The numbers don’t lie: Women make up nearly half of the U.S. workforce, but very few of them make it to the top. For over a decade, mentorship of women by women has been seen as part of the solution, and workplaces from Goldman Sachs to the U.S. government have implemented programs to do just that. But what if the person best suited to mentor you is a man?
Don’t let gender get in the way of a potentially critical professional relationship! There are plenty of men who haven’t let it stop them from fostering female proteges. In her new book Lean In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg mentions a mentor of hers, Larry Summers. Retired Air Force Colonel Martha McSally, the first American woman to fly in combat, has said that all of her mentors in the military were men. Ruth Bader Ginsberg got her first job thanks to an intervention by one of her male law school professors.
So how can you cultivate a great mentor, male or female?
Nurture relationships with people you respect and click with, not just the most successful people you meet.
Leaders at the top—especially women—are often inundated with mentorship requests from junior colleagues whom they barely know. It’s better to cultivate a mentor relationship with someone in a position to provide concrete assistance. Keep in mind that you’re not likely to climb the ladder more than one step at a time. The person best placed to help you make your next move may be a few steps down from the top.
Bond over shared values.
Look for people whose approaches to work you wish to emulate. Follow up with them after meetings or projects in which you shared an objective. If you hold common values, you have the potential for a much more meaningful mentor-mentee relationship—and incentive to help one another succeed.
Actively seek honest feedback—even if that means criticism.
Many senior men are wary of mentoring junior women, and not just because they worry about rumors: they fear that younger women may not be able to take criticism as well as younger men. You can preempt this by taking the first step. Ask your mentor how you can improve your performance, take any critiques humbly, and look for opportunities to demonstrate what you’ve learned.