Looking for Your Mid-Career Mentors?
What got you here won't get you there.
I speak to many women who are feeling adrift in their career. They’re not sure if they’re in the right place, they are feeling lost in their career.
And many of them have something in common.
“I don’t have a mentor,” they tell me.
“I used to have mentors and now I don’t.”
These are dedicated women. They put in the work and really focus on getting it done. And that hard work has served them in the past.
And early in their career, that hard work attracted people to them who saw their hard work and believed in them. Who showed them the ropes and delighted in teaching them.
But what happens is that as we grow in our career, things change.
And the model of mentorship—especially for women—in those early career years just doesn’t work as you grow.
Mentorship in mid-career is different than at the beginning of your career.
So I’d like to take a moment to bust some myths about mentorship. Think about this as your guide to finding your mid-career mentors.
Follow these guidelines and you’ll move from feeling lost to getting the strong support you’ve been looking for—and becoming stronger yourself.
Myth: Mid-career mentors teach you.
Fact: Mid-career mentors teach you—and learn from you.
When we imagine a mentorship relationship, we imaging gratefully soaking up someone older and wiser’s wisdom from on high.
Because many older male mentors feel more comfortable with daughter-like mentees, many women feel pressure to make themselves small in their mentorship relationships. To just accept insight without questioning what doesn’t ring true to you. To not bring your own ideas to the conversation.
And this will hold you back–because you are training your brain to feel like ‘you don’t know’ and you also place yourself in a role with your mentee in which you act even more junior than you are.
So how do you move into a more equal relationship?
Start by asking what you can do to support your mentors.
When I first started my business an older male mentor agreed to help introduce me to clients. At the end of one of our first meetings I asked him, ‘Is there anything I can do to support you?’ He said, ‘Well I’m retired now, so there’s nothing I really need.’
But I remembered him mentioning that he wanted to write a book and didn’t know where to start in putting 40 years of his thoughts into a book. So I told him about a podcast I’d heard on organizing your ideas for a book and sent him the link.
You never know what someone else’s next challenge or creative edge is–and you might just be the one to share the suggestion, introduction or recommendation they need.
Myth: Your mid-career mentor is in your company
Fact: Your mid-career mentors are outside and inside your company.
When we think about where we want to go in our careers, we look ahead at what others have done. It’s only human.
In my mid-career career direction program I ask clients to generate potential ‘North Stars’—short pithy phrases or even images that describe who they want to be professionally in 5 years, 7 years or 10 years. And invariably, the first few are obvious and uninspired. Because we get stuck in our little corner of our professional world—in an echo chamber.
We look to our bosses or other people we know in our industries for examples of what we could be.
But for women—and especially for women of color—there are few models that look like us. We also see leaders working and traveling all hours and missing out on their personal life. We see companies that are not particularly humane—with cultures that don’t generate happy teams and happy employees. We look ahead and see only what’s in front of us—and also don’t see real possibility.
When Tamara Roy, an architect, hit mid-career, her growth at work stalled. She stayed at a firm for ten years waiting for career opportunities that never came—while watching less qualified men get the opportunities she wanted. While Tamara easily found mentors in the early years of her career, as she grew out of the ‘daughter’ role, her relationship with her mentors became strained.
So Tamara got out of her echo chamber. She hired a career coach. She asked local women she admired outside of her office to lunch. With advice and a new perspective, she ultimately landed at a firm in which she saw an opportunity to grow into leadership—and ultimately became a principal.
Myth: You'll have one important mid-career mentor.
Fact: In mid-career you need a panel of mentors advising you in different ways.
There is no one way.
There is no one answer to who you can be. As you get clear on what your unique answer is, you’ll need to ‘curate’ your own personalized ‘cocktail’ of support.
One of the common laments I hear from my clients in leadership roles is that they don’t have mentors anymore. There’s no one to learn from—because they are the boss.
It’s actually something that holds women back from pursuing leadership roles—that fear of being alone. Of not growing.
But girl—whether you’re at the top or not—you got to do it yourself.
I have a “Business Wingwoman.” She runs a totally different business than me (I know a lot more about on-boarding than I ever did before we met.) We do a weekly accountability call and an annual business retreat. I have a business coach who helped me become a baller with my numbers.
I also have a practice of reaching out about once a month to a business owner I admire and inviting them to a virtual coffee date. I now know who to call when I am trying to figure out how to manage more effectively, get SEO advice, or break into a new market. And even when I don’t know exactly what I’m looking for, my co-mentors (I prefer the term wing-people 😉 ) often help me figure it out.
And a little bonus for ya: you don’t even need to actually be acquainted with your mentor to learn from them. One woman I spoke with once told me that she felt she was ‘mentored’ through just observing people she admired. When she moved into running more public meetings, she looked to another woman of color she admired to see how she did it—what was her posture like? How did she present issues? When did she intervene in a conversation that had gone off the rails and how?
She was ‘mentored’ from afar—through the power of observation. And observation is one of the skills that we designers are AMAZING at!
So you've got a competitive advantage here ladies!
If you’ve been stuck looking for your mid-career mentors—it’s actually often a call-to-action that it’s time for you to step up and bring more of yourself into these relationships.
It’s more of a mindset shift than anything. And a willingness to step into your power.
It’s not always easy, but it’ll make you better, stronger, and happier.
Ready to make this shift? I’ve put together a quick checklist and guide to help you find your group of mid-career mentors and supports that you need in this stage of your career.