mentorThere’s something of a debate raging in the management world these days, sparked in large part by the publication of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s new bestseller, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. In this book, Sandberg takes a hard look at why women remain underrepresented in leadership roles and offers advice on what they can do to correct the imbalance and realize their full potential.

Unfortunately, as Sylvia Ann Hewitt pointed out in her recent New York Times piece, “it’s simply not enough for a woman to put her self-doubt aside, grab hold of ambition and aim for the top,” as Sandberg suggests women do. Hewitt, an economist and the founding president and C.E.O. of the Center for Talent Innovation in Manhattan, asserts that in order to succeed, women need someone leaning in with them.

Hewitt, author of the forthcoming Harvard Business Review Press book “Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor,” draws a strong line between mentors and sponsors, asserting that mentors offer moral support while sponsors offer guidance and, if necessary, tough love in the form of honest, critical feedback. Others, it seems, do not differentiate between the two.  Nevertheless as a survey of recent WE Interviews reveals, many women in business recognize the importance of building relationships with colleagues who are willing to help you achieve your goals.

Voices of Experience

Amy Unckless, Head of Private Wealth Management and Global Chief Administrative Officer for Columbia Management, recalls “My mentors played a critical role in helping me handle failure.  Their support gave me the confidence to learn from my mistakes, put things in perspective and move on.”

Martha King, Managing Director of Vanguard’s Financial Advisor Services division and Head of U.S. Financial Intermediaries, cites Jack Brennan (Vanguard’s former Chairman and CEO) and Bill McNabb, (current Chairman and CEO) as two of her most powerful mentors. According to King, these men continually encouraged her to take on assignments that she perceived as a stretch, thereby boosting her self-confidence through their belief in her abilities. “When my mentors asked me to do something, I trusted their belief in me that I could do it,” King notes. “So, I set about the business of getting it done. It was as simple as that; they gave me that push forward.”

King also underscores the importance of having someone in your corner that you can trust to give it to you straight. “Bill {McNabb} knows me incredibly well, and I have so much trust and faith in him. He will tell me what the deal is, whether it is hard to hear or great to hear.” Likewise, King credits Jack Brennan with teaching her the importance of standing up for her opinions, even in the face of opposition from people in more senior positions. Brennan told her, “You need to be prepared to defend your position. You’ve done your homework. If you believe in what you’re speaking about, stand up for what you believe in and push back.”

Nanette Buziak, Managing Director and Head of Equity Trading for ING Investment Management, believes it is because of mentors including Rick Nelson, who was then the Head of U.S. Equity at JP Morgan, that she was able to stay committed to her career. “He was, and still is, a phenomenal mentor of mine. Many women at JP Morgan will credit Rick with their success. He has fostered many women in senior roles throughout his career.”

Like King, Buziak believes that a good mentor is not only a cheerleader, but also a coach. For instance, she credits Rick Nelson with playing a large role in helping her address her Achilles’ heel: her temper. “I have zero patience for people that don’t deliver, and incompetence drives me crazy,” Buziak explains. “Sometimes I would blow up at people if they weren’t prepared or weren’t performing at an acceptable level. Rick was instrumental in reining me in. He educated me about why my approach wasn’t that effective.”

Whatever their title, women seeking to enhance their leadership potential need someone willing to work alongside them. When they find it, good things happen. As Warren Buffett noted in a recent essay in Fortune, “No manager operates his or her plants at 80% efficiency when steps could be taken that would increase output. And no CEO wants male employees to be underutilized when improved training or working conditions would boost productivity. So take it one step further: If obvious benefits flow from helping the male component of the workforce achieve its potential, why in the world wouldn’t you want to include its counterpart?”

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