Mentoring women leaders

Business Monthly magazine recently published a list of our 25 most influential CEOs, and 14 of those selected were women.

So good news: in recent years, female representation on boards and in senior management positions in Kenya has been on a steady increase.

Yet despite the significant gains made in the past decade or so, many organisations still lack substantial female representation at the senior leadership level.

Organisations like Davis & Shirtliff (where I am a director) have been working on filling this gap through a mentoring programme for empowering their women to fulfil their potential as leaders, and I thought it would be helpful to share how they’ve been going about it.

The “Women in Leadership” programme was started in 2022, with women who have already reached senior management positions mentoring other female staff members to nurture their leadership skills, attitudes and behaviours.

It utilises storytelling as a powerful tool, where these senior female staff share how struggles and victories in their personal lives have related to and impacted their performance in their professional lives.

The programme regularly attracts up to 170 online attendees each month, and the presenters have been described as refreshingly vulnerable and honest about their experiences.

The mentors share what they have been through regarding issues such as work-life balance, physical and mental health, disappointments and career progression in the workplace.

The sessions are open to all female staff, whatever their rank, profession or position, and Margaret Kuchio, a General Manager in the company and the programme’s patron, emphasises that inclusivity is key, as are the informal conversations that occur after the sessions between mentors and mentees.

The reality is that some of the biggest obstacles that women are facing now, both in the corporate world and elsewhere, are the absence of an enabling environment in which they can grow their competencies and rise through the managerial ranks – despite being just as capable and growth-oriented as their male counterparts.

It is out of this realisation that workplace mentoring programmes have become increasingly popular in Kenya, as more female mentors are now there to act as role models for other women in the organisation.

These mentors can guide and advise their junior counterparts, inspiring them to greater heights. For a young woman observing a female leader in her organisation with whom she identifies and who is breaking glass ceilings and thriving in her field, gives her the confidence that she too can advance to those upper levels.

The value of such women in leadership programmes is that through their mentoring the women in management positions are showing how they can make a transformative contribution to empowering other women in the modern workplace to grow despite the ongoing real obstacles.

Understandably, many women believe that to rise the corporate ladder they must be “made of steel” and behave in a “manly” way.

But in the safe space of the “Women in Leadership” programme, women share stories that debunk this myth and expose vulnerabilities that had been misconceived as non-existent.

Hearing a senior manager speak of how she rose through the ranks in the workplace while at the same time dealing with health or owes as they grapple with their own trials.

Mentorship programmes built on such platforms not only expose younger professionals to the glass ceilings that have been shattered by their seniors, but they also let the younger generation in on how their seniors manoeuvred their way through the barriers without cutting themselves too much as they were breaking the glass.

A few years ago McKinsey conducted a much-quoted study that found women to be better leaders than men in providing emotional support to staff, helping them navigate work-life challenges, and checking in on their general well-being.

Companies that run mentorship programmes that are for women and by women are tapping into the rich resource of women who have already earned the right to sit at the top tables.

And such initiatives will surely significantly strengthen their organisational culture and their performance. I happen to be speaking as a man, but what’s that got to do with it?