I mentor primarily female leaders. Here’s my why and my awkward moments…

I have been involved in mentoring for almost 15 years. I was inspired early in my career by all of my mentors and the impact that they had on my growth. To this day, I rely on the things I learned from them and will forever grateful for their investment in me.

One mentor in particular made me promise that when I was in a position to make a difference, that I would “pay it forward” to invest in others. So here I am, in the midst of mentoring relationships 87, 88, 89 and 90 working hard to live up to his expectations.

A few years ago, it dawned on me that this was also a great opportunity to help bring more diversity to leadership within finance and more broadly within business. I started to think about the choices I had made in terms of the mentoring relationships that I pursued. Suffice to say that for whatever reason, I had not mentored many emerging female leaders in my first 20-30 mentoring relationships and I didn’t know why.

Fast forward to today – I am pretty direct with those interested in working together that I have “a default” to supporting the growth of female leaders through mentoring. There are lots of reasons why I have decided to “put a flag in the ground” and be so open about this both within Conexus and in our community. Here are some of them:

Better Performance: The academic science is clear that businesses with more diversity (gender and otherwise) outperform. Period. I present regularly in the GBus 875 class at the University of Regina and I usually start by citing work from the likes of McKinsey and Zenger Folkman on the correlation between gender diversity and business metrics like return on equity and leadership effectiveness. My role as a business leader is to help our organization perform better. This is an easy way to make that happen.  For the record, our organization is gender balanced both at the Board and Executive levels and while we still have work to do in development programming, we are making great progress.

Systemic Leadership Development Bias: The recent #BLM discussions in our community have highlighted the systemic biases that are present as it relates to race / ethnicity. If you look close around us in business and in society, there are many. In my opinion, the same is true for leadership development. Through all of the discussion about growing the number of women executives and directors, the systemic biases have received less attention than the pure numbers of women in these roles. I propose that the development programming, having been largely constructed and approved by the male leaders that were predominantly in place for years within organizations had a bias towards programming that inherently produced more male leaders. In our organization a number of years back, we experimented with development programming built purely to support the growth of female leaders. Some of it worked well, other parts not so much. That said, it was a fascinating experiment that helped me appreciate how the men and women potentially learn and grow differently. I also learned about the ways in which organizations can support and encourage females differently from males. I recognize the risk of over-generalizing the learnings but suffice to say, there are differences. For those of us of the “XY” group that are leaders responsible for building other leaders, it is important for us to understand and appreciate the difference. How we encourage the growth and development of all leaders is based on our appreciation of the differences that exist.

Coaching & Development of Leaders Needs to be Customized: In my experience of recruiting, hiring and developing some exceptional leaders, I have been more aware of looking for the subtle differences that existing when directly coaching, leading and growing successor candidates from both genders.  These differences are now starting to show up in how we discuss succession in our organization and it has also directly led to the growth and attraction of exceptional talent.

My Family Why: I have three teenage daughters that I hope someday will grow into superb community leaders, engaged in making a difference in areas they are passionate about. They deserve the same investment, coaching, support and mentoring as others and then they should have to compete for opportunities based on their ability to add value.

My journey has also included some more challenging conversations. Here are a few samples:

I had a prominent business leader reach out to me one day and ask about my advocacy and support of women leaders. He was quite curious that I would be so open and direct about working with female leaders. He was quick to connect my work to his potential fears in the context of the #MeToo movement and how any suggestion of impropriety might destroy my career. He was VERY clear in the discussion that for him, it wasn’t worth “the risk”. I was quick to point out that I wasn’t mentoring anyone over a martini, in a dimly lit bar, at 11:00 PM. I also pointed out that my mentoring relationships with other leaders (male and female) were largely the same in terms of specific development areas and the format of the meetings (coffee shops, business offices, time of day, etc.). He was not convinced and suggested that he would not “put himself in that position”. I have thought about that call several times since then. I am discouraged by his misplaced fear and also discouraged in the loss of another potential advocate for more gender balance.

I had a graduate student from the University of Regina reach out and ask me to mentor her. I met with her a couple of times and she was quite interested in my public statements about my mentoring choices and gender balance. She asked me if I had ever mentored a woman of colour.  GULP.  I hadn’t and I readily admitted that to her. While I am proud of my mentoring work, I didn’t feel very proud then. I wondered about whether I had ever had the chance or sought to source potential opportunities from other groups less represented in leadership ranks in our community and if so, why hadn’t I pursued those with the same energy. Perhaps that will be my next foray but suffice to say it was a powerful moment for me to recognize that advocacy can’t stop with just gender. Thank you Michelle for being so direct with me.

I have had more than a few fantastic male leaders (some in my own organization today), openly challenge me on my decisions to potentially exclude them from consideration of a mentoring relationship. Again.. OUCH. For someone who prides themselves on developing others, it was hard to hear. I completely understand their emotion of experiencing bias that excludes them. I also sympathize with females who have likely felt that way much longer and in more profound ways. I also wonder about how hypocritical my position appears to be as my career would likely have been very different had I not had access to the mentors I did  (who were almost all male). However, I feel strongly about my why and will press on. I do try to help ensure they have access to a mentor that will add value for them, even if it might not be me. For me, it’s a way to appease the guilt that comes from saying no and that I have disadvantaged a certain group. It is also not lost on me the experience some female leaders have had repeatedly in their careers. While the healthy challenge likely won’t go away (and it shouldn’t) the conversations aren’t always easy.

I attend lots of events in our community that are designed to support the growth of women leaders. Organizations like WESK, RaiseHERCo, YWCA, Women’s Leadership Forums, etc. are doing great work to create places to encourage and support the development of leaders. When I attend, I am usually the only guy there or there is only a handful of others. It makes me feel a bit misplaced and there are times when it is hard to connect. I am getting more comfortable with it over time and when it feels awkward, I remind myself of how it must feel for women leaders when they are one of only a few in the room for other business functions.  I use those feelings as a way to empathize about the feelings it creates, to learn and to appreciate how that might be the same to what others in our community experience. Being the token “dude” has become a bit of a badge of honour but there are lots of times when I have had to push myself to attend as I know it might feel awkward or uncomfortable.

I am mentoring a colleague today and recently, we got into a very deep discussion about the physiology of humans and the differences between XX and XY as we age. It was a very strange but powerful conversation. Afterwards, the two of us talked about how we might share our conversation more broadly within our organization to highlight how awkward it was initially, but how interesting it was to explore and learn from each other. I admit that I never was coached on how to have a conversation about aging (with other male leaders let alone my female colleague), but it was an indication of how the world is changing and it renewed my optimism about the potential for us to better support each other as teammates as we experience life and all that it brings us. Was it awkward? You better believe it. Was I scared shitless? Yes! Did I learn? Lots. Do I better appreciate the differences and use that in my discussions today with other leaders? You betcha. Thanks Nicole for your courage in having that conversation.

This journey is far from over for me. I remain super passionate about using mentoring opportunities to advocate for and develop more female leaders. I have learned to revel in my own discomfort and to accept that it will be hard, uncertain and I won’t know all the answers. I will also continue to be motivated by “my why” and to use the chances I am afforded to make a small difference in bringing more gender diversity to business through mentoring.

Lastly, to my own mentors – Dave, Dave, Jeff, Sean, Paul, Kim, Ian, Dean, Bruce, Alisdair, Laurie and Howard – thank you for everything 😀

For those active in mentoring, does any of this resonate with you? What would you add to the discussion?

10 replies
  1. Chris
    Chris says:

    Really enjoyed this one Eric. I have always been big on mentoring and thought that I have been fairly aware of empowering others. Didn’t realize until I read your article that I have always had male mentors and mentees. Will do some work to change this for the future. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    Reply
    • Eric Dillon
      Eric Dillon says:

      Thanks Chris – Appreciate you dropping in and taking the time to read the blog. Thanks for taking the time to mentor others and make a difference!! It takes a village to raise a leader 🙂

      Reply
  2. Michelle
    Michelle says:

    I read this blog with interest because the title caught my attention and I was hoping to breeze through unnoticed and further hoped the paragraph about the graduate student probably meant someone else…lol! Nope you cleared that up very quickly.
    It’s great to know you have a burden/passion for this much needed societal gap. The ripple effect of your consistent effort may be hard to quantify so thanks for all you do. Watching gleefully to see how it all plays out over time 🙂

    Reply
  3. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    Thank you for being so candid and honest. Your work mentoring women and supporting diversity is refreshing and inspiring. I hope that interested male leaders read your article and it encourages them to demonstrate the courage that you have to help support diversity and women in leadership. Thanks again for sharing part of your leadership journey; I look forward to your next blog or posting.

    Reply
  4. Jess Paul
    Jess Paul says:

    Hey Eric! Great piece. Thanks for your openness on this subject and your efforts in this regard. Can you recommend any research/reading on this part of your post: “Better Performance: The academic science is clear that businesses with more diversity (gender and otherwise) outperform. Period.” Thanks! Jess

    Reply
  5. KMAC
    KMAC says:

    I understand and agree with a number of your points. I think you have the right to choose how and with whom you’ll share your time and talents. It’s clear diversity can bring many advantages to many situations, companies and communities. You’ve called out the business advantage, a need to correct the inequities that have been created and a personal connection. If this is important to you and you believe your approach will bring change can we still consider companies under your leadership a equal opportunity employer? Are you in a position of too much authority to be involved in the decisions that will bring diversity of this nature? If I believe inclusion needs to proceed diversity to gain the full weight of a diverse group are you concerned your approach of being less inclusive is the right path? Aren’t we applying the same logic to the opposite gender that created the imbalance in the first place?

    Reply
    • Eric Dillon
      Eric Dillon says:

      Good morning Kevin, thanks for the comment. A few observations on your questions:

      If this is important to you and you believe your approach will bring change can we still consider companies under your leadership an equal opportunity employer? Good question. In my view all leaders have bias that shows up in how they lead. How they recognize and account for those biases is really important. I don’t believe that my choices have disadvantaged men in that if there are high performing men inside our organization that require development effort, I work hard to support them through finding them a mentor or investing of my own time. I do mentor men today both inside and outside of Conexus, but at the same time, I am working hard to be an active and vocal advocate for the growth of more women leaders in finance and in business. At the end of the day, data matters. Our organization has gender balance at both the Board and Executive levels and I would argue that it is one of the reasons that we have created some success in our community. That gender balance was not the case historically for us. That said, our organization skews to more females than men so even at 50% gender balance, is the leadership team representative of the demographics of the organization?

      Are you in a position of too much authority to be involved in the decisions that will bring diversity of this nature? Ultimately, I see it like this – my role, as CEO, is to create the best level of performance possible within the organization. I believe that one of the ways to accomplish that is through a more diverse leadership profile. It is not the only way to create performance but one. I am also accountable to a Board both in terms of the performance of the organization and the manner in which we drive that performance. I would suggest that this discussion (gender balance) has been a very active discussion with the Board and there is a healthy balance and challenge on my own personal biases, as there should be.

      If I believe inclusion needs to proceed diversity to gain the full weight of a diverse group are you concerned your approach of being less inclusive is the right path? I don’t see my approach as being less inclusive. As I said earlier, I work very hard to support the development of all of my colleagues and even if I am not their mentor, I try to support them as best I can in using my network to find mentors or impromptu coaching / development / access that I hope helps in some small way. Short answer, I don’t see my approach as not inclusive, but appreciate others may disagree.

      Aren’t we applying the same logic to the opposite gender that created the imbalance in the first place? I think it is important that we do not end up with a leadership team that is 180 degrees from where we started and would agree that is the same problem in reverse. My goal was/is to create more diversity in our leadership group and create a healthy pipeline of great talent that will ensure that diversity for years to come.

      Hope that helps and thanks again for the question. Happy to chat anytime 🙂

      Eric

      Reply

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