When I earned my MBA, women made up 10% of my Harvard class; we were a noticed minority with few women role models. Today, women earn over 35% of the MBAs from top schools; similar trends are changing other professions. Despite important progress, I still take note when a woman becomes a CEO, a cabinet secretary, or a university president. A few years ago, Catalystprojected that “it could take 40 years for women to achieve parity with men in corporate officer ranks.” So, if you need a mentor, he is likely to be male.
That is not bad news. Some men are excellent mentors. To illustrate, I will use the case of Beth Bartlett, the protagonist of Until Brazil. As a woman MBA in a stalled career, she goes to Brazil to lead a major international project. As she yoyos between Boston and Brazil, Beth is buffeted by strong men on both continents, three of whom prove to be mentors.
Although a work of fiction, Until Brazil is based on my own experiences. The characters are imaginary, but the mentoring relationships reflect real guidance and support that I received.
- Harvey Osborne, founder of the Beth’s firm, is a professorial father figure, who has nurtured her career and now gives her a new chance to prove herself. Harvey has his motives; he wants to promote the first woman partner. Should Beth resent being the “token” woman or accept the assignment that can move her up?
Tip #1: Don’t let a chip on the shoulder block your personal growth. Be wise about “What’s in it for him?”, but focus on “What’s in it for me? Will this opportunity advance my goals—professional and personal? If so, how can I succeed and make my mentor look good?” There is a fine line between manipulation and mutual benefit. Look for the common interest, evaluate whether you can deliver, and be glad someone has opened a door for you.
- Isaac Goldstein is the ambitious and demanding client, who puts Beth to the test. As the highly educated project sponsor, he seeks to influence its outcome. He becomes an assertive coach to Beth and her team. Being new to Brazil and its business culture, Beth needs his help, but can she discern genuine guidance from crafty self-interest?
Tip #2: Listen to Your Coach but Keep Control of the Ball. Whether you are trying to make a sale, deliver a service or enter as a new hire, an ally who knows the territory can be precious. You need not cross international borders to enter foreign territory; every organization has a unique culture. A local guide, especially one with stature, can make the difference between success and failure.
The trick is accepting support while maintaining your independence of thought and action. This applies to every coaching relationship, but is essential when a man coaches a woman. To protect your credibility, disagree and push back at the right time in the right place. Doing so skillfully may give you the reputation of “a tough professional” rather than a “bitch.”
- Sam Cohen, a street-smart Argentine, is displeased when a woman is assigned to run the most important project of his most important client. Sam’s unorthodox methods challenge Beth and her superiors back at headquarters. Can Beth forge a partnership with someone who invents his own protocols and delights in confrontation?
Tip #3: Embrace Conflict as Coaching. By nature, I am a “smoother,” dreading confrontation and avoiding arguments. I think many women prefer to relent rather than ruffle. But, my male mentors have taught me the power of putting the issues on the table and clearing the air. It is uncomfortable when someone questions my work or disagrees with my ideas. But, if they care enough to say something, I should listen. Accepting constructive criticism or having a healthy argument is often the key to great business performance.
Harvey, Isaac and Sam represent the countless men who have helped me grow professionally and personally. To each of you, many thanks.
Someday, the idea of being a woman in a man’s world will sound quaint. That day has not come...yet. So when all the mentors are men, find a great one. There are plenty out there.
© Copyright 2013 by Bethe Lee Moulton