A new report by the Rockefeller Foundation illustrates some of the challenges for women in leadership, including a lack of mentors and role models. In fact, 65% of Americans say it’s important for women starting their careers to have women in leadership as role models. With only 20 women Fortune 500 CEOs, we have a glaring numbers problem.
I teach students of all ages about mentoring and how critical it is for their careers. Because careers today are so complex, we need multiple mentors — a personal board of directors or what academics call a developmental network. These relationships provide career and emotional support and role modeling to help you advance, learn, and grow. However the consistent question I get from women is: “Where do I find role models?”
The answer is everywhere. Instead of searching for the perfect role model, look for someone who is skilled in an area you need to develop. Here are some quick tips:
Hone your observation skills. You want to get promoted, but there are no women role models for you at the top. Can you imitate the men? Not exactly, as women are sometimes punished for the same behavior men are rewarded for. But you can identify what is working for the leaders you admire. Become an organizational anthropologist and hone your observation skills. What do good leaders do? When do they speak up? How do they conduct themselves with clients, coworkers, and other leaders? What skills do you need to polish to successfully perform those roles? Consider peers and step-ahead mentors (colleagues one or two steps ahead of you in their careers) who are both more available and approachable as resources, beyond just senior executives.
Focus on specific behaviors to emulate. Focus on specific tasks or behaviors that you could realistically emulate. For example, I admire my Babson College colleague Allan Cohen, a masterful teacher, but I cannot teach using the Socratic method in the same way he does; it just isn’t effective for me in the classroom. What I did learn from observing him is how to phrase good questions, build on prior participants’ insights, and move around the room engaging the whole audience. I taught a class at Babson with Bala Iyer, who always pushed students to summarize key takeaways from the session, I adopted this practice, too. By identifying key behaviors and practices, you also become more systematic in the approaches you can experiment with to determine if they work for you.