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Good leaders have good mentors [Commentary]

Women helping other women at work — fact or fiction?

When it comes to mentoring, there are those who claim women do less of it than men — on purpose. That women view other women strictly as competitors. That we are more likely to undermine female colleagues than support them.

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Fortunately I've rarely experienced this. Not only have I had female mentors, I find mentoring future leaders (of both genders) fun and rewarding. I also do not view other women innately as competitors. (For what, to be the only woman in the room? Miss Congeniality? That frightens and bores me at the same time.) I learned early to trust women and work as a team, growing up with sisters, playing sports and being a Girl Scout (a fabulous leadership training organization). But just in case I created my own fantasy world and am oblivious to so-called "catty" women competing with me (and men don't?), I spoke with a few colleagues.

They told tales that were rewarding, sad, outrageous, hysterical, uplifting and yes, even catty — the full spectrum, with male as well as female protagonists. The biggest commonality was an appreciation for strong women, as mentors and colleagues. By nature, they concluded (and I agree) that women are highly supportive. There, that's settled. It's a fact.

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It's also why so many forward-thinking companies have created women's networks. Senior women are ready — eager — to give back. Virtually every large corporation, Wall Street firm and professional services firm has established initiatives designed to recruit and retain women, and women led the way. Legg Mason has a Women's Leadership Network, of which I was the first chair. While we sponsor leadership programs for both genders, including several with the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, we believe women can benefit from additional instruction targeted to areas where they historically have not been as adept as men.

In our program, networking is first and foremost. We also include guidance on finding a mentor or sponsor; boosting confidence and saying "yes" to risks and challenges; and setting clear individual goals by honestly assessing values, strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes. All are elements, perhaps unsurprisingly, of "leaning in."

We often add "softer" discussions of setting boundaries, such as work/life balance and communicating across genders (and I wonder why that is not included in regular corporate programs — H.R. people please take note).

For those early in their careers, we focus on developing technical skills and expertise, being competent in the job. But to move up, you want to be great in your job. Get noticed. Step outside your comfort zone. Fostering trust and teamwork are the best avenues. We devote significant time and effort to building information networks, crucial as they are to success.

We also try to build substantive knowledge. As an accountant, my expertise is in financial metrics so I could skip those programs (and now teach them), but I have taken part in other programs on negotiating skills and public speaking that I found very valuable. Successful corporate executives are not all extroverts, particularly number crunchers. As we climb the ladder, we must interact more. Good management involves communication, often to groups, with diverse roles and skill sets.

Like many companies, Legg Mason uses our Women's Leadership Network to develop leadership skills, broaden personal networks and give back to the community. Group activities are envisioned, planned and executed by female employees across the firm — all levels and departments, in several locations. We rely upon the coaching and guidance of a steering committee of seasoned leaders. Employees learn to lead not by watching, but by doing.

Our "How to Work a Room" program is a good example. None of us make business contacts by standing alone against the wall. I had to learn by jumping into the middle, engaging and handing out business cards. It's a skill like any other, and a valuable one for any woman to develop. But when we network, we focus: busy women don't want to glad hand, we want to develop productive information and support relationships to propel our careers.

And that's what makes these networks so valuable: women helping women at work. It's a fact.

Stephanie Beran is managing director of Enterprise Risk Management at Legg Mason & Co., LLC. Her email is smberan12@gmail.com.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

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