Business experts talk so frequently about the importance of having a mentor that it sometimes seems as if every successful woman has had one (or, even better, multiple mentors) throughout her career. For women in business who have never had a mentor, it can feel as if you’ve missed some boat you didn’t know you were supposed to be on.
Kathryn C. Mayer, president and founder of KC Mayer Consulting, Inc., says you can always get a mentor, no matter your age or how established you are in business. But mentorship doesn’t have to be official, and you don’t necessarily have to seek out an older, more experienced person. She suggests looking for a “pacing partner.”
Friends, rivals, and pacing partners
This is an idea from the world of sports where two rivals frequently play each other in practice to make themselves and the other better at their game. Women’s tennis stars Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova are examples of this, Mayer says. The two were friends and rivals during 16 years of fierce competition. They spurred each other on to constantly work at getting better.
A pacing partner in business is “someone who is both your collaborator and competitor: someone who is going to challenge you to bring forth your best effort, but supportive enough to help you over the rough spots,” Mayer writes on her website.
Honest but supportive co-mentors
The reasons for getting a mentor—to hold you accountable or to make you better at some skill—can be achieved with a pacing partner, Mayer says. Look for a good friend with a quality you admire or a skill you wish to learn. “Start with someone you trust,” she says.
Then, establish ground rules for giving and accepting feedback. The key is to exchange honest, not just positive, feedback. The relationship allows you to take risks without fear of negative consequences, she points out.
It may be difficult for women to seek out competition, since they often want intimacy, to be liked, and to not display superiority. But the pacing partnership goes beyond competitiveness and includes the guidance and intimacy that women want, she says.
Mayer herself is in a pacing partner group with two other women. They know each other’s issues and behaviors well enough to hold each other accountable. “We call each other the ‘Not Nice Group,’” she says. “We help each other play our best games.”
Other mentorship options
Mayer says that if you aren’t sure about a pacing partner, you could hire a coach, find a mentor by joining an association or taking a course, or simply ask someone you know for help: “‘Oh, Mary, I admire how you do X; would you advise me on X?’”
Getting a mentor at work will depend on the nature of your company, she adds. If there are more men in leadership there, it may help to have a male mentor. Younger mentors can be valuable too, if they know about a certain technology or some other new skill you need to learn. “A reverse mentorship is very practical—different ages, different backgrounds,” Mayer says. “You need diversity.”
So, whether it’s an “official” mentorship, a pacing partnership, or some other relationship that offers you feedback and guidance, everyone could benefit from having an advisor. “Women don’t get enough support,” she asserts. “If you’ve never had one, it’s never too late.”
Whether you’re seeking a mentor or just want to meet other professional women, AMA’s Women’s Leadership Center (WLC) offers opportunities throughout the year for learning, sharing, and connecting. Become a WLC member for discounts, free webinars, and other benefits.