The Power of Mentorship
Forget leaning in. What about leaning on? Real Simple takes an in-depth look at mentoring and why it matters.
Ten years ago, Shamim Wu was a blank canvas, inexperienced in the sales career that she had just begun. But when the 23-year-old attended what she assumed would be a boring training course run by Traci Bild, the president and founder of Bild & Company, a national consulting firm in Clearwater, Florida, Shamim got more than she bargained for.
“I thought, Wow, this woman has it all,” says Shamim. “I was impressed by Traci’s ability to present and her approach to sales, but also by the fact that she was balancing a marriage and raising a child. I was completely inspired.”
Immediately after the class, Shamim convinced Traci to take her under her wing. “I started to emulate her,” says Shamim, “and my career took off.” Now, at age 33, Shamim is the mother of two young children and the Los Angeles–based executive vice president of a senior-housing company. Shamim says that following Traci’s lead has empowered her at work and at home. “A huge portion of my career is what it is today because I had Traci as a mentor,” she says.
Shamim’s glowing view of mentorship is widely shared. Mentorship is touted by everyone from President Obama, who issues a yearly proclamation in honor of National Mentoring Month, to major Fortune 500 companies—71 percent of which now have formal mentoring programs. Mentorship is often cited by workplace experts as a key strategy for bringing more women into the upper echelons of corporate America and eventually shattering the glass ceiling for good. But what is mentoring, exactly? And what can it do for you?
The definition is fluid by design. Just as every friendship or romance has its unique qualities, so, too, does a mentorship. But the relationship is more intimate than the one you might have with a role model, who is someone you admire, often from a distance. A mentor is an active participant in your professional and personal spheres, who draws from her own experience to provide knowledge, support, and resources.
“When you want to progress, few moves help you more than finding a mentor,” says Anna Beninger, a researcher at Catalyst, a nonprofit devoted to expanding opportunities for women in business around the world. “But the benefits go beyond career advancement. A mentor can help you flourish in all aspects of your life.”
Sound too good to be true? Some think so, claiming that the glorification of the mentoring relationship can be detrimental to career growth for women. In her best-selling book, Lean In, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg calls the wish for a mentor “the professional equivalent of waiting for Prince Charming.” She writes, “Now young women are told that if they can just find the right mentor, they will be pushed up the ladder and whisked away to the corner office to live happily ever after.” The implicit message: The notion that there is a person out there who is poised to make all your dreams come true teaches women to be too dependent on others.