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You’re not a leader if you’re not doing this one important thing

A managing director of creative agency Eleven reflects on her career and says, “Understanding that you don’t know everything, and you can learn from someone else, opens your eyes to so many growth opportunities and ways to advance, not only professionally, but personally.”

You’re not a leader if you’re not doing this one important thing
[Photo: Karolina Grabowska/Pexels]

When I look back at my 30-year career, I mostly remember the feelings. I recall the rush of my first big assignment, the nerves that came with being asked my opinion for the first time, and the joy that came from the pace of my success alongside my male peers. But as a woman in a male-dominated industry in the late 1980s, I also remember feeling different and the overcompensating that was done to “play the game” and fit in.

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I had a couple of women to look up to, but for the most part, there were very few examples of women in leadership in business overall. It was difficult to navigate all of the choices and challenges that come with building a career in our industry when there were so few people who could relate to the nuances of what I was experiencing. Yes, I had friends and peers (and my dad—ding ding ding—another male), but I needed someone like me to give it to me straight. Someone I saw myself in, who had experiences I could relate to, and who was actively invested in me and my growth. What I needed was a mentor.

The reason I understand how valuable mentorship is—female mentorship, in particular—comes from the fact that it’s everything I wish I’d had in those early years. I was not fortunate to have another female leader guiding me through the long days, late nights, and second-guessing of myself that came with working around a bunch of people that didn’t look like me. Not having a female mentor then was less of a decision I made and more of a combination of external factors—some that still exist today. But now, in an effort to help young women have the support they need to thrive, I lead a female mentorship program, and here’s what I attempt to instill among our mentees and mentors.

We all need help

About six years ago, the University of California, Hastings Law professor Joan C. Williams identified a series of bias patterns that were keeping women out of STEM fields. While I’m not in the STEM field, I can confidently confirm that all of these patterns exist in pretty much every male-dominated industry. The one that I found the most detrimental—and one that I believe is a huge reason why many women may snub the idea of mentorship—is the pressure that is put on women to constantly prove themselves. There is significant pressure on women to work smarter, harder, and more dutifully than men, and that pressure often leads to a hesitation to ask for help. 

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The truth, though, is that asking for help is part of growth. And it’s one of the most important lessons one can learn from mentorship. Understanding that you don’t know everything, and you can learn from someone else, opens your eyes to so many growth opportunities and ways to advance, not only professionally, but personally. I can think of several moments in my career when my lack of self-advocacy held me back. There were opportunities I didn’t feel I was worthy of and dreams I thought were too big; things that any great mentor would have helped me see were untrue. 

Having a mentor is like having your own personal advocate: someone who is looking out for you and rooting for you, while at the same time, sharing difficult truths, and working with you to find the best solutions for the problems you’re facing. 

The world is ready for more leadership

There is a good chance that you have people in your life who might welcome your mentorship or make a great mentor to you. Look around throughout your days. Who are you drawn to? Who do you enjoy conversations with? Look both in and outside of your industry. The experience, expertise, and guidance of a mentor today are yours for the taking. 

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One reason I never had a female mentor was that there simply weren’t that many women in leadership positions at the time. To put it in perspective, there were only three female Fortune 500 CEOs in place when I started my career, that is .006% of the total group of CEOs. Today, there are nearly 50. It’s still not enough, but it’s certainly progress, and the number of women in non-C-suite leadership roles (managers, directors, vice presidents, and presidents) has grown exponentially over the last two decades, and continues to grow every year.

Access to these women who have broken the glass ceiling, made tough decisions, and faced the challenges that come with being a professional woman has never been more available. And the best part? Many, if not most, of them have been in exactly the position you’re in. While it’s important to celebrate progress, the sad truth is that many of the issues women in leadership faced when they were early in their careers still exist for women today. We can’t ignore the reality that being a woman in the workplace is still a challenge that comes with increased pressure, unfair judgments, and the enormous family responsibilities men simply do less of. But having someone by your side, to walk you through even the most difficult situations you may face as a professional woman, is an invaluable resource. 

Don’t second-guess the value you can provide to a more junior woman

I’m willing to bet I’m not the only person who wishes she had a mentor in the early days of her career. But just because we made it without one doesn’t mean others should have to. There’s nothing that should hold you back from helping to develop the next generation of women to be their best. If you have managed people, you can be a mentor.  If you have life experiences worth sharing, you can be a mentor

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At the end of the day, what’s most important is the commitment to one another and the chemistry between the two of you. Mentorship should not be overly complicated or formal, and it’s certainly not a one-way street. As a mentor, you will grow along with your mentee, and you’ll both be better for it. 

The collective power of women is an unstoppable force, and though we’ve made great strides, there’s a long way to go. But if we stick together and encourage each other and lift one another up, we’ll get there that much quicker. 


Michele Sileo is managing director at Eleven.

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