important than hard work and talent. Simply, mentors help you understand how to operate in the work world.

Code switch: Go to your boss and produce some data and statistics of how mentoring can benefit the organization. Explain how mentoring figures into the equation of attracting top talent and aids in retention, especially for women. Remind your boss that mentoring programs are often the deciding factor in whether a candidate takes a job. See if your boss can help you engage a mentor, or even take on a mentoring role yourself.

You want these characteristics in a mentor:

  • Has considerably more experience and connections than you have
  • Isn’t working with you to make money or to boost her ego
  • Wants to help you succeed

           Offers a fresh perspective on problems or challenges because she’s not personally involved with your business, like other advisors (including attorneys, accountants, and friends)

  • Truly cares for you, and vice versa
  • Has been where you are going, business-wise
  • Serves as an advocate, promoting your strengths
  • Fosters intellectual excitement
  • Works with you because she is interested in helping people
  • Promotes integrity and values of the profession
  • Can facilitate networking within the professional community for you
  • Is highly respected and well thought of in the business world or within your profession

Mentors can be valuable sources of information at any stage of your career and company’s growth. Mentors can often give you the advantage of behind-the-scene operations and decisions in the making. A mentor is a go-to person when times are difficult. For these reasons, it’s important to find not only a mentor who has experience and knowledge, but also someone you can trust and feel at ease with.

Can a Man Be My Mentor?

As you advance in the business world, the likelihood of your boss being a man increases. One of the best people to mentor you is your own boss. Of course, a woman can have a man as a mentor. He may be your boss or a senior-level executive.

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