More women than ever hold positions of leadership in the workplace—but the gender gap is still significant.
Dr. Sherry Hartnett explains why “leaning back” to mentor younger women might be the best way to help us all lean in
—and rise to the top.

It’s been almost a decade since Sheryl Sandberg first told women in business to “lean in” and become leaders in the workplace. And while women are making impressive strides—a record 41 CEOs on the Fortune 500 are female—that’s still only 8.1 percent. Since women account for over half of the labor force in America, it’s clear that a rung is broken somewhere on their career ladder.

Dr. Sherry Hartnett has a suggestion for how we can start to repair it: As female leaders continue to lean in, they should also make a point to “lean back” and mentor the women who are climbing the ladder behind them.

“Women’s History Month, which celebrates our strength, perseverance, and achievement, is an ideal time for women in senior leadership positions to extend a helping hand through mentorship,” says Dr. Hartnett, coauthor along with former Waffle House President and COO Bert Thornton of the new book High-Impact Mentoring: A Practical Guide to Creating Value in Other People’s Lives. “We have a responsibility to pass on the lessons we’ve learned and to guide up-and-comers through all of those tricky-to-navigate sections of the career ladder.”

Chances are, there are rising high achievers in your organization who could greatly benefit from your experience in navigating gender bias while advocating for yourself. Younger women might also need help recognizing and deploying their innate female strengths.

Dr. Hartnett points out that as we continue to navigate rapid changes in an increasingly competitive workplace, women’s natural skills will be especially in demand. To create and lead diverse teams, companies will rely on agile, flexible, and resilient leaders who are also great communicators. Plus, as the world continues to struggle through turbulent (and even traumatic) events, leaders must work to break mental health stigmas and connect empathetically with employees—many of whom may be working remotely. Women do all of these things well, making us perfectly suited to step up into leadership roles.

“Veteran female leaders often don’t realize how much they have learned, achieved, and overcome until they lean back and use that knowledge to develop others,” Dr. Hartnett says. “Helping other women avoid pitfalls and accelerate their careers is one of the most effective long-term strategies we can employ to narrow and eventually close the gender gap. And in the process of mentoring, you’ll probably find yourself receiving many unexpected gifts.”

Here, she shares five things female leaders have to gain from mentoring:

You’ll reignite your professional passion. As you share your accumulated knowledge with your mentee, you’ll explain why you chose the path you did and reflect on what your career means to you. Especially if you’ve become discouraged or disillusioned over the years, this self-reflection can help you rediscover your enthusiasm for your job and reconnect you with your professional purpose.

You’ll gain new skills and adopt new viewpoints. Mentees can help you embrace and master new technologies, ranging from shared organizational dashboards to social media strategy. This will help you drive your company’s digital transformation (which has now become a “must-have” rather than a “nice-to-have”). By working with younger women, you’ll also gain a better understanding of topics like emerging social responsibility values, inclusivity, and unconscious bias.

You’ll have a really good reason to always live your values. “Your mentee is closely observing how you think, act, tackle challenges, manage conflict, navigate gender bias, etc.,” points out Dr. Hartnett. “This knowledge will ensure that you’re not cutting any corners and that you’re always fighting the good fight. If you give your mentee advice, she needs to see you implementing it in your own career as well.”

You’ll see firsthand what a bright future women in business have. “Mentors often report that their opinion of the next generation has improved because they have a better understanding of younger women’s strengths and potential,” says Dr. Hartnett. “Mentors also say they’ve become more effective leaders because they’ve gained important insights about what younger workers prioritize and value.”

You’ll leave one heck of a legacy. What better mark can you leave on your company than showing women that their work is recognized, appreciated, and rewarded? That they themselves are valued, developed, and seen as future leaders?

“Especially if you encourage other women in your organization to become mentors, you’ll attract more talent and increase retention—not only of women, but men too!” says Dr. Hartnett. “Collectively, you’ll all reset outdated viewpoints and build a culture of inclusivity, respect, and affirmation while increasing the number of women in leadership positions.”

“As women, our collective power comes not just from our achievements but from our ability to develop our younger ‘sisters,’” says Dr. Hartnett. “When we lean back and invest in developing the next generation of smart, ambitious, and innovative female leaders, we all have more incentive to succeed—and more to gain!”

About the Authors:

Dr. Sherry Hartnett

Dr. Sherry Hartnett is coauthor along with Bert Thornton of the new book High-Impact Mentoring: A Practical Guide to Creating Value in Other People’s Lives. She is a marketing and leadership professor, consultant, author, and mentor. At the University of West Florida, she founded the pioneering, high-impact experiential learning Executive Mentor Program.

Bert Thornton

Bert Thornton is the former president and COO of Waffle House. He is coauthor along with Dr. Sherry Hartnett of the new book High-Impact Mentoring: A Practical Guide to Creating Value in Other People’s Lives. His fi­rst book, Find an Old Gorilla: Pathways Through the Jungle of Business and Life, is a well-received leadership handbook for rising high achievers and emerging leaders.