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Navigating the trenches of corporate America can be difficult for any one; knowing the politics, the ins-and-outs of the corporate culture, even picking up on the little nuances that can take a casual conversation with your boss to a new found ally are all skills learned on the corporate cutting room floor and in no classroom.  This journey becomes especially difficult if you are a woman; finding the balance between respect and power can be a difficult path to master.

One of the best ways to navigate the murky waters of corporate America is to join forces with someone of more experience, a keen understanding of the corporate culture: a mentor.

In a 2001 survey, 70 percent of women in corporate America said that a lack of mentoring opportunities was a barrier to their advancement. In the same study, 65 percent of women said there was a lack of women role models in the workplace. There have been significant shifts in these numbers over the last decade with the influx of women CEO’s and change in corporate culture, however, many note that mentorship still remains a vital source to advancement in the workplace.

Finding a mentor and having a successful experience with them takes a few key things. Maria Wright, a strategic sales leader for GE Capital has navigated her way through corporate America, becoming a mid-career leader in a matter of just five years. She attributes part of her success to learning how to acquire and make the most of her mentorship experiences. Having mentors on both sides of the great gender divide has had their benefits. “I’ve been mentored by both men and women and I’ve learned very distinctive things from equally. Women can offer insight that a man can’t offer because she’s a woman, she understands the emotional, familial issues that plague us. In contrast, male mentors know how to just deliver the facts, no frills.”

Having a male mentor, in many ways, garners quiet whispers and water cooler talk about what a woman “must be doing” to advance in the ranks of her corporation. Maria was quick to dispel this myth. “I’ve never had an issue with a male mentor nor have any of them attempted anything outside of a professional relationship. You will find more often than not that most men genuinely interested in mentoring you want nothing from you except excellence in your field.”

Apart from gender, there are some key components to building a successful mentorship. Maria offers some key things to consider:

1. Come to the table with a plan of action: More than likely, your mentor has busy schedule and coming to them with a blank slate can be counterproductive. Identify what you want to learn from them, create a schedule and “talk-points” for your meetings.

2. Create some kind of rhythm: Set a specific time for your meetings, whether that is once a week, once a month, or every quarter. Put the dates in your calendar and take those scheduled dates seriously.

3. Find common ground: Many times mentorship relationships fall flat because of various reasons, one of them being there was never a casual discussion about common ground. Find out what similar interests you have, family, sports, music, anything to bring familiarity to the relationship.

4. Set the expectations early: Unfortunately, you may encounter a mentor who has been “forced” into that position because of a company mentorship program. Don’t fret! Set your expectations of what you want from them and present it to them. Hold them accountable for teaching you what you want to learn and be aggressive about getting something out the experience. There has to be a commitment on both sides for it to work; setting expectations can help solidify that commitment.

“It’s tough being an African American woman in corporate America,” Maria explains. “The higher you go, the less likely you are to see faces that look like yours. What mentorship does for you, however, is put your familiar face in the minds and circles of those of the majority – the decision makers. If you and I are both up for the same job with the same qualifications, my relationship with my mentor (who is of higher ranking) can give me the edge over you because the familiarity and our established relationship. It’s something you never want to take for granted.”

What if you are a woman who doesn’t have the slightest clue on how to find a mentor? Maria suggests going to events and discovering people who are doing what you want to do. Introductions, including some of your best skills and talents can take a random acquaintance into a budding mentorship.  “Ask if you can reach out to them once a quarter or every other month. It shows that you not only respect their busy schedule, but you have the tenacious drive to initiate such an encounter.”

Mentorship is a critical component to not only life in the corporate lane, but in our personal and social circles, too. Discover your path, find someone who has already walked it, and soar to the top… together!

Book recommendation for the woman climbing the corporate ladder: Empowering Yourself: The Organizational Game Revealed by Harvey J. Coleman

Source: Catalyst Newsletter, July 2001.