Photo caption: Ellen Cooper, CEO of Lincoln Financial Group, talks about her journey to leadership in the finance industry, and why mentorship and sponsorship are so critical to fostering the next generation of women leaders.
Reaching back and bringing others along with you on your career journey can make a profound impact on fostering diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace.
When I was growing up, I certainly never expected to work in finance or insurance. I didn’t know anyone who worked in the field, and I was the first in my family to go to college. And when I did get to college, I started out as a dance major. So needless to say… I didn’t have “connections” in the business I am in today.
But what I did have, over time, was the support of some amazing mentors and sponsors. People who took a chance on me, who encouraged me to learn, grow and try new things. People who pushed me to run, not walk, through doors of opportunity when they opened. Even if they were open by just a tiny crack.
This support gave me the confidence I needed to take risks and to move outside of my comfort zone – two things that are typically critical in being able to move into leadership roles.
It’s incumbent on all of us in leadership positions today to reach back and bring others along with us. To take chances – especially on women and people of color. People aren’t born CEOs… they are developed. And we can help develop the next generation of diverse leaders.
How can we do it? I’ll offer a few guiding principles I have learned throughout my career:
- Be intentional. Dedicate time to thinking about how you can help people in their careers.
- Who can you help?
- What are their strengths? Their development areas?
- What can YOU offer to them? (connections, guidance, stretch projects, etc.)
- Care for the full person. Being a mentor is about more than work. It’s about getting to know someone on a personal level and understanding where, and how, you can help them – in the good times and in the challenging times. Mentors can provide support, understanding and most importantly, empathy – all of these things can help a mentee push forward when opportunities arise, and recover from challenges or setbacks.
- Encourage your mentee(s) to always “keep a foot in the door.” Women face so many pressures at work and at home – and, as we have seen in recent years, when challenges (like a pandemic) come around, women are more often forced to put their careers on hold to address family needs. When I was early in my career, I suddenly found myself as a single mom with two kids under three. Some of the best advice I received, as hard as it was, was to persevere with my career… even if that meant dialing back the hours or shifting some priorities… I always kept a foot in the door. While some things had to change, I never stepped back entirely. As mentors, we can help women strategize on how best to do this in today’s world – whether that’s prepping for a conversation about flexible hours with a manager or helping brainstorm new roles that could enable the balance they need.
So as you forge ahead in your career, ask yourself – who can I reach back and bring along? Who can I help open doors for?
I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support of those who guided and nurtured me. When we as leaders commit to bringing others along with us, we ourselves will grow. And, we can play a critical role in building a better, more diverse future for our colleagues, our companies, and the world of tomorrow.