There is a common belief in the corporate world that everyone can benefit from having a mentor. While it often takes women longer than men to acknowledge that need, by mid-career, most have connected with a mentor. The problem is, especially for women who must navigate an often alien corporate culture, one mentor isn't enough.
Having worked with hundreds of organizations and thousands of talented women for over 25 years, I have found that in order for women to realize their career goals and become active contributors to corporate success, they need three distinct types of mentors.
1. Operational mentors
Operational mentors provide advice and counsel on the right way to get the job done and the obstacles to avoid while getting it done. These mentors are women or men who can help with the day-to-day problems that arise as a woman strives to excel in her responsibilities. They are especially valuable as she moves into different positions and may feel uncertain about the best ways to handle her new job.
In selecting operational mentors, women should look for someone who has succeeded at the particular job function and who is currently tuned in to both best practices for that job and to industry-wide trends. Operational mentors can come from within the organization or from other companies.
2. Strategic mentors
Strategic mentors help a woman gain greater insight into what the business is all about and which of her talents and skills best dovetail with corporate needs. The primary role of strategic mentors is to help women connect with influential leaders within the organization. These mentors work with a woman to develop strategies that make her more visible to the right people at the right time so that corporate leaders see her as a needed asset to growth and profitability. In other words, strategic mentors help women understand how to get noticed by those who matter.
In seeking out strategic mentors, women should look to those who understand both the obvious and subtle workings of the organization. They should ensure that the mentor is someone they respect and trust; and that he or she is also someone willing to guide them in developing a wide range of strategies, including substituting career-advancing behaviors for career-limiting ones. Strategic mentors are usually from inside the mentee's organization.
3. Advisory mentors
Research shows that women typically do not receive the same type of career-advancing feedback as their male colleagues. As a result, they often do not get advice from their managers on how to achieve their career goals. That's why advisory mentors are so crucial for female talent at all levels. These mentors provide the advice and guidance that propel their mentee forward. They help them get passed blind spots to look honestly at their strengths and at areas in need of development.
Creating their own "advisory board" of internal and external mentors, inside and outside their industry, is a strategy that has proven especially effective for women. Just as the diversity of opinions improves decision-making at the highest corporate level, it does the same for talented women looking to take the right steps for career advancement.
A few clarifiers
Women may not necessarily require all three types of mentors at the same time. Mentoring needs will change at various career inflection points. For example, early on in a career, operational mentors may be the most important. As a woman advances in the organization, she may rely more heavily on strategic and advisory mentors. Successful mentoring relationships are organic and require the mentee to look at whom she needs when. Then she must leverage the mentoring relationship, putting the advice and counsel of her mentors into play as she navigates the corporate landscape.
One final clarifier: There is a distinct difference between mentors and sponsors. Sponsors are all about power and opportunity. They are the corporate leaders who advance the careers of those whom they feel worthy of their sponsorship. Mentors are about development, about helping a woman get ready to be tapped by a sponsor, so the sponsor views her as an asset to the organization. Mentors and sponsors are the one-two punch for career advancement.