Are mentors critical to career success?

An interview with Jacqueline Szeto-Meiers





It’s striking to me how many wildly successful people had mentors. Some notable examples include Richard Branson, whose mentor was Sir Freddie Laker, Mark Zuckerberg, whose mentor was Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates, whose mentor was Warren Buffett. I never thought of having one myself and I regret it now—especially after learning how much of their success these brilliant entrepreneurs attributed just to having someone they could turn to for guidance.

Why are mentors so important? Do women need them more than men? Shouldn’t your boss be your mentor? These questions have been tumbling around in my head for a while and who better to answer them than Jacqueline Szeto-Meiers. Jacqui happens to be one of Canada’s most well-respected capital markets executives and is a huge proponent of mentoring. She sits on multiple boards (many of them startups) and is a past president of Women in Capital Markets, one of the world’s leading mentoring organizations.

Verney: Why are mentors so important?

Szeto-Meiers: Everyone can benefit from having a mentor because everyone needs help navigating their career path whether they’re fresh out of school or well into their career. This isn’t just my opinion. Research by Sun Microsystems found that mentored employees were promoted five times as often as people who didn’t have mentors.

V: What does a mentor offer that a boss can’t?

S: Mentors offer a different perspective from a boss. They look at things more objectively. If you’re the boss, your job is to motivate your staff and get results, and help get them aligned with the company’s vision and culture and so on. A mentor has a different viewpoint. It’s all about you, what’s best for you, and how best to deal with life events which might even include the possibility of switching careers. So I think the scope is a lot bigger and I think the focus is different. Obviously, the right mentor will give you advice on how to succeed while contributing to the business. So there are parts that intersect. I also think the mentorship relationship can be more diverse. For example, your mentor doesn’t necessarily have to be in your field, and you can have multiple mentors.

“I really didn’t understand the capital market culture”

V: What has been your personal experience, as a woman mentee and now a mentor?

S: I started in capital markets when I was 23—before the internet even existed! I was born in Canada but I grew up in Hong Kong so I was a visible female minority. When I went into the capital markets field, I was really at a loss in terms of what to do. I didn’t have an MBA or family connections or business contacts. I was just happy to get hired as a trainee. But I really didn’t understand the capital market culture so I ended up asking people a lot of questions, and they helped me a lot. I worked hard but I believe a lot of my longevity and success in business is thanks to the guidance I received along the way from mentors.

One of my mentors headed up the precious metal desk. She was one of the few women traders at the time and I would go for coffee with her and learned as much as I could about being a female in an (at the time) male domain. I also got to know a man on the institutional side named Gavin who showed me how things worked, because I was naïve and there’s politics everywhere in life. He told me who to watch and what I should do in certain situations. It was invaluable knowledge. I was getting a lot of powerful but informal mentoring without totally realizing it at the time.

“There’s a bit of an art to getting noticed for your hard work without coming across as being arrogant.”

V: What about formal mentoring programs? Are they helpful?

S: Very much so. All the banks have formal mentorship programs and they do a lot of good because they highlight what you’re doing. That’s important because women tend not to brag about themselves. I tell my women mentees that there is a bit of an art to getting noticed for your hard work. You need to find a way to toot your own horn a bit without coming across as being arrogant. It’s a fine line, but with practice, anyone can walk it.

V: Do women need mentors more than men?

S: No, I wouldn’t say that. I think both sexes need mentors.

V: Is there still an old boys club in finance?

S: I think it really depends on who you speak to. My husband is in capital markets like me so I always got a pretty good perspective on this issue. We both worked at major Canadian banks, and he’s blonde and blue-eyed, and I’m Chinese. And a woman. So I see both sides of the coin. Is there an old boys club? I think people in the financial world are making a conscious effort to be more accepting to women. But at the same time, I think many guys are just more comfortable around men. They have more similar interests and whatnot. That said, I’m probably an extreme case, even for a female in capital markets. In the financial world, dinners and sporting events and so on, play a big role in fostering relationships, and I don’t drink and I don’t like sports. So, to a certain extent, it’s a bit of a joke how I lasted this long.

V: How did you survive?

S: Well, I’ve always said that I have to be really good at what I do. Because I don’t do any of that stuff. But the reason the old boys club still exists, if it exists, is because information is power. For example, if you’re outside the circle, how do you find out that a new account is coming up for grabs before everyone else does? So I really tried to think outside of the box and tried to be better than everyone.

‘Oh, I just saw your LinkedIn profile. Would it be okay if we meet for coffee?’ isn’t always the best approach.”

V: Do introverts have more difficulty getting mentors than extroverts?

S: I think it’s definitely a hurdle. It takes guts to ask someone to mentor you because most good mentors are super busy people and no one wants to feel like they’re imposing. But they’re not. Shy people have to realize that most successful people want to give back because they were helped when they were younger. That said, there’s a right way and a wrong way to ask. When people email and say, Oh, I just saw your LinkedIn profile. Would it be okay if we meet for coffee? isn’t always the best approach because there’s no real connection. Plus, meeting for coffee can be a big interruption to the flow of a busy day. Phone calls are better. At least initially.

If you’re an introvert, my advice would be to join an organization or a group and then, through the people you meet there, do the ask. You don’t have to be super gregarious and friendly and be all, Hey, let’s do this! Just be yourself, be professional and respectful and humble and curious, and listen well.

V: What’s the secret to your success and longevity?

S: There have been a few factors I think. Part of it was having self-confidence, but at the same time having a healthy amount of self-doubt that drove me to always give more than 100 per cent. One thing I learned in the capital markets is you can never be too comfortable. You constantly have to improve yourself and pick the next course and broaden your knowledge. Another factor is I always made sure to have good relationships and build a good reputation. The capital markets sector is relationships-based because it’s a complex business and everyone needs guidance. So it’s important to have a mentor and if possible a sponsor. I would say those factors are the keys to success in any career, not just mine.

“A mentor can be at many different levels. They could even be a friend or a yoga instructor.”

V: You mentioned having a sponsor. What’s the difference between a mentor and a sponsor?

S: A mentor can be at many different levels. They could even be a friend or a yoga instructor or someone who helps you balance your life and look at things differently and helps you release stress. A sponsor is someone in your own firm or maybe a client who is in your area of expertise who for whatever reason becomes your backer—a person who puts your name forward, someone credible who vouches for you. I had a mentor who was also my sponsor. He was a client, and he helped me navigate through the politics, and helped me figure out if I should take on this account or that account or go in this direction or that direction. He wasn’t at my firm but he made sure my firm was aware that I was doing a very good job. That meant something because everyone knew he was a very demanding client. By the way, this makes me sound super calculating but really I’m not. I’m just someone who worked hard and loved what they were doing and knew I needed help.

V: It seems like you still love your job, thirty years later. Do you see yourself retiring soon?

S: Probably not. I hope not. [Laughs] I’d like to keep on going because the great thing about going to work each day is that the culture and the performance at my new firm really align with my beliefs. I loved being in institutional fixed income sales, but clients need you at a moment’s notice so I was chained to my desk. That’s changed. My husband and I were older when we adopted our daughter and I wanted to have the flexibility to spend time with her. By signing on with Canso [Canso Investment Counsel] as a partner, I have that flexibility. Thanks to technology, everything is mobile now, so I can keep in touch with our dealer counterparties and staff and still go to my daughter’s piano recital or go to a soccer game. Those things are very important to me. And not only does my firm support this, it is strongly encouraged (many other firms might want to follow this approach if they’re looking to attract seasoned high-performance staff.) And so to answer your question, it’s a no. I’m going to keep going.

V: Your firm sounds like the perfect fit.

S: Yes, it is.

V: How supportive are they of your mentoring activities?

S: Very. They encourage mentoring—both internal and external—which is also aligned with my beliefs.

V: It’s clear from what you’ve been saying that the benefits of having a mentor are huge. Why don’t more people have mentors?

S: I think some people believe it’s a sign of weakness, while others feel intimidated at the prospect of asking someone. They shouldn’t. Everyone needs a leg up, and everyone needs advice sometimes, no matter how senior you may be.

V: After reading this, I think a lot of women who don’t have mentors will reconsider their decision.

S: Not just women, I hope.





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