Career Success Is Not a Zero-Sum Game

Mentorship plays a vital role in professional development. Good mentors will use their personal experience and sector-specific knowledge to help today’s mentees become tomorrow’s leaders and influencers.

Back in 2015, when I was working at the U.S. Green Building Council, I had the honor of hosting the Women in Green breakfast at the annual Greenbuild Conference & Expo.

I wanted to use my role as convener to speak frankly about mentoring.

On the one hand, I benefited from tremendous support and sponsorship early in my career, when people recognized my potential, reached out, and gave me opportunities to succeed. On the other, a number of negative experiences dismayed me—especially when some women in leadership roles had not only failed to extend a helping hand, but had actually attempted to undermine my progress.

It was devastating for me to realize that these women leaders, with titles and salaries to match, seemed to be viewing other women not as collaborators, but as competition. One very senior female executive actually went so far as to advise my then (male) boss to fire me, claiming “no school facilities officer will ever take her seriously.”

Reflecting on my experience, I accept that what I learned through these encounters, although painful, was also valuable. Over time, I’ve been able to better understand the dynamics at play in those scenarios. I can see the fear—driven by the notion of scarcity—that my success would detract from the success of other women. That by improving my chances, they believed they would be limiting theirs. That sponsoring me could take away their opportunity for a seat at the table.

This doesn’t need to be true. At the International WELL Building Institute, we’re working to reverse this trend of personal competition, to lift each other up as collaborators and partners, and to demonstrate that there’s enough space for all.

I’m even prouder that we have a culture—not specifically tethered to gender—of helping one another. Collaboration is baked into our business model. Our budgets and plans are integrated; we work together and we win together. Because success is shared, rather than hoarded and coveted, there’s room for everyone to grow. We practice a strengths-based leadership model that allows individuals to progress along less conventional pathways. With this culture deeply embedded, we are discovering that it has a momentum all its own.

I’m proud and privileged to help women by providing mentorship and sponsorship, and encouraging them to do the same. It’s not a zero-sum game. If women establish themselves as mentors, they have the opportunity to elevate their own success, as well as that of their colleagues and companies. It’s a steep climb, but well worth it.