Most of us work our entire careers with little recognition for the work we do. That’s alright because those of us who achieve some measure of success in our vocation tend to be in it for the work itself and not the recognition.

Being added to a list of successful women executives working in the home finance industry gave me pause to consider how I got here. Few of us end up where we thought when we were younger.

This is especially true in our industry, where the paths that have led many of us to our current positions have been long and winding. After some consideration, I found that my success had less to do with the path I had taken and much more to do with the mentors I found along the way.

One path to leadership

I was still an undergraduate student attending college when I took my first job in the mortgage industry. I was working on a degree in finance and thought it would be a good idea to get a job in that field while I was still in school.

When I graduated, I was assigned to work with a woman named Debra Watkins, the executive vice president of capital markets for the firm I had worked for during my college years. She eventually became my new boss and, quite to my surprise at the time, my mentor.

I had been advised to seek out a mentor while in school, of course, but specifically how to do that was never made clear. I knew it was important, but had no idea how one was supposed to find a mentor. Many of our young people are in the dark about this important topic and if we hope to build strong companies for the future, the experienced executives among us are going to have to help them.

That’s what Debra did for me.  Learning from others is an important aspect of growing professionally. 

I never knew why she chose to be a mentor. What I knew from the very beginning was that she possessed a great deal of industry specific knowledge. Her experience had made her an expert and for whatever reason, she was willing to share that expertise with me. Looking back, it’s quite clear that this made all the difference in my career as it taught me how to succeed in the workplace.

Now, as an experienced executive, having worked in this industry for over 16 years, it’s my turn to share what I know with the next generation. I know that many of the readers of this publication are experienced professionals in a similar position.

These tips will help you connect with the younger people in your organization and may even help your management team set up a more formalized mentorship program.

Connecting mentors with mentees

The success of any mentorship program hinges on getting the right people together. Here are some ideas for making that happen.

First, make it easy for employees to find a mentor. Asking a more senior executive to mentor you takes courage. This is easier if your firm has a culture that expects mentorship to occur.

One way to foster this is to recognize senior executives that spend part of their time working with younger executives. This makes mentors visible, so younger people can find them.

Another great way to bring experienced mentors to the attention of younger people in the company is to schedule frequent speaking opportunities for more senior executives to share ideas and information with employees. This exposes potential mentors at the same time it gives them valuable presentation practice.

Encouraging more senior executives to become mentors is one side of this type of culture. The other is having managers ask younger executives which executive is currently mentoring them. If they don’t have one, managers should be trained to work with junior executives to help them to find appropriate senior people to fill that role. This often involves helping younger employees clarify their future career plans, which can be very difficult at that stage.

The right mentor will help younger executives build the skills they’ll need for advancement. They need not be in the mentee’s career path to help with this. They may not even be in the same company, but I have found that firms with established mentorship programs are very good at developing talent.

Making mentorship work

Once a new relationship has been formed it’s important that the mentor, the mentee and the company all commit to the success of the mentorship program.

Mentees must be clear and honest with their mentor, sharing their expectations and the problems they hope to get help solving. They must understand that the program is not expected to negatively impact their workplace productivity. It’s an extra activity that the company encourages because of the benefits it offers both parties.

Mentors must be clear from the beginning about how much time they have to work together and which topics are open for discussion. Together, the two should set some initial goals for what the mentee wants to learn and how often they will meet. They must also provide some assurance that information shared in their meetings will remain confidential.

As for the company, having space somewhere within the facility for mentorship meetings and time within the schedule to accommodate them goes a long way toward making these new relationships work.

Some companies create formal programs, complete with steering committees and needs assessments for junior employees. In my experience, an informal program can be just as effective, as long as the corporate culture supports these interactions.

Some firms provide training for mentors and even software to help them track results. For most companies, this level of involvement should not be necessary. By controlling which senior executives participate in the program, the company can ensure that the information and skills that have contributed to the firm’s success thus far are passed down to the next generation of leaders.

Whether formal or informal, upper management should find ways to make it clear to all employees that mentorship is encouraged and available within the company with or without a formal program. Just working with senior leaders allows more junior associates to learn by example.

In our industry, in particular, the average age of our most productive executives continues to increase. If we want to prepare our companies for success in the future, we must recruit new talent to fill our companies. Mentorship programs are a great way to attract and develop that talent and thereby ensure our future success.

It certainly worked for me.