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

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Alexandra Wilkis Wilson and Kellee Khalil: mentor and protégée
Alexandra Wilkis Wilson and Kellee Khalil: mentor and protégée
| Credit: Robert Maxwell

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 ( “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.”

What About the Men?

The ideal mentor is someone who intuitively understands you—and that person can be of either gender. But workplace experts say that women have an even harder time finding a male mentor. Although females make up about half the workforce, a 2012 Catalyst study of 10,000 M.B.A. holders found that only 30 percent of men who fostered the careers of others had chosen women to mentor. What’s more, women tended to be mentored by more junior-level staffers than their male counterparts were. That’s a problem: The support of men is crucial for many reasons, not the least of which is that they are still more likely to occupy the corner office and may be in a better position to advocate for women.

One explanation that experts give for the gap is that people are most likely to assist those who are similar to themselves. Therefore men are simply more apt to mentor other men, and women other women. But male-female mentorships may also be thwarted by office politics. A 2010 study conducted by the nonprofit Center for Talent Innovation (CTI), in New York City, a think tank dedicated to workplace issues, found that nearly two-thirds of men in senior positions and half of junior women are nervous about one-on-one contact with members of the opposite sex for fear of watercooler gossip. “We know that this stigma still exists in a lot of companies,” says Beninger. “We need to let go of these perceptions and encourage men to understand the importance of supporting women.”

Ghosn’s first job was at a management consulting firm that had very few female partners. “My mentor was a male, and I was always extremely cognizant of how sitting and talking with him looked to someone else,” she says. For the workplace to change, she says, both men and women need to recognize that the dynamic of a male-female mentorship should be no different from that of a same-sex mentorship. “We have to be able to give women and men the benefit of the doubt when they’re working together,” says Ghosn.

CTI has issued recommendations for facilitating male-female mentorships: Having routine meetings, for example, can go a long way toward silencing the wagging tongues of people who might suggest something untoward is happening. Another idea? “One executive I know always meets with his female protégées at a wonderfully open restaurant, where conversations can take place in the public eye,” says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the founding president and CEO of CTI. Get-togethers in a high-traffic location make it clear that you have nothing to hide and that your relationship is strictly business.

Then again, you could just stop worrying about optics and focus on maximizing your relationship with a male mentor. “Male allies—whom I call mallies—have connections and leadership lessons of all sorts,” says Rachel Sklar, the New York City-based founder of the women’s networking group, which aims to increase support and opportunities for women in technology and new media. “Track down those whom you can learn from and who are willing to help.”

Finding the One

Certainly not every woman needs a mentor. But if you want such a relationship, here’s how to get started.

Define your objective. Be clear about what you’re after. Are you looking for a supportive, weekly mentoring session with someone who will guide your career long-term? Specific advice for a project that you’re grappling with right now? Or do you simply want what Strojny calls a “coffee mentor,” someone whose brain you can pick when the spirit moves you?

Look around. Women tend to focus their mentor searches at their workplaces as opposed to within their wider networks, says Williams: “But you don’t even need to choose someone in your own industry.” When Williams was in her 20s and working in event marketing, one of her most powerful mentors was her next-door neighbor, a venture capitalist. “Someone in virtually any walk of life could have a significant career experience that mirrors yours or relates to the career that you want to have,” says Beninger. That could even be someone younger than you. For example, one of Strojny’s protégées is 82.

Ask for what you want. “People aren’t mind readers,” says Beninger. “You have to be able to formulate what you want your career arc to look like, and you have to ask for opportunities that will get you there.” Then start a conversation with a possible mentor by offering something that you can do to be useful. “Say, ‘I heard you’re going to this conference. Can I come along? Can I take photos for you or live-tweet the event?’ ” says Sklar. “Figure out what to ask that will both deepen the relationship and provide you with chances to shine.” Be specific, and make yourself—and your accomplishments—known.

Bring goals to your first meeting. Don’t kick off your mentorship with a meandering chat over lattes. Instead, experts suggest that you show up with an agenda. “Use the time for something impactful,” says Ghosn. Targeted questions, she says, are a sign that you respect that person’s expertise and value her time: “Instead of asking something vague like ‘Hey, what advice do you have to share?’ say, ‘So I researched your background and would love to understand how you transitioned from Job X to Job Y.’ ”

Be realistic about your expectations. “Many people that I mentor default to ‘Nancy must know best,’ ” says Strojny. “Our job as mentors is to expand your scope and to get you to think about how to frame your experience. We’re not here to make your decisions for you.” Also, don’t assume that your mentor is always available. Be respectful about requesting her time, whether that’s in person or by e-mail or phone. Ghosn advises that you establish ground rules early on: Find out if she wants to check in via e-mail weekly, monthly, or quarterly.

Finally, pay it forward. Once you’ve benefited from having a mentor, consider becoming one. According to a 2012 Catalyst report, both male and female leaders who helped foster others’ careers saw a stunning average of $25,075 in compensation growth for themselves between the years 2008 and 2010. Why? “Developing the careers of others increases your visibility and shows your boss that you’re not just out for your own advancement,” says Beninger. “It’s the right thing to do for someone else, and it pays dividends for you, too.”