It seems like you can’t turn around without seeing an article about how important it is for a woman to have a mentor. I agree that having someone who’s been down a path before you is invaluable to building a career. What happens when you can’t find the right person?
This has always been my struggle. Early in my career, I couldn’t find the right fit with potential mentors. Each time I tried, the meetings felt awkward and forced. Rather than give up, I decided I’d build my own virtual mentor by taking little bits of a lot of people over the years. I did this by focusing on two things.
Observe the badasses
Many of us women are very good at noticing small details in behavior and speech. This gives us an advantage when it comes to observing people. We can watch and listen, then analyze the whole environment and outcome.
My career took a huge leap after spending a year observing the division lead for my group. I didn’t report directly to her but we worked together on many of my initiatives. I was a sponge, watching how she ran meetings, how she would craft emails to push a project through the system, and how she managed the larger team. She was a badass: She knew all her stuff down cold, and she wasn’t afraid to go head to head when needed. I walked away after a year of watching her having grown more professionally than I did in the previous five years.
Thought starters when observing a role model:
When challenged, what is their “go-to” response or reaction? Does it work all the time?
What things do they do to get other people to support their projects?
How do they interact with people senior to them? With their peers?
Ask lots of questions
Many of us have a fear of asking questions; heaven forbid that someone think we don’t know something. Letting go of the belief that I had to be perceived as knowing everything was a game changer. It gave me permission to go out on limbs and learn things I never would have been able to before. I’ve asked CEOs how they’ve negotiated deals, developers to explain a code module, and a 20-something how she got so many Instagram followers.
Designing beautiful presentations and layouts was not one of my strengths. Luckily, I had the chance to work with an amazing designer in one of my roles. Over the course of two years, I asked him a jillion questions. I’d ask him why he selected a specific image, have him show me the tricks he used every day, and talk to him about his design philosophy. He accelerated my career by teaching me skills that made me stand out.
Thought starters when asking questions:
What does this person know about that you don’t?
How can you apply their expertise to your skills/situation?
Building your own mentor takes time. As you learn and observe people, you’ll add new pieces to your virtual mentor. It could be after a year or after 15 minutes with someone inspiring. The important thing is to keep building it and refining it as you find things that work for you.
As promised, this strategy will avoid awkward and forced relationships. And who knows, it may lead you to a great real-life mentor relationship.