One of the Biggest Leadership Lessons I’ve Learned

By Ellen Graf-Martin

Ellen at a WIMM Canada event with VP of Ops Sherry Stahl, See, Hear, Love Host Melinda Estabrooks and Founder Hollie.

Ellen at a WIMM Canada event with VP of Ops Sherry Stahl, See, Hear, Love Host Melinda Estabrooks and Founder Hollie.

I’ve been looking for a female business mentor for 10 years.

10 years of searching for someone who had navigated the seas before me, balancing a healthy marriage, family life, work, and the unique challenges facing women who lead.

Six years ago, when I entered a new stage of our business, taking new risks to purchase office space, facing a cancer scare, parenthood, a terminally ill parent, and expanding our team, I was still looking for a female business mentor. I would show up at business networking events, and find myself as the only female in the room. I was hoping to find someone like me, who had lived experience, learning how to understand how to juggle titles like Wife, Mom, President, and Daughter. To understand how to carry the homelife mental load (which is significant) and the work-life mental load (which is significant) and not crumble under it. I still found no one.

Fortunately, a great leadership coach had stepped up and offered to support me in these years. I really believe I wouldn’t have made it through without his consistent encouragement, helping me find the answers, and processing my doubts, fears and the challenges ahead of me. He invested deeply in our business and our family, over and hour on the phone with me each month. I am also blessed to have a mom and a mother-in-law who pray, and friends who will listen and pray. They have quietly mentored me in so many ways.

One of the big reasons I’ve chosen to be a WIMM Canada Member is peer mentoring –
I can show up because I have something to offer from my experience, and others have experience to share with me. I’m guessing the women I talk to there wouldn’t identify themselves as peer mentors, even though they are.

One of the big reasons I’ve chosen to be a WIMM Canada Member is peer mentoring
— Ellen Graf-Martin
Ellen - WIMM blog post.jpg

I’m not entirely sure why female leaders aren’t intentionally mentoring, but I know that in the business world at least, there are less of them. Only 16% of Canadian small and medium-sized enterprises are owned by women. Often, the non-profit organizations we serve at our agency are led by men. It’s the nature of the industry (but it seems to be changing, slowly but surely.) So, the very nature of what I do every day is unique. It’s why I would show up at those business or ministry events and feel so alone.

So, how do we change this?

Here’s what I’ve learned over the past ten years:

1. Realize you have something to offer. We often don’t believe we’re really leaders, but we are. I was recently reminded: my mother was my first mentor. I am my daughter’s first mentor. Take a good look at your life: you have experiences to share that other women, especially those coming up behind you, need to know. We want to know that we’re not alone in our struggles, and how you walked through those same challenges. And sometimes? We just need someone to listen, to ask good questions, and to encourage us to stay the course. We need someone to pray with us and for us. You can do that, regardless of whether you think you’re a leader or not. Choose to do it intentionally.

2. Realize the next generation needs us. It’s easier to criticize the next generation, than to build them up. My Gen-X experience can cause me to roll my eyes at what I don’t understand about Millennials. And, for some reason, I think we sometimes live by the belief that we’re competing with those younger, more energetic, sharper, or – dare I say it – more attractive than us. We forget that we were once them. I saw this in my own journey. Humble yourself, friend. Stop competing, and choose to invest in the future by building up those coming along behind us. By growing others, we’re actually choosing our successors and our succession plan.

3. Realize that the generation before us has wisdom. Again, humble yourself, friend. You don’t have all the answers. Choose to see what choices those who have gone ahead of us have made. Sometimes they’re cautionary tales (and the people living them would say so) and sometimes they’re pure wisdom. I’m watching those who have teenaged children, or are choosing to retire, or living a second or third career. I want to learn from them so that I can be wise as well.

4. Realize that we’re all in process. My mentors have been very imperfect people. I am shockingly imperfect. Those I mentor are also imperfect. What we all are, however, is in process. We’re growing. Choosing to love ourselves and allow ourselves to be imperfect leaders in process, working out our unique callings in the grace of Jesus, allows us to be mentored and to mentor others. I’ve learned that being pliable, teachable and confident that we’re living out what we were created to do is remarkably powerful.

Ultimately, a life of leadership, wherever you serve in media, or even as a leader of little people in your own home, is not easy. It can be lonely, isolating, and the challenges can seem insurmountable. Honestly? I’ve lived this. It’s hard to be the boss. I’ve often felt like the mountain in front of me is too high to scale, especially with the weight of responsibility to others on my shoulders. When we choose to believe we have something to offer, and something to learn – to be a mentor and be mentored – walking the path with others, intentionally – it’s amazing how the mountain becomes a hill, and the burden of leadership is so much lighter.

And, by the way? I’m still taking applications for that mentor.

PS – Want some mentoring right now? Hop over and read some EXCELLENT articles on leadership from Canadian women here. ( Also, you’ll get some of my favourite fast holiday recipes for busy women when you subscribe. (That’s my kind of delicious mentoring!)


Ellen Graf-Martin is the Founder and President of Graf-Martin Communications;