We once read a quote from Iyanla Vanzant, an inspirational speaker, lawyer, and author. She said, “The way to achieve your own success is to be willing to help somebody else get it first.” That inspired us to consider these questions: What defines the mentor/mentee relationship? How has that relationship helped women navigate our industry?
To answer these questions, we polled women ranging from one month to 23 years in insurance and/or law. In short, we found this unique relationship was rewarding to the participants personally and professionally. In addition, although responses differed, there was a common thread: Seasoned professionals invested more time in the mentor/mentee relationship than women just starting their careers.
The mentor/mentee relationship can certainly be a means for advancing a woman’s network and developing her career. This is particularly true in light of the continued challenges plaguing women, including pay inequality, work-life balance, and the need to self-create advancement opportunities. So, how does one begin to establish such a relationship, particularly in an industry that is increasingly fast paced and where interpersonal relationships often take a back seat to business?
The women we polled formed this relationship in different ways: Some were assigned to a mentor; for others, their managers filled the role; and a few reaped the benefits of the organic process of gravitating toward a colleague, often more seasoned, with whom a friendship developed that transformed into a mentor/mentee relationship. It is noteworthy that the mentor was not always another female. In fact, although each journey was unique, the more experienced participants often found mentorship in their male colleagues.
Each woman found a mentor who understood the strengths and weaknesses in her industry, was fundamental in the development and honing of her skills, and gave her a “seat at the table.” The process of forming such a relationship, often, was organic. While some respondents scheduled meetings with their mentors, others felt they learned simply by observing or shadowing their mentors; thus, they were able to learn the skills required in their profession ranging from leadership, to management, to conducting oneself professionally. Most respondents felt their mentors were effective because they led through example and understood their mentees.
Qualities of a Mentor
Mentors with resounding impact allow their mentees to grow and develop, teaching them how to advocate for themselves, conduct meetings, and reap the benefit of time spent with senior leaders. Most crucial for mentees is finding a mentor they respect and want to work with. Some mentees considered their mentors friends who encouraged them while also firmly correcting their mistakes, advising them or redirecting them if necessary. Those who viewed their mentors as friends found that they received some of the strongest feedback from those mentors. Almost all respondents believed their mentors helped them build confidence, and told them to work hard, take risks, ask questions, and be respectful. These mentors also helped them develop skills, including relationship building and effective communication.
Perhaps the most telling sign of the impact this relationship has had on mentees is that some of them have become mentors. Those who have paid it forward typically volunteered. Some fell into it because they were in senior roles. Others identified younger associates that were eager to succeed and took an active role in developing a relationship.
Involving Younger Women
Inadvertently, our poll discovered many younger women had yet to form a mentor/mentee relationship. Although initially surprising to us, when self-reflecting, we realized that, quite simply, the mentor/mentee relationship was something we did not appreciate in the early years of our career development. It became clear that younger women did not recognize the intrinsic value in a mentor/mentee relationship and simply wanted to learn the job.
This led to a closer examination of the generational gap between younger and older survey participants. One example in the new post-COVID-19 world is younger people are reluctant to return to the office, while the more seasoned survey participants recognize that a physical presence in the office is a crucial part of career development. Working from home may hinder the forging of relationships, whereas the office environment allows for it, along with the ability to learn and develop in unforeseen ways, including branching out to different networks. Although convenient, working from home is all business, and communications are electronic and succinct. This likely lengthens the time needed to establish the mentor/mentee relationship.
Once the relationship is formed, though, the consensus among respondents was clear: These young women’s experiences must be validated as they have things to teach as well as learn. Some respondents felt that the younger generation should be treated as equals with a fresh viewpoint, often viewing them as a younger version of themselves and attempting to remember what it was like to be in their shoes. Other respondents highlighted how important listening to younger voices is in order to understand and address their concerns.
This insight led to a rather interesting perspective from some of our participants: Even an older audience may need a mentor as development has no boundaries. A seasoned employee may very well benefit from a younger employee’s knowledge of a digital world, leading to the formation of dynamic relationships. Therefore, despite some perceived disconnects such as generational approaches, potentially different work ethics, and abilities, the resolution lies with communication and listening.
Our survey respondents felt women in today’s insurance and legal industry are lucky to benefit from the hard work of their predecessors. Today, women in leadership roles are not a foreign concept. In fact, it is quite rapidly becoming a norm. Ultimately, while no two career journeys are identical, our survey demonstrates that the mentor/mentee relationship, if fostered, can be life altering.
In that spirit, raise your hand and find a mentor if you do not have one. If you are in a position to mentor, find someone who can benefit from your knowledge and insights. Remember that this relationship is a two-way street, as both mentor and mentee should come to the table willing to work. In the end, this is a relationship that can broaden one’s development in both tangible and intangible ways, and one where not enough homage is truly paid.
The authors thank Kara Ognibene, associate with Vigorito, Barker, Patterson, Nichols and Porter, LLP, who compiled poll results.