While many senior leaders trumpet the benefits of mentoring young women colleagues to become the leaders of tomorrow, not enough of us are finding the time to actually do it, writes Deborah Lee

Deborah Lee

Deborah Lee

It was a quite a surprise to receive an email last year saying I’d been recognised in the HSJ Inspirational Women line up. But a bigger surprise came when I learned that two of the female management trainees I had mentored that year were responsible for nominating me.

Why did this recognition surprise me? Isn’t mentoring something all senior leaders do? Surely we are duty bound to support and develop the talent beneath us? Apparently not.

‘Mentoring is an incredibly rewarding thing to do’

My own head of learning tells me it’s almost impossible to find people to mentor our management trainees.

It appears that while most senior leaders would espouse the virtues of mentorship, few are finding the time to do it; those who do often do so reluctantly.

Read more about the HSJ Women Leaders network and what members have to say

Pragmatism over altrusim

Am I part of a rare, altruistic breed of senior managers who recognise that we must give of ourselves for the greater good? Perhaps, in small part. But mostly I am part of a small but growing number of female leaders who recognise that if we don’t invest in young managers, particularly women, the NHS won’t develop the talent it needs. Nor will we have the people around who can enable us to succeed personally.

So what has mentoring these young women taught me? Well, first and foremost, that it is an incredibly rewarding thing to do – more so than I would have ever thought. Second, this helps in bridging a huge gap in the development “toolbox”, which taught programmes are not filling.

You can have it all

Most revealingly, it has shown me just how in awe young women are of those of us who appear to “have it all” – successful careers, husbands, kids, and even a smattering of social life thrown in for good measure.

Too many young women start their mentorship believing it’s not realistic to assume they can successfully blend career and life.

‘Not enough of us bring our “whole” selves into the workplace’

Why do young, high achievers develop such beliefs? May I be so bold as to say it’s because people, who should know better, lose their way occasionally and say things such as how marvellous it is that someone with two children has proved it is possible to have a family life along with a senior role, and “surely this meets the definition of inspirational”.

Would they say this kind of patronising thing about my male counterparts’ domestic arrangements? No wonder my mentees are worried.

When tennis trumps work

On a more serious note, I think it’s because not enough of us bring our “whole” selves into the workplace. Not enough of us scatter our offices with family photos and playgroup scribblings; not enough of us decline a meeting, advising colleagues that we have a nativity play to attend, dinner with girlfriends that we couldn’t possibly cancel or a game of tennis with the husband.

I was reminded when writing this blog of a former female colleague who was known as “two jackets” because she always bought a second jacket with every suit, so that she could leave one on the back of her office chair, creating the illusion she was around when, in reality, she had left the office at a reasonable hour to do the nursery run twice a week.

‘Strike a balance between work and everything else on offer’

For me, having it all isn’t something we should have to fight for, it’s a basic right; it’s interesting that my medical colleagues seem to struggle much less with this issue than my fellow managers.

As a consequence of all of the above, I spend large parts of the mentoring conversation talking to young managers about how to strike a balance between work and everything else on offer. I remind them what you can bring to the workplace by being a rounded individual with multiple perspectives and different lenses through which to view work and its challenges.

Importantly for those beneath you, they can see a manager role modelling the life they want for themselves.

Overcoming guilt

In reality, this is a necessarily polarised view of the issues, presented to exemplify some important points. As much time is spent in mentoring discussions exploring the angst that comes from feelings of guilt from prioritising work over home, or vice versa: feelings of being a poor mother, unreliable friend or part time colleague.

‘Mentoring young women has been a kind of therapy’

Finally, for me mentoring young women has been a kind of therapy. I’ve finally confronted and shared the admission that work is sometimes more fulfilling than home life, that work defines me, that it’s the place where I feel most authentic and that none of this makes me a bad mother or wife. Quite the opposite.

Most importantly, mentoring reminds me how lucky I am to have a superhero husband, amazingly forgiving friends, great kids and, perhaps most importantly, a spectacular female role model who, a decade into my own career, gave me permission to go and grab it all. Thank you, Deborah Evans.

So if you are not mentoring our future talent, give it a go.

Deborah Lee is chief operating officer and deputy chief executive of University Hospitals Bristol Foundation Trust