Victoria Davey, partner and head of operations at Yorkshire law firm Gordons, discusses the importance of mentoring women in business.
There are various schools of thought about the best way to achieve gender equality. All have merits and should be acknowledged in the debate about making this an important business issue. We have to improve the gender equality of the talent pool at all levels, not just in the boardroom. We need a pipeline from which to recruit and promote to achieve parity. As a member of Gordons’ executive board and the most senior woman in the firm’s 170 year history, I know that I have not attained this without encouragement, inspiration and support, without ever formally labelling it as mentoring.
However, the gender imbalance means that we do have to be more explicit about helping others and how we do it. The message that Heather Jackson and her colleagues at Inspirational Journey, an organisation which aims to promote gender equality in the corporate world, clearly communicate is “lift as you climb.”
For me, this perfectly summarises what I have a responsibility to do. I have no intention of being the woman who has climbed the corporate ladder only to pull it up quickly behind her. I have never met a business leader who hasn’t been inspired along the way by another person. That influence and inspiration can come from all walks of life, but the single most important outcome has to be what impact you can have on helping others achieve their full potential.
So is this about running a formal mentoring programme? In some cases yes, but I don’t think that works for everyone. I have spoken to many business leaders who tell me that when they have set up structured mentoring programmes this has not always had the desired effect.
This can be through a mismatching of mentors mentees or failing to create an environment where the mentee can truly open up about what their personal challenges are. This is about time, honesty, involvement and networks.
If you want to help someone you have to invest the time. Helping someone means getting to know them, and I don’t believe this is best achieved by formal meetings. The people who have inspired me the most have taken time to get to know and understand me. So I am not for undertaking endless formal appraisals, slotting in short appointments in calendars or sitting in a meeting room asking people what they want to discuss. I want to get to know people without ever mentioning the word ‘mentoring’.
It is well documented that women are not good at promoting their abilities. I have experienced women telling me they don’t feel ready for a certain challenge and even putting forward a colleague who, they feel, is better placed than them. Sometimes it takes time to convince them they can do it, but that time investment is worth it. If they won’t promote their own successes, find out what they are, let them know you are aware and share their successes more widely. If you are helping someone unlock their talent and ability you have to know what that is.
If you are going to help someone reach their full potential sometimes you will have to say something they don’t want to hear. You have to give constructive feedback and be honest. Be straightforward about what they could do differently, but also be prepared to be honest about yourself. We’ve all made mistakes, I still do. There are so many situations I know I could have handled differently or better and I have no problem with sharing these. If you are mentoring someone else it is reassuring to show your own vulnerability and acknowledge that you don’t always get it right. This can be very helpful in building confidence and rapport. Help others understand what they actually want to achieve.
This isn’t about getting every woman a seat on the board. I could name many women I know who make great contributions but do not want that position. Instead help them unleash their talent and ability to reach whatever level they honestly want to achieve. For me, the best way to encourage others to better understand their abilities is to involve them. This can range from assigning simple projects to giving them bigger personal challenges. I don’t do this as a formal mentoring objective but just ask someone if they could take on a specific responsibility.
Sometimes this will result from a conversation where they’ve identified that they lack experience in a certain area or that they want to be pushed out of their comfort zone. It is important to encourage women to not wait to be asked. We all need a little help but we also have to take personal responsibility for our own careers. So I want others to put themselves forward but my role is to help them not only find a voice, but also be heard.
Finally, I cannot underestimate the importance of networking, internally and externally. You shouldn’t be expecting to be promoted if you are not taking the time to get to know your colleagues. You have to be visible and take an interest in others in the work place. I encourage people to get to know their colleagues and try to bring different groups together at all levels of the business, in different projects. Everyone benefits from a group who will help each other out when work or just life requires it. This has made such a difference to my career. The support and strength you can give and receive from these networks is immense.
An external perspective on business and life is equally important. It is only when you open yourself up to this that you find there are many women out there willing to help or wanting help themselves. This network can provide invaluable guidance and advice. I have found it more beneficial to develop my own contacts rather than through networking groups but that does take more time to develop.
Whilst much of what I say relates to women helping women, I have had great male influences in my career. Your mentor can come from anywhere and does not need to be a woman. This is about finding the person who inspires you to want to be the best version of yourself. Someone who is willing to share what they know without any agenda other than helping you realise you can do more than you thought possible.
The American poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Helping someone else feel that their ambition is possible and helping them realise it is immensely satisfying.