Why Women Leaders Must Mentor Other Women

April 21, 2014

Women Leaders and Mentoring - and Why We Don't See More of It

women mentoring

While I often stress in my mentoring planning workshops that it’s not advisable to require your most senior level people to become mentors, the fact remains that sometimes the senior levels really do need to be involved as mentors.

Nowhere is this truer than in the cases of women leaders, where mentoring should be considered an imperative.

These women have incredible knowledge capital. Even ignoring the fact that a woman in a C-Level position has a valuable perspective as a leader of the organization because of the obstacles she’s overcome on her journey, she, like any executive of either gender, has had to learn facts, processes, and the organizational culture specific to her job.

Likewise, like any other executive, she will have successors. But let’s step outside of the idea of “successor” as the particular person who has been prepared to take over when she steps down or moves on. A C-Level woman’s successors are also the women who will be up-and-comers within the organization.

It’s been my experience that women who hold C-Level positions may do a good job of managing the performance of those who work directly with them, but in general are not active enough in mentoring those individuals outside of their direct reports. This seems to be primarily due to three things:

  1. The belief that simply giving advice in passing is mentoring,
  2. Age-old fallacies regarding what mentoring is, and
  3. The time and energy it takes to ensure their own work-life balance.

Don’t Leave Before You Leave

Sheryl Sandberg has famously called for women to “lean in” by doing three things: sit at the table, make your partner a real partner, and don’t leave before you leave. Her last point, “don’t leave before you leave,” is particularly interesting, because it addresses the fact that women tend to make unconscious decisions to “take their foot off of the gas pedal” from the moment they begin to consider how they will fit children into their lives. These unconscious decisions to pass up certain opportunities or disengage themselves from the workplace, Sandberg notes, have serious repercussions for the futures of their careers – especially when it comes to their future ability to take on leadership positions.

But there are just as many articles being written today about the importance of taking time to fulfill the roles of wife or mother or homemaker as there are articles being written about the importance of “leaning in.” For some individuals, it’s very clear which path to take. However, while women may start out in their careers clear about where their priorities lay, once they have the opportunity to move into leadership positions they may find themselves in different places in their lives – and they may find that their priorities have changed. They may still agree with what Sandberg is saying, but in reality, how do you say your career comes before your family? Balance is not easy. If it were, we would no longer be discussing it.

It’s probably fair to say that women at the C-Level have already “leaned in”, having become the leaders that Sandberg exhorts them to be. However, the fact that they have made it to a top leadership position in their organization doesn’t mean they’re now able to take a step back. If anything, it’s time to add a sub-point to “Don’t leave before you leave”: Don’t forget to keep mentoring.

C-Level Women in Action

“We do mentoring all the time,” a CEO once told me. “Someone walks down the hall, asks a question or asks for advice; you give it to them; that’s mentoring.”

What tends to happen in practice is that someone in a C-Level position gives advice and considers it mentoring, often because it was the precedent set for them as they rose to positions of leadership. However, just because that precedent has been set doesn’t mean that it’s a good model – or that it shouldn’t be broken.

Giving advice to someone is a good thing - but it is not the same as mentoring.

While mentoring is the equivalent of undertaking a journey with an individual in need of development, giving advice is the equivalent of popping in and out of that journey at random points and leaving the individual mostly to their own devices to navigate uncharted waters. Mentoring is about development and it also implies that there must be some way to measure, at least qualitatively (if not quantitatively), how much actual development has been achieved.

Consider how many C-Level women were specifically mentored with their current position in mind. It’s highly unlikely that they were just offered a piece of advice here and there in the hall between meetings.

Mentoring and development must be synonymous wherever they occur – but especially in the minds of leadership. Where they’re not, there are two questions I want to ask them. One: “Are you really developing someone – or are you simply feeling as if you are because you gave them advice?” And two: “What do you think leadership is going to look like in twenty years if all these up-and-coming women in your organization aren’t given guidance and development, but are instead left to figure it out on their own?”

The best thing C-level women can do is to mentor these younger women who are just starting out, as well as the mid-level careerists. They need to actively help them traverse the confusion surrounding work-life balance early in their careers, rather than reactively waiting until their next step is that C-Level position.

Imagine all the women who won’t have made it to a point where the next step is a C-Level position in twenty years who could have and wanted to, but didn’t have the benefits of guidance and development along their journeys, who passed up opportunities that they didn’t see a way to take - or that they didn’t see at all.

There’s incredible potential to change this story.

Don’t stop at just talking about C-Level women in action. Be a woman in action, set a new precedent, and lead by example by becoming a true mentor to women in your organization.

Judy Corner is a mentoring training and mentoring program planning expert at Insala. This article originally appeared in the 2014 March/April edition of Profiles in Diversity Journal.

Read next: Mentoring – Enhancing Diversity Strategically and Sustainably for Real Business Results.


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