Today, we mark International Women’s Day, a day we recognize women’s accomplishments and contributions to the betterment of the global community. It is also time to pause and recognize our own efforts to advance women in our society.
As I look back on my career development, I reflect upon the important milestones and various influencers that helped shape my values and define the path I took to reach my professional goals.
I was fortunate enough to have had a Thunderbird education. It was one of the best decisions I made, as it opened doors to pursue a career in international business. I had the opportunity to work in several global organizations, live in many countries, and meet fascinating people along the way.
In the early days of my career, professional advancement largely hinged on your manager and management programs that many large organizations had in place. I had my share of good and not-so-good managers but was lucky enough to work at companies with well-established training programs. While these were all great contributors to my growth, one of the most valuable facets in my development was the presence of mentors and sponsors – both men and women alike. I have to say that while I never learned this concept in business school, mentorship has been one of the most important intangibles that has served me well.
Nowadays, many organizations have developed formal mentoring and sponsorship programs for high-potential women who wish to advance in their careers. However, the reality is that you don’t have to wait to work at a company that offers these programs. You could take charge and create your own mentorship network now.
A colleague of mine described her mentors as her personal board of directors. She carefully handpicked her circle of advisers – some of whom she has kept as she moved onto other roles in other companies. She would tap into this inner circle from time to time to obtain feedback on a wide range of topics – career development, managing conflicts, dealing with pressure, communications, and presentation skills, among many others.
Like her, it took me a while to understand the value of mentors. Had I known this sooner, I would have probably started seeking mentors while I was still an undergrad.
Mentorship has many advantages. Unlike a manager, mentors go beyond performance evaluations. They provide you with unvarnished feedback that you sometimes will not get from a supervisor. Mentors focus on helping you shape and define your personal brand. I remember many discussions with mentors as pivotal moments in my career. From these talks, I internalized the feedback, put it to work, and started seeing positive results. Through an iterative process of practice, review, and repeat, the improvements I have made because of these valuable mentor conversations shaped who I am as a leader.
Sometimes, mentorship is not enough. An industry study revealed that while high-potential women had more mentors than men, they were still less likely to advance in their careers. The study showed that this dilemma was attributed to the lack of sponsorship for women compared to men. Unlike mentors, sponsors use his or her influence to advocate for their mentee and give women more visibility in the company.
Similarly, this concept was one that I never learned in business school. Luckily, I quickly learned the importance of building this alliance as part of my career journey. It isn’t enough that your manager knows what you can do and what you are capable of. It is equally important to have allies in the leadership ranks who would vouch for your value and advocate on your behalf.
The good news is that organizational business culture has evolved over the years, and more companies have recognized the importance of having a gender-diverse and inclusive workplace. Diverse teams are credited for promoting more innovative and creative thinking, which are essential to long-term organizational success.
My advice to the many women who are currently at Thunderbird is this: Don’t wait to start thinking about your own personal circle of trustees. As you embark on new roles in your organizations, look around for potential mentors and sponsors who would take interest in your professional growth and can help you define your career path and develop your personal brand. And for those who have had the opportunity to benefit from mentors, pay it forward. I have had the distinct privilege to participate in the Thunderbird Alumni mentorship program and am currently mentoring a female student who is in the global management program.
While International Women’s Day reminds us how far we have come, it also reminds us that the work is far from done. In the end, we need global teams of men and women working together every day to solve problems and to challenge each other in a respectful and inclusive way in our journey to create a gender-balanced world.