Shelley Zalis, top left, Gail Tifford, Karen Beebe and Shannon Gordon.
HIGH POINT – For women in the workplace, mentorship is a key part of growth. But, during a conversation at National Retail Federation’s annual retail conference NRF 2021, a panel of female leaders agreed: It is an evolving process and format.
“Mentorship has evolved,” said moderator Shelley Zalis, CEO of The Female Quotient. “It needs a little disruption and reinvention.”
Speaking just about changes in this past year, the group agreed that the coronavirus pandemic, and the resulting rise in working from home, has changed the way mentors and mentees meet.
“When I think of what a mentor is at the core, that has not changed,” explained Gail Tifford, chief brand officer for WW International Inc. “But how you find that person has changed dramatically.”
Mentees need to be more proactive and intentional when seeking out mentors, both because they have to now try and connect digitally and because they need to be seeking out a more diverse group of mentors no matter the meeting format.
You can have a too “myopic” view of the world if you are just seeking out people you know from your workplace or your personal life, according to Shannon Gordon, CEO of theBoardlist, so diversifying your perspectives is key, even though it can be harder to organically connect online.
“I often find that when I look for a mentor, because there is this personal relationship, I fall towards people who are like or have a similar perspective or background,” explained Gordon. “I think we have to be thoughtful and intentional in building up a diverse network of mentors, and that might even mean people who aren’t directly in our industry or that we’re directly working with … because if we’re not getting presented with new ideas and getting inspired in different ways, we can get very myopic.”
Mentoring and working from home or online more does have mentoring benefits. Getting a peek into people’s personal lives over Zoom – seeing their daily disruptions, their homes and them in a more vulnerable space – can make conversations more authentic. As Gordon put it, “we miss the separation” between the work persona and the real person when working from home.
For women looking to succeed in the retail industry and at finding a mentor, the panel suggested:
- Figure out who are your champions – those people who are part of making decisions about your career and supporting you when those decisions are made – and who are truly your mentors.
- Women do not have to seek out women mentors. Finding someone you can connect with and have a transparent relationship with is what is really important. Establishing mentorship relationships with other genders can also help diversify your mentor pool.
- Do not set out just to find one mentor. Accept that no one knows everything, find areas you are looking to improve on and then find someone who can help you. Zalis described the approach as finding “mentorship in the moment” through many different smaller mentors in your career.
Seeking to explore what is and what is not working the traditional mentorship model for women, the group outlined what they look for when accepting a mentee and beginning a mentor relationship. Ways to get these women to “say yes” include:
- Approaching not as a “box checker,” or as someone just looking for a laid out plan, and more as a thought partner. Mentors want to give advice and plan holistically, not just do you a ladder climbing favor.
- Some mentors prefer mentees that approach them not just looking for general conversations about their jobs or careers, someone asking something like “I would love your thoughts on something specific” and not just “I want to get to know you and hear about your career.” Those broad conversations are more difficult to have.
- Mentors are also looking for a value exchange in a mentor-mentee relationship. Value exchange in those relationships makes the connections deeper and helps both parties, so be ready to share your thoughts and talents.
The panelists also warned about the kinds of bad advice women might receive in their career from mentors.
Gordon described advice that may not necessarily be bad, but may not fit you or your career style. That advice she said can still be helpful, giving you a chance to see think from another person’s eyes.
Karen Beebe, chief information officer for Vineyard Vines, suggested that hearing from leaders who you do not look up to or want to replicate can help you decide what not to do, too.