Tamsin Simounds

Australian author Jane Caro recently declared: “No, I can’t be your unpaid mentor.” Her reasons? Perfectly legitimate.

In her article, she said she feels pressure to be tirelessly helpful to other women. Citing barriers like time restrictions, exhaustion, an inability to cope with the sheer number of requests she receives, she said she’s delighted to do what she can to help but she’s only one human being and she simply cannot say yes to everything.

I don’t dispute that. Jane is an incredibly busy person and she already does a lot. My issue here? High profile women telling women to stop asking is a damaging trend. I’m here to not only challenge that, but to kindly ask: please stop.

Here’s why.

In a world where women’s progression into leadership has stalled, the research is telling us that being afraid to ask for help is one of the key things holding us back. A study by Development Dimensions International (DDI) found that while nearly 80% of women in senior roles had served as formal mentors, only 63 % of women had ever had one. This is despite the fact that a majority of women view mentoring as valuable.

Why the gap? It would seem a sheer willingness to ask… or perhaps more accurately, the courage to risk a rejection or impose on someone’s time.  

This is problematic because women already have trouble keeping up with their male counterparts in mentoring. Research shows that men tend to seek and offer mentorship far more readily, while women typically need to be found and encouraged.

In a study of 3000 professional working women, KPMG found that while having access to female role models was something women thought would help them navigate the road to leadership, eight in 10 women said they didn’t feel confident asking for mentors, not to mention asking for access to senior leadership (76%), pursuing a job opportunity beyond their experience (73%), asking for a career path plan (69%), requesting a promotion (65%), raise (61%), or a new role or position (56%). One in four working women reported that not asking for what they want held them back from advancing in their career.

Factors like the ones listed above become significant milestones for an aspiring leader. If they’re available, you’re more likely to move further down the path to leadership. If they’re not, you’re likely going to spend a large chunk of your career waiting for a tap on the shoulder that’s unlikely to come.

We need to be reaching up to ask for help. And those of us who have already walked the path need to be not only reaching down to grab a female hand, we need to throw down a fishing net to grab a giant haul.

For an emerging female leader already feeling uneasy about asking for help, reading an article from a high profile leader kindly asking people to stop inviting her for coffee and asking for help is just not helpful. I understand that saying yes to every request may become more than a full time job ‘for the love’, but there are ways to go about saying no that don’t involve publicly shaming those who were about to rustle up the courage to invite a respected leader for coffee.

I also challenge whether these women themselves actually achieved the status in which this perceived ‘problem’ is arising without being offered free advice and support from those who walked before them.

It needs to be said that while it appears to be a trend, this isn’t a universal opinion. Seventy-one percent of women in the DDI study reported that they always accept invitations to be formal mentors at work. And, overwhelmingly, women reported that they would mentor more if they were asked.

Three years ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Australian leader Holly Ransom speak at an Adelaide conference and she was advocating for the exact opposite of this approach. Holly herself, since the age of 16, has set herself a challenge of asking someone out for coffee each week, and she credits this practice with supercharging her learning and very impressive career.

Holly has said that she once heard someone she admired say, “how long does it take to learn a lifetime experience?” The answer: Coffee. So, every week she seeks a coffee conversation or learning conversation for one hour.. Remarkably, Holly says her invitation has never been turned down. Imagine if Holly as a 16-year-old had read the message from Jane Caro instead.

Holly says, “People make fun of me because of the number of mentors, advocates and advisors I have in my life. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes an army of advocates to raise a young woman. They give me multiple points of truth and challenge me.”

I have been lucky enough to have been given a significant leg up by some excellent mentors, both paid and free. When I sat down to coffee with one of my key mentors I asked him what I could possibly do to repay him for all that he’d done for me. He said, “I know you’ll pay it forward.” From that moment I made a commitment to do just that, and my experience in doing so has been nothing but positive.

As a mother of two very young children and co-founder of a growing leadership agency, I don’t have the luxury of loads of time for coffee dates. Sometimes I say yes, sometimes I say no, sometimes I just offer some quick advice via email. But I’d be dreadfully sad if people just stopped asking.

So, how do we move forward and establish a mutually respectful relationship between potential mentors and mentees?

For mentees:

  • Be crystal clear on what you’d like to learn, and choose a mentor who fits the bill
  • Be prepared with some great questions
  • Be respectful of time, consider whether coffee is really required or if you can get the same info from a two minute email
  • Get to the point
  • Follow up. If you’ve been given some great advice and implemented it, let the mentor know so that they can share in the warm fuzzies and know that their time was worth it

For mentors who at risk of burn out:

  • Clearly state on your social profiles or website what you are willing to offer support with and how
  • Consider the mutual benefits of connecting with a mentee. When connecting with another human being, regardless of your years of experience vs theirs, there is something you can learn from them if you open yourself to it. Not to mention all the good feels you get from helping someone achieve their goals.
  • Put a cap on it, and let people know that’s how you operate so that you don’t need to experience guilt every time you say no, but you don’t need to slam the door shut either.
  • Know the change you’d like to see in the world, and choose to help mentees who are going to assist you in making it happen.
  • Know organisations, or women who are willing to mentor for free, who you can divert mentees to if you don’t have the capacity to connect with them yourself.

And finally? Congratulate those who reach out to you for being brave enough to do so, even if you don’t have time to help them.