Developing women leaders through mentorship

Women in leadership positions should be thoughtful about how they support the women around them

I consider myself to be one of the lucky ones. My entire career I’ve been surrounded by women in emerging leadership positions – leaders who have been thoughtful about how they support the women around them. I think about that model of support and know that I didn’t make it alone; I didn’t make it by pulling myself up directly. I received the gift of mentorship and it is my job to re-gift it.

I met my first career mentor working at Lewis and Clark in Portland. She was the director of the department I worked for, and was absolutely not afraid to let me fail; she wasn’t afraid to throw me in the water and make me swim. She truly had faith in me, and there is something about demonstrating that kind of belief in another person. Every time I made it through something that I thought was going to be hard, it built my confidence. Every time I successfully tackled a new challenge, I found myself wondering, “What else can I do?”

I’m going to pay that forward. It is my job as a female leader to cultivate and mentor the female leaders in my midst. It doesn’t mean that I lose sight of the male leaders around me, but that I recognize the importance and value of women leadership.

What has been working for us at Daybreak Youth Services is investing in the leadership development of existing staff and presenting them with a path to grow within the organization. We’ve been able to successfully nurture, train and retain female leaders – many of whom started out in entry-level positions.

How did we do that? Well, for starters, we created a flexible work environment. We ask a lot of our staff and, in turn, are willing to give in spades. We understand that family comes first, allowing people to bring their kids to work when they need to. We understand the importance of giving staff generous leave time. These things really help retain female leaders specifically, especially in the healthcare industry. This is a high-stress field and you have to be able to provide as much of that work-life balance as possible.

As we grow our own leadership, we are simultaneously addressing systematic workforce challenges in the medical profession – namely, attracting and retaining qualified employees. On that note, one thing I’ve found illuminating working with female leaders in healthcare is that we’re pretty good at acknowledging what we’re not good at systems-wide. That is so important because you can’t address any particular issue unless you’re willing to admit that there is one and that there are better ways of doing things. You don’t even have to know what the answer is – just the acknowledgement that there is a better way to do it is a starting place.

I’ve found women also excel in managing day-to-day tasks without losing sight of the bigger picture solution, which, at least within the medical profession, is really about building competencies and capacities to provide fully integrated managed care. You don’t want to sacrifice the long term while you’re working on the short term, because it is easier to deal with the “right now” than it is the slow and methodical.

Paying it forward, addressing systematic challenges, balancing the short term and long term – this is what women leaders demonstrate to those around us. We can take on things that are incredibly difficult and hard, and we can ask for help. We can learn from our failures, and must be given permission to fail. That’s the most effective way to mentor.

So, to the emerging women around me, know that you might fail and it’s OK; I’m watching you. If you sink to the bottom of the pool, I’m going to pull you up. I’m not going to let you drown. Don’t be afraid. Failure is not going to kill you. It’s going to make you a better swimmer.

Annette Klinefelter is the CEO of Daybreak Youth Services, a Brush Prairie-based provider of adolescent addiction, co-occurring mental health and psychiatric evaluation and treatment services.

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