When I started my business in 2008, I began looking for a female business mentor. I knew I wanted to connect with someone who had navigated the seas before me, balancing a healthy marriage, family life, work, and the unique challenges facing women who lead. I came up empty-handed but I was determined and kept looking.
When I entered a new stage of our business, taking risks to purchase office space, facing parenthood, a terminally ill parent, and expanding our team, I was still looking for a female business mentor. I would show up at business networking events, and find myself as the only female in the room. I was hoping to find someone like me, who had lived experience, learning how to juggle titles like Mom, President, Friend, and Daughter, how to carry the homelife mental load (which is significant) and the work-life mental load (which is significant) and not crumble under it. I still found no one.
Fortunately, a great leadership coach stepped up and offered to support me in these years. I really believe I wouldn’t have made it through without his consistent encouragement. He helped me find the answers and came alongside me as I processed my doubts, fears and the challenges ahead of me. Over an hour on the phone each month, he invested deeply in our business and our family. I am also blessed to have a mom, mother-in-law and friends who will listen and pray. They have quietly mentored me in so many ways.
I’m not entirely sure why female leaders aren’t mentoring, but I know in the business world at least, there are less of them. Only 16% of Canadian small and medium-sized enterprises are owned by women. Often, the non-profit organizations we serve at our agency are led by men. It’s the nature of the industry but that seems to be changing, slowly but surely. So, the very nature of what I do every day is unique. It’s why I would show up at those business or ministry events and feel so alone.
So, how do we change this? I think we can start by understanding these four things:
- Realize you have something to offer. As women, we often don’t believe we’re really leaders, but we are. Lisa Pak’s mom joined her on-set as we taped our show and it reminded me that my mother was my first mentor. Take a good look at your life. You have experiences to share that other women, especially those coming up behind you, need to know. We want to know that we’re not alone in our struggles, and how others walked through those same challenges. And sometimes, we just need someone to listen, ask good questions, and encourage us to stay the course. We need someone to pray with us and for us. Youcan do that, regardless of whether you think you’re a leader or not. Choose to do it intentionally.
- Realize the next generation needs us.It’s easier to criticize the next generation than to build them up. My Gen-X experience can cause me to roll my eyes at what I don’t understand about Millennials. And, for some reason, sometimes we live by the belief that we’re competing with those younger, more energetic, sharper, or – dare I say it – more attractive than us. We forget that we were once them.I saw this in my own journey. Humble yourself, friend. Stop competing and choose to invest in the future by building up those coming along behind us. By growing others, we’re actually choosing our successors and building our succession plan. There can be such relief in that.
- Realize the generation before us has wisdom.Again, humble yourself, friend. You don’t have all the answers. Look at the choices those who have gone ahead of us have made. Sometimes they’re cautionary tales (and the people living them would say so) and sometimes they’re full of pure wisdom. I’m watching those who have teenaged children, or are choosing to retire, or living a second or third career. I want to learn from them so I can be wise as well. We can find energy in looking ahead and hope that we can do the hard things in front of us.
- Realize we’re all in process.My mentors have been very imperfect people. I am shockingly imperfect. Those I mentor are also imperfect. What we all are, however, is in process. We’re growing. Choosing to love ourselves and allow ourselves to be imperfect leaders in process, working out our unique callings in the grace of Jesus, is what allows us to be mentored and to mentor others. I’ve learned that being pliable, teachable and confident that we’re living out what we were created to do is remarkably powerful.
Ultimately, a life of leadership, whether you’re an entrepreneur, ministry leader, business leader or a leader of little people in your neighbourhood, is not easy. It can be lonely, isolating, and the challenges may seem unsurmountable. Honestly? I’ve lived this. It’s hard to be the boss.I’ve often felt like the mountain in front of me is too high to scale, especially with the weight of responsibility to others on my shoulders. When we choose to believe we have something to offer and something to learn – to be a mentor and be mentored – walking the path with others, intentionally – it’s amazing how the mountain becomes a hill and the burden of leadership is so much lighter.
Oh, and, by the way … I’m still taking applications for that mentor.
Ellen Graf-Martin is the Founder & President of Graf-Martin Communications.