CHRISTINA BECHHOLD: At the start of my first big summer internship in college, I was assigned junior and senior mentors, both men.
I remember a few lunches with each, waves in the hallway, and an invitation to a party one weekend, but very little actual mentoring. It was the classic superficial, assigned relationship, going through the motions but unlikely to produce a deep bond. They were friendly and available, but not the people I was likely to talk to about how to navigate a difficult director in my group or even who I needed to impress on the hiring committee. It had nothing to do with them being men–many of my career mentors have been men—and everything to do with how the most helpful professional relationships, particularly for women, are born.
No doubt, mentors are important. They can help you navigate forward, pushing you in the right direction. They can be a key pillar in your support system and they help drive you forward.
What a woman really needs, though, is someone pulling from the top. We need advocates.
I often read profiles of highly successful women in business to get a sense of their paths. Common among many of them is the will to say yes to unexpected opportunities that appear from surprising sources, people in their close networks who pull them into new roles. Women often struggle with self-promotion, and solidifying the most effective relationships is critical to ensuring they are top of mind.
Expanded responsibility and advancement aren’t system-generated actions, and they are not your decisions to make. Other people determine those outcomes, almost always through observations and conversations about which you will never know. Sometimes you may not even know who those people are, or at least not all of them. They are weighing your performance and accomplishments against those of others you may never have met. It is a black box.
Advocates step in for you in these discussions and meetings, sometimes quietly by highlighting a small achievement in passing or actively promoting your big wins. They are always more senior, but can directly or indirectly observe you regularly.
My advocates have always turned out to be people I’d initially found particularly difficult to win over. I was convinced, early in our work relationship, that one actually thought I was a complete idiot. He seemed annoyed by my questions, using as few words to interact with me as possible. I couldn’t have guessed that within months, he would be the one writing supportive, direct emails to senior leaders underscoring what a great job I did on a big project. It surprises me to this day.
You can’t choose advocates, but you can try to identify possible candidates and focus on showcasing your capacity to them.
You don’t get the surprise offers without an advocate.
Christina Bechhold is co-founder of Empire Angels, a member-led, New York-based angel group of young professionals investing in early stage technology ventures. They focus on supporting young entrepreneurs.