Category Archives: Be the Mentor

Mentors, Mind the Gap

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When Sheryl Sandberg’s blockbuster manifesto Lean In first came out, I was burnt out from years of being a single mom in a pigeonhole career, and I was in no mood to hear what she had to say.

My situation was not for a lack of trying. I followed all the career advice I could find…or at least as much of it as I could understand. I let my boss know I was looking to grow my career and earning power, and would be thrilled to make any move that put me on a growth career path. I accepted the challenge of covering maternity leave for one of my colleagues, proving my potential over a grueling six months. After this trial by fire, my boss gave me a great review and wrote a promotion into my official Career Action Plan. When that very job became available three months later, it was offered to an outside candidate. I never got an interview, and another opportunity never came up while I was with the company.

First, Acknowledge the Gap…

This experience – and others like it – made it very hard for me to sit through panels of senior executive women lecturing at “women’s empowerment events” sponsored by “women’s employee interest groups”. These executives spoke of work/life balance while wearing Christian Louboutin shoes that cost more than my annual childcare budget. They told mom-guilt stories about how hard it was to find just the right nanny, and explained the agonies of allocating their hours while relying upon spouses and hired help to take care of their households and kids. I struggled to juggle everything alone on an inadequate fraction of the salary. They spoke of Hillary Clinton and her famous chocolate chip cookies. During one particularly lean period, my sons were grateful to have anything other than ramen and oatmeal to eat.

When I had run out of sick time and vacation benefits for the year, I left my sick two-year-old in the care total strangers on the days when he felt the worst, because I couldn’t afford to lose a full day’s pay and his regular daycare wouldn’t take him. When my kindergartner begged me not to drop him off anymore at the local YMCA – the only before-school care I could afford – I told him he’d get used to it. Then one day I came in late, and instead of the quiet, cozy, alphabet-carpeted room where I usually dropped him off, we were directed to a massive, barely-supervised gymnasium teeming with children of every age from kindergarten through fifth grade. My young son just curled up in a ball on a bench as I turned away. I cried all the way to work that day.

When the COO of Facebook published a book called Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, it was just more of the same old red-soled execu-speak: it was not written for the likes of me.

…Then, Fill It

Since those days, I have become a big Sheryl Sandberg fan. Her PSA on the importance of mentorship and sponsorship[i] speaks to some of my most dearly-held values. I even run a website that is dedicated to promoting these values, and I’m leaning in” hard. Most importantly, though, I want to echo Sheryl’s message from that PSA: it is never too early in your career to start mentoring others.

Hearing from women like Sheryl Sandberg is amazing, and can give us something to shoot for, but even with equal representation at the c-suite level, the vast majority of women will never get there simply because those roles are themselves scarce. There are far more women out there who are like me and you, and they need to hear from women like themselves, too. We need to be available for each other: to share our struggles and, through our example, to provide hope of rising above them.

You may think you don’t have much to offer, but I assure you that you do! You may have no idea what that pleasant colleague down the hall from you is going through today, but it might just be the same struggle you yourself conquered a few years back. You may have no idea how or where or when your story could change someone’s life, but I assure you that someday it will.

Please don’t keep your story to yourself. Get the stories flowing and the healing going.

#BeTheMentor.

Let’s make this go viral.

Mind the Gap


References

Sandberg, Sheryl, “Lean In Together: Mentorship Matters” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b9FIKLhx4hc


About This Series

“Be the Mentor” is a series in which I explore the joys and benefits of stepping up to be a mentor, and offer my insights on how to do it well. “Where Do Mentors Come From?” is the first article in th

Be the Mentor is published on the first Wednesday of every month at www.mentorsandmasterminds.com.

How Weaknesses Make us Better Mentors

One of the most surprising things about being a mentor is that it turns our weaknesses into strengths. It’s not that our weaknesses are magically transformed simply by donning the mantle of “mentor”, but rather that our struggles become our areas of expertise. In addition, the teaching process itself embeds the lessons more deeply within us, often leading to new insights and allowing us to further refine our own work as a result. In the words of Yogi Bhajan, “If you want to master something, teach it.”

The reasons our weaknesses serve us so well in mentoring others are two-fold. First, the struggle itself breaks down barriers and establishes a common ground with our protege. Second, the struggle to learn forces us to articulate knowledge in a way that being gifted does not.

Establish a Common Ground

In her TED Talk “On Being Wrong”, self-styled wrongologist Kathryn Schultz says, “Most of us do everything we can to avoid thinking about being wrong, or at least to avoid thinking about the possibility that we ourselves are wrong.” Our need to “be right”, she proposes, robs us of tremendous creative, intellectual and moral potential. Certainly the fear of being wrong and its corollary, the insistence on being right, rob us of many opportunities for meaningful connection. We may feel safer on our “Pedestal of Rightness”, but it comes at the cost of remaining remote.

As parents, we often see our teaching discussions with our children as very black and white, wrong and right. Being more experienced in the harsh realities of life, we can try to drill lessons into them by sheer force of will. It is, however, when we admit to having the same struggles that they begin to open up to us, and become open to our guidance.

In the cartoon above, for example, ”Mister Man” is teaching a very important lesson to his son, but the lesson backfires when it starts a mental feedback loop in which the boy sees no way to succeed. Mister Man has provided the “what” without providing the “how”. Mom breaks the mental loop by admitting she shares the trait of forgetfulness; moreover, she is a credible teacher because she’s learned ways of coping with forgetfulness. Mom embodies the possibility that things can get better.

When we as mentors share our struggles with our proteges, we do the same for them. We step down off of the pedestal of perfection and ask them to see us in a new light, right there with them struggling with the very same problems. We can show them the path, instead of shouting at them from a high distance.

Embrace the Struggle to Learn

In the cartoon scenario, the breakdown of Mister Man’s lesson comes because he provides the what without explaining the how. This leads us to the second benefit of getting comfortable with our weaknesses: the struggle to learn forces us to articulate knowledge in a way that being gifted does not. As a reasonably gifted painter, I have rarely been challenged to articulate my technique: I just ”get in the zone” and “let it happen”. When I am asked to explain what I do and how I do it, I sense there is often no expectation that I will communicate something my listener can imitate; rather, I am explaining the mysteries of something “other” and “special”. Since I am guided by intuition rather than discipline, I often find myself at a loss for words.

Not so with my maestra Shiloh Sophia. For Shiloh, the process of earning her skill as a painter impressed upon her a clear knowledge of what she does and why. She articulated her knowledge as part of the process of acquiring it, and as a result she can teach what she discovered to others who face the same struggle.

When she was younger, “experts” told Shiloh that she had no talent as a painter; she enrolled in art school, then dropped out and eventually settled for a corporate job. Shiloh’s calling was to create art, however, and it would not be denied. When she finally found her style, it came in the form of a simple visual language, combined with layering and design techniques that were extremely teachable. Ultimately, Shiloh not only developed an extremely successful career as a fine artist, but founded the Color of Woman school of painting and established the Intentional Creativity Foundation and Power Creatives TV to help others learn to become creators in their own right. Today she is a mentor to thousands of women who, like her, had been told they “have no talent”.

While most of us will not go on to create an entire teaching methodology or business from our struggles, we can still learn to use our weaknesses as an asset in our mentoring. When in doubt, as yourself this question: would I rather be right or helpful? In truth, it’s not an either/or proposition, but a question of starting with the right priority. If you start with the desire to be helpful, you will find the way to the “right” place for yourself and your protege. Your heart can show you how to be both.

#BeTheMentor


REFERENCES

“If you want to master something, teach it.” Yogi Bhajan https://www.harisingh.com/newsYogiBhajan.htm

“On Being Wrong”, TED Talk by Kathryn Schultz https://www.ted.com/talks/kathryn_schulz_on_being_wrong#t-132401 


About This Series

“Be the Mentor” is a series in which I explore the joys and benefits of stepping up to be a mentor, and offer my insights on how to do it well. “Where Do Mentors Come From?” is the first article in this series.

Be the Mentor is published on the first Wednesday of every month at www.mentorsandmasterminds.com.

Mentors Don’t Have All the Answers

Taking the step from being a professional to becoming a mentor – proclaiming yourself an expert in your field – can be really intimidating.  Certainly, this has been my experience. As I mentioned in last month’s “Be the Mentor” article, I had a major confrontation with the “WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?!” bogeyman[i] when I realized that I couldn’t just take a back seat and hope this community would grow itself.

If there has ever been an experience that prepared me to do things for which there is no possible way to prepare, it’s parenthood. And in parenting, as in mentoring, the rewards are commensurate with the risks. In this series, starting with mentoring lessons from being a mom, I hope to provide you with the inspiration and encouragement to take that next step and become a mentor.

You Don’t Have to Have All the Answers

As they grow into teenagers, the children you thought you knew can seem to become near-strangers as they withdraw and individuate themselves in preparation for adulthood. The things they used to love are irrelevant. When you ask what they are most passionate about now, the responses can be, well, less than impassioned…

All of this can conspire to make you feel pretty helpless as a parent.

As my older son Andrew worked his way through of high school, I asked him all the questions a good mom is supposed to ask. Have you started thinking about colleges yet? Do you know what you’d like to study? And so on… His answers – often sounding more preverbal grunts than actual words – left me very anxious. Had I missed some opportunity to help him explore his interests? Had I somehow inadvertently put the kibosh on his heart’s true calling, just as a tender seedling was, unbeknownst to me, beginning to sprout?  Doing my best to keep my freak-out to myself, I decided the best course of action would be simply to stop pushing on the questions that weren’t working, and focus on the things that allowed us to spend more time together instead.

Our conversations during those relaxed times began to reveal who my son was growing up to be. At his suggestion, we made several trips to local museums: what a delight! I would never have thought to propose it. He seemed to be especially talkative in the car, so I took every opportunity to drive with him and our conversations ranged from current events to history to Latin etymologies to deliberately mangled French. He knows I love to write, and sought my editorial advice on many a school project: I was free with the red pen, and he felt free to take or leave my suggestions.

In his last year of high-school, he wrote a 10,000-word novella, volunteered with a friend’s campaign for Select Board in our home town, and got an after school job. In February, he received full tuition scholarship from the University of Massachusetts Boston, and when he was ready he came back to me and his stepdad with questions that led him to a decision to major in Political Science and minor in Creative Writing as a pre-law course of study.

The truth is, Andrew has come to all these answers in his own way and time, and in the 4 years to come, all of those decisions may turn completely around.  My job as his mentor during this time was never to have the answers for him, but just to be available. I provided honest feedback about his plans and ideas based on what I know of him. I offered advice when – and only when – he asked for it. Above all, though, my job was to provide loving support and a dose humor to relieve the pressure of this major transition. Ultimately, my job was to care.

Take this attitude into your own mentoring and you will find that as the pressure comes off, the relationship blossoms. There is no greater joy than seeing your protégé arrive at the solutions and answers they need in their own way in their own time!

You don’t have to have all the answers. Be a good listener and, in due time, your protégé find their own answers.

[i] This is otherwise known as Impostor Syndrome, which Wikipedia defines as “an inability to internalize…accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impostor_syndrome)

Where Do Mentors Come From? (Part 1 of 2)

When I launched Mentors and Masterminds, my goal was to answer to a common question among administrative professionals: “Where can I find a mentor?” I imagined myself as the behind-the-scenes administrator of an organically thriving community where current and former administrative professionals hooked up for mentoring “dates” and ultimately found “true love” in the form of long-term mentoring relationships: a career-oriented Match.com[1], if you will. I hoped, too, that community members – particularly those more knowledgeable than I – might be inspired to share their own stories, thereby creating a self-sustaining learning community. Like the Field of Dreams, I believed that if I built it, the community would come.

When I was first planning the site, I consulted my Toastmasters colleague, website builder and marketing guru Heather Turner, DTM for suggestions on how to build the site.  I got my first whiff of trouble when she described her own experience as a member of a similar site for small business startups: “The problem I’ve noticed,” she said, “is that everyone wants to have a mentor, but no one wants to be a mentor. When I was a mentor on the site, I was deluged with requests, because there were on average 1 mentor for every 150 mentees who wanted help.”

To answer the question “Where can I find a mentor?”, I would have to answer another question first: “Where do mentors come from? “That should be easy enough to solve,” I thought, “I’ll just create a category called ‘co-mentoring’ and encourage everyone to participate, giving us roughly equal numbers of mentors and mentees.”

After the launch in October 2016, it quickly became clear that, if I wanted my new site to mature into the community I had envisioned, there was a need to do more: to not only encourage members to step up as mentors to each other, but also to show them how. This kind of thought leadership was hardly what I’d signed up for. I just wanted to be the “techie-behind-the-scenes”. Who was I to offer myself as an authority on mentoring?! As I began to wrestle with this question, I was paralyzed by Impostor Syndrome[2]. The terror was not unlike that which I experienced when, nearly 18 years ago, I was a brand-new mom faced with the care of a healthy but helpless newborn boy: what have I gotten myself into?!

On the other hand, there was also a promise implicit in the launch of my site, and I wasn’t about to leave that promise unfulfilled. To help grow the community, I needed to become a mentor’s mentor. Having identified the problem, I knew I could tackle it. After all, I’ve survived eighteen years of motherhood…and I’ve done a damn fine job of it, if I do say so myself. In fact, parenting taught me more than a few good mentoring lessons along the way, lessons like:

  • You don’t need to have all the answers to be a mentor.
  • In mentoring, your greatest weaknesses become invaluable assets.
  • You can’t mentor everyone, and that’s okay.

The other thing that keeps me going is this: I deeply believe that everyone has creative potential, and that there is no more important work than encouraging the development of that potential.  As Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”[3]  Rather, we must challenge ourselves and others to thinking and doing things in new ways.  There is no more powerful tool in this endeavor that the personal encouragement of a mentor…and a friend.

Someone needs the gifts that only you have to offer, so join me as I explore the joys, rewards and methods of becoming a mentor.


 “Be the Mentor” is a series in which I explore the joys and benefits of stepping up to be a mentor, and offer my insights on how to do it well. “Where Do Mentors Come From?” is the first article in this series.

Be the Mentor is published on the first Wednesday of every month at www.mentorsandmasterminds.com


FOOTNOTES

[1] My personal inspiration was actually a less-known dating site, lavalife.com. Met my S.O. there in July 2004 and 14 years later we are still going strong! It’s less about the how and where you meet, and more about the time you invest into finding a good match and creating a great relationship.

[2] Wikipedia defines impostor syndrome as “an inability to internalize…accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impostor_syndrome)

[3] Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/a/alberteins121993.html