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For Women, Mentorship Is Key To Getting Over The Mid-Career Hump

Women’s careers don’t slow down because they “opt out”; it’s a management problem. Here’s how one L’Oreal exec is changing that.

For Women, Mentorship Is Key To Getting Over The Mid-Career Hump
[Photo: Flickr user Steve Johnson]

Mike Larrain is your typical man’s man: he’s served in the Marines, spends his weekends coaching his sons’ Little League teams, and casually uses sports terminology to describe business strategies. So, on the surface, he might seem like a fish out of water at L’Oreal, a company that makes beauty products for women and has a largely female workforce. But in some ways, Larrain’s unconventional background has been an asset at the organization, since he never makes the mistake of assuming he understands the goals or motivations of the women on his team. He believes this perspective has made him a better manager and a better mentor.

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Mike Larrain

To Larrain, mentorship and leadership go hand in hand. “I learned a lot about leadership in the Marines,” he tells Fast Company. “I remember officers ransacking my room and then accusing me of being untidy. It was a way to keep us in line, but not a strategy I wanted to take with me into the business world. On the other hand, I remember having strong mentors who were instrumental to my success.”

When he left the armed forces, it was very clear to him that having allies in leadership positions was just as critical to advancing in the corporate sector. And here’s where gender dynamics come into play: women are still vastly underrepresented at the top of companies, making up only 24 percent of senior leadership positions globally. Larrain believes it is incumbent on male leaders to give women the support and strategic advice that they need to move up the ladder.

At L’Oreal, Larrain noticed that there are specific moments when women are particularly vulnerable to falling behind. After doggedly working through entry-level and early mid-level positions, he observed that women’s momentum tended to flag right when they were primed to enter top jobs. “I’ve seen far too many talented and dedicated women rise through the ranks, but not able to reach their full potential because they drop off or are overlooked on their way up,” he says.

This trend has been documented by countless business studies which say that women “opt out” to start families. However, a breakthrough study released by Bain last month refutes this logic, arguing that the real reason women fall behind is due to lack of management effort to move even successful careers forward. “Women lack meaningful recognition and support from managers during their mid-level career period, when women crystalize their aspirations and build–or erode–their confidence,” the report found.

This is precisely where Larrain believes male leaders can–and must–step in. In his own career, he’s consciously devoted time and resources to mentoring women on his team, particularly during moments when they might be susceptible to losing faith in themselves. For instance, he’s worked closely with Brenda Wu, general manager of Skinceuticals, with the goal of helping her to break into the very highest echelons at the company.

Larrain says that discussing goals is critical to being a good mentor. “At the start of any mentoring relationship, I always sit down with my mentee and discuss what their objectives are,” he says. “Mentorship isn’t one size fits all. It’s about developing an individualized relationship that helps someone reach the next level, both personally and professionally. So, in many ways, the key to being a good mentor is listening.” This is particularly important for male-female mentoring, since men may not perceive the full range of challenges women on their teams are facing.

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And even after a mentee has voiced their goals, it is important to be attuned to what might be happening under the surface. “A mentee might say that she wants to better engage clients, but you might notice that she keeps mentioning conflict between team members working under her supervision. That might be a cue to help provide strategies and a roadmap for managing subordinates,” he says. He makes the point that sometimes, people have faulty assumptions about their own strengths and weaknesses; a good mentor can play a role in helping to correctly identify the issues at stake.

Larrain says that these mentorship relationships have also been hugely helpful to him as a manager. These in-depth conversations have given him insight into exactly what juggling work and life looks like for women. “It’s one thing to read about the struggles female employees face; it’s another thing to hear about the nuts and bolts,” he says.

While mentorship can be critical to helping women break into the C-suite, Larrain is also keen to give women throughout the hierarchy a chance to advance quickly. While this is valuable to employees of both genders, it is particularly helpful to women who are less aggressive about putting themselves forward, partly because it is less socially acceptable for them to be seen as overtly ambitious.

To this end, he initiated an incubator within his division that allows employees of all ranks to solve pressing issues in the business, from the need to modernize brands via social media to improving distribution techniques. For two months, each team works with a coach to develop ideas that are then presented to senior management in New York. This program allows bright young employees to bring their ideas to the table and get face time with top brass at the company.

“Younger employees crave career development,” he says. “Our incubator gives us a window into the thinking, pressures, and insights of the younger workforce so we can learn from them, create an attractive culture for them, and improve the top and bottom line.” So far, the incubator has generated 88 ideas, 15 of which have been implemented, which will have an estimated $3 million impact on the business.

Ultimately, Larrain believes that men in leadership cannot shy away from investing in women. “One of the best ways male leaders can foster gender equality in the workplace is by cultivating the next generation of female leaders,” he says. “I’ve found that mentorship is a powerful tool for bridging the gap between a mentee’s current position and where they ultimately want to be in their career.”

About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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