When we think about mentoring in businesses, we rightly think of male executives mentoring younger women in navigating their career trajectories; watching for potential obstacles, challenging stereotypes and promoting themselves. Often, men feel ‘left out’ of the mentoring discussion, as if men can only mentor women, and only women need mentors. I think both of those equations are too narrow. Men can mentor other men. Many men need and want mentors. And, these days, senior women can mentor men as well.
Let's take the classic formula first: senior male mentor and younger male mentee. The male mentor has the experience to know the topography of the company from the inside, to identify potential obstacles, and to encourage men in building their career trajectories one rung at a time. While for women this might mean ramping up their ambitions and putting themselves forward, with male mentees it might also mean tempering one's enthusiasm, and being more prudent and thoughtful in the spacing the rungs of that ladder. Not too fast, not too steep, lest one alienate one's colleagues.
However, male mentees also can participate in reverse mentoring. After all, younger male workers enter companies these days with a profile quite similar to that of female workers. Both young men and young women want to have great careers, and they also want to be awesome parents! They both want and expect to be able to balance work and family. They want to be there for their children, want to spend more time with their families, and, with almost all of them having spouses who also work, they may both struggle with balancing work and family obligations.
“Yes, women need mentors who can guide them through the corporate forest. They also need champions to put them forward, promote them to their colleagues for advancement, and who urge them on. So too do men.”
Older male mentees may have sacrificed this time with their families, and believe they have little to offer to their mentees. But they may actually receive some strategic advice from their mentees. After all, while many older men may have grown children, they are more likely to have ageing parents who need significant care, and may well be pulled in that direction. Older male mentees, in this sense, need not necessarily be concerned with balancing a Saturday morning golf outing with a client with coaching their daughter's soccer match, but rather balancing a 7am breakfast meeting with an appointment with their mother’s cardiologist.
Younger workers – both male and female mentees – navigate these experiences constantly, and bump up against the pervasive stereotypes that the worker who is not committed to working 24/7/365 is not committed to their job. Older workers may have even reinforced those stereotypes at one point. On these issues, we are now in a position to be mentoring each other. And the intergenerational aspect of mentoring puts both mentor and mentee on the same side of this equation.
And that's where older women and younger men as mentor and mentee can also benefit men. Because if anyone understands the obstacles facing someone trying to balance work and family it is female mentors who have been navigating their way through this potential minefield for decades. They know which senior C-suite men hold those antediluvian stereotypes and which are more modern and forward thinking. (Hint: the C-suite executives most likely to understand these issues and support gender equality are those who have daughters.)
Yes, women need mentors who can guide them through the corporate forest. They also need champions to put them forward, promote them to their colleagues for advancement, and who urge them on. So too do men. Men need mentors – both male and female – because they are a new generation of male workers, whose goals and ambitions track closely those of women, and who want to balance amazing careers with equally amazing families. The payoff – for male and female mentees, and for the mentors – can be enormous.