Without question, having a mentor will enhance the effectiveness of our leadership skills immensely. This is especially true when the methods and management style of the mentor differ and contrast from our own. It is only when we challenge our conditioning by accepting new and different approaches to work and life that we truly grow. However, the unfortunate, limiting and unspoken reality is that both women and men are discouraged from seeking mentorship from the opposite sex and until this changes we cannot rightly profess equality in the workplace.
From the time we are born, boys are rewarded when they suppress their emotions, and for acting tough and being self-reliant individuals. Meanwhile, girls are expected to be empathetic and caring relationship builders. It is difficult to move away from and break out of these patterns and as a result, each of us, male or female, operate using only half of the attributes and options available to us. Thus, we fly in circles with the power of only a single wing, when should we choose to unlock the other we would soar.
As a young executive, I worked in the almost entirely, male dominated fertilizer industry. At that time, it was an industry void of female mentors and so I turned to the senior male executives who had wives or daughters trying to make it in business. I knew they would be sensitized to my position, having heard it at home and thankfully my strategy proved correct as they became my teachers and supporters.
These masculine mentors provided important advice, including how to recognize when the only recourse left with an insubordinate employee was to step out behind the woodshed and show them who was the boss. They also generously touted my value to others in upper management, recommended me for challenging (and highly visible) assignments, and encouraged me to successfully take the risk of asking for and receiving a salary increase. Without their guidance, I may not have learned how to draw important boundaries or to establish credibility. From them, I learned to navigate a system designed by men, one which favoured the qualities and traits that they valued, and that tutoring served me well.
At the same time, I also sought out and benefitted greatly from female mentors I found outside of the company and discovered that they considered both my personal and professional goals when dispensing advice. Discussions with them would often revolve around aspirations that gave my life meaning and purpose. The lessons learned through this more holistic approach were what fed my soul and though they didn’t literally appear on a profit and loss sheet were equally as important to my well-being and therefore my ultimate success.
In much the same way that I benefited from the contrasting modes of the male mentors of my early career, I find that the young men who I take under my wing are able to expand their views and outlook. They appreciate having the opportunity to shed what TEDx speaker Connor Beaton calls their “man mask” and break away from the limiting scope of manly stereotypes. We have lively discussions about the development and building of their interpersonal relationships, and how to listen to and motivate others. As with my protégés of any gender, we also discuss our concerns regarding the practical challenges and juggling skills needed to be good parents operating within the confines of demanding careers.
There is clearly value in seeking a mentor of the opposite gender but for young protégés to do so, and senior executives to accept their requests we need to relinquish all thoughts of impropriety in the context of male-female relationships. A study published in 2010 by the Center for Work-Life Policy (now the Center for Talent Innovation), found that nearly two-thirds of men in senior positions were reluctant to meet one-on- one with junior women employees due to the fear that people would think they were having an affair. Women were nervous for the same reason.
The antiquated belief, that interactions between men and women are inherently and always sexual in nature, is a conditioned one and in and of itself is biased and
discriminatory. Perhaps it is those who hold steadfast to this belief that need to adjust their thinking and consider the famous line from The Bard “the lady doth protest too much” In my nearly 3 decades in the corporate realm not once did a mentor act inappropriately. Naysayers and chinwags may think that affairs amongst mentors and protégés are common, but in my experience, they are the exception, and not the rule.
What is needed for us to learn from one another, and enter into mentorship relationships that are safe from fear of repercussions or gossip, are policies that are clear. In her book Lean In Sheryl Sandberg says that “anything that evens out the opportunities for men and women in the workplace is the right practice.” Some
companies might adopt a “no dinner” with co-worker’s policy while others might adopt a “dinner with anyone” policy. “What’s important is that policies are applied evenly,” she says.
We live in an exciting, ever-changing era of post-modern complexity. Let all of us learn from one another and not be locked into single-gender mentoring relationships. Let us instead, celebrate and learn from the different approaches to work and life that a mentor of the opposite gender offers. To take this step closer to equality in the workplace all it will require from us is commitment to creating the attitudes and policies that insist that it is not only acceptable, it is to all of our benefits. By increasing the leadership actions and options available to us, we can become birds that fly ever higher on both wings and we will truly soar.