Sorry I dumped those bleak McKinsey & Company reports on women on you last week—you know, the ones that find that women in the United States and Europe are stuck in the mid-management box. Both reports poured cold water on all those wonderful mentoring programs and women's initiatives, saying what we've been suspecting—that they aren't making much of a dent in women's progress.
As you know, I'm prone to be negative when I read those type of reports, but thankfully, there are those who strike a more positive note. Harvard Business School professor Herminia Ibarra, for one, thinks the solution is to redistribute women's focus at work. Instead of placing so much weight on mentoring, Ibarra says, it's time for women to focus on the assignments they take on.
In the Harvard Business Review blog, Ibarra proposes adopting "the sacrosanct 70-20-10 rule, by which 70 percent of a manager's learning and development should come from on-the-job learning through stretch assignments, with only 20 percent and 10 percent coming from mentoring and classroom learning, respectively."
Of course, following this formula requires vigilance. It "means focusing on the company's appointment process and succession planning," writes Ibarra. Moreover, it involves identifying "pivotal roles" or assignments that are "essential" to the development of a top executive.
I think Ibarra is on to something. By putting the priorities in numerical terms, she's highlighting what should be obvious—which is to say, it's the assignment, stupid! As anyone who's been at a law firm can attest, it's not just a matter of how many hours you log that gets you the brass ring. Don't we all know some poor drone with zero partnership prospects who regularly bills 2,800 hours a year on scut work?
Brande Stellings, a vice president at Catalyst, says Ibarra is "spot on" in focusing on assignments as the key to closing the gender gap in the workplace. "This is definitely true in law firms, where it matters a lot which clients you work for and what matters you work on and for which partners," says Stellings. "Firms should be tracking who gets these plum assignments—and be open to thinking about whether some of the 'unusual suspects' are getting key opportunities."
So where does this put mentoring and those women initiatives? I don't think anyone is advocating throwing it all out the window. But they should be substantive.
Ibarra argues that the 70-20-10 rule makes mentoring more than a " 'feel good' exercise; it is a means for identifying and providing what a talented person needs to get into one of the jobs and do well there." Stellings adds: "Women don’t always get the key assignments. . . . Mentors and sponsors can help here: by championing women for stretch assignments, by dismantling the idea that women are risky, by coaching their protégés when they do get that stretch assignment."
In other words, mentors and sponsors can help. Just don't look to them as your knight in shining armor.
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