How to Find a Mentor

Smart advice for finding someone to learn from and who is willing to help.

By Sarah J. Robbins
Alexandra Wilkis Wilson and Kellee Khalil: mentor and protégéeRobert Maxwell

Alexandra Wilkis Wilson and Kellee Khalil: mentor and protégée

A Good Mentor Is Hard to Find

That viewpoint may come as a relief to many women who would be happy to have a mentor but can’t locate one. In a 2011 LinkedIn survey, 52 percent of female respondents said that they have never had a mentor because they haven’t encountered someone appropriate. When some young women fail to find a mentor, they blame themselves, says Nancy Strojny, a consultant based in Portland, Maine, and the chair of her local chapter of SCORE, a national nonprofit that supports small-business owners and provides free mentoring services: “Too many think, If I were working harder or if I were good enough, I would attract one.

Why is the search so difficult? Well, to start, many women look for a mentor at their workplace. And at too many offices there’s still a dearth of senior-level females. Women hold just 14 percent of the top corporate jobs; only 4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. “It’s a numbers issue,” says Caroline Ghosn, the founder of the online career community Levo League (levoleague.com). “There simply aren’t enough women leaders available relative to the number of protégées who would love to benefit from their experiences.”

Additionally, some powerful females—who could be wonderful mentors—avoid taking on the role. “I’ve never actually heard a woman say, ‘I’m not interested in mentoring another woman,’ ” says Nicole Williams, a LinkedIn career expert and the author of Girl on Top and Earn What You’re Worth. However, she adds, “we may hesitate to support one another because we might think, If she becomes more successful than me, that may look bad.

Ghosn agrees that women in the workplace sometimes treat one another as rivals. Earlier this year, Ghosn asked a crowd ofabout 200 female undergraduate business majors to close their eyes and raise their hands if they had ever held back on sharing news of an accomplishment for fear that other women would judge them, and nearly everyone did so. And according to a survey conducted this year by Manta, an online community dedicated to small businesses, just 4 percent of 1,000 female entrepreneurs said that other women in business provide them with significant support.

This dynamic could change as women in the workplace lose a “scarcity mind-set”—the sense that there are limited opportunities to go around. Thankfully, the idea among females that “I have to push you down to rise up” is evaporating. The challenge for each of us is to reconcile the dream of seeing all women succeed with the uncomfortable reality of the competition it often takes to get ahead.

But a perception of rivalry is only part of the problem. Lack of time may be an even bigger deterrent to mentoring. A top manager who is already working 40 (or even 60) hours a week and juggling duties at home related to children or aging parents could simply not have the bandwidth to take on one more obligation. “No matter how powerful or important you are, there are only so many hours in a day,” says Lesley Gold, the founder and CEO of Sutherland Gold, a public-relations firm based in San Francisco. “And that lack of time impacts women’s availability for networking and building work relationships.” Others may take on the role of mentor only to realize that they can’t deliver in the ways they had originally hoped, which can cause guilt or even resentment. “It’s a cycle, and when the next person asks, they say no,” says Williams.

No wonder so many younger women are reluctant to ask someone to be a mentor, says Strojny: “I advise a woman in her 20s who didn’t go to the senior women at her company for mentoring because she felt that they were distant and unapproachable.”

 
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