You may be a mid-career woman wondering “how” you might find a mentor. Are you any different from a younger generation woman trying to climb the early stages of the career ladder? Is the challenge of finding a mentor different if you are older, perhaps closer to leaving the corporate world to start your own business or pursue a corporate board role? What are the key elements in any search for a mentor? Is it different for women as compared to men?
These are a few of the issues and discussions explored in my new book, Tapping the Wisdom that Surrounds You: Mentorship and Women (Praeger: September 2014). I want women at all stages of their careers to begin asking these questions about who they want to mentor them, why they want a mentor, what they want a mentor to do, and what they want as a result of a mentor-mentee relationship.
Mentorship is Contagious
Talking about mentorship is contagious. When I told one woman about examples of mentors “at school,” she (a teacher herself) told me she began writing down the names of teachers who had mentored her during her years of schooling and her years training to become a teacher. She ended up with a list of 500 names. When we acknowledge the important people in our lives and their impact on our careers, we can recognize their contributions to our growth and learning.
Mentorship is Serendipitous
People who recall their own instances of being mentored or inspired by role models have a high probability of becoming mentors – of “paying it forward.” Several of the stories in Tapping the Wisdom came about because of conversations in which one mentorship story was told which, in turn, triggered the recollection of another mentorship experience by the listener. When we acknowledge the positive influence of people in our lives, it taps into our memories of similar situations. When those positive experiences get retold through shared story-telling, we pass the lessons on to others – who do likewise in a random cascading effect.
Mentorship Requires Competence
Mentorship begins with a core competency. Mentees are apprentices or protégés. They have some talent worthy of development. Regardless of the stage in which you find your career, if you aspire to capture the attention of a mentor, you need “to shine” in some way of interest to a mentor. The teacher had an aspiration to become a great educator. Entrepreneurs who are worthy of mentoring in the form of coaching are those who have conceptualized a company, product, or service that addresses some meaningful problem for enough customers who are willing to pay.
Mentorship results in Mutual Benefit
A senior executive woman who aspires to a corporate board role must demonstrate the value her experience and knowledge could bring to the corporation where she seeks to serve and to the boardroom of her peers. The other directors will expect as much of her as she has a right to expect of them.
Mentorship Does Not Necessarily Mean Friendship
Mentorship does not always require “closeness” as in a relationship or friendship. Because mentorship has a concrete foundation in accomplishment, the longevity of mentorship depends on how well the mentee performs. A pianist or violinist receives the training required to ascend to the next level of performance. A teacher can facilitate that process through training. As a mentor, the teacher observes the natural emergence of that new talent. The musical protégé inevitably will out-grow the mentor, just as a tennis or golf protégé would outgrow an early coach.
Mentorship Differences for Women and Men
Perhaps this is one area that most differentiates the mentorship perceived by women as contrasted with men. First, men have a longer track record and experience with mentorship than women. Men have formulated the concepts of apprentice-journeyman in the craft professions. Women have demonstrated an ability to adapt to and achieve their goals within similar professional “tiering.”
Women have readily adapted to the residency training mentorship of medical schools, the professorial tenure track of academia, the junior to senior partnerships of the legal profession, and now fill the c-suite levels of corporate management. Most of these male-originating forms of mentorship have a hierarchical basis which sometimes is challenging for women who aspire to more “relational” forms of mentorship.
We find similarities and differences when we examine the two major youth-oriented mentorship programs (the Boy Scouts of America and the Girl Scouts of the USA). The Boy Scouts were founded in 1910 and now have 2.7 million members and 1 million volunteers. The Girl Scouts were founded in 1912 and now have 2.3 million members and 890,000 adult members. Their programs, however, differ slightly. The Boy Scouts emphasize “moral character development; citizenship training; and development of physical, mental, and emotional fitness.” The Girls Scouts have the following four goals: “developing their full potential; relating to others with increasing understanding, skill, and respect; developing a meaningful set of values to guide their actions and make sound decisions; and contributing to the improvement of society.”
Mentorship in Sports
Another area of differentiation is mentorship experiences that emerge from sports. Women have only had equal access to publicly-funded sports scholarships and team-play opportunities at colleges and universities since the passage of Title IX in 1972. As more women play in amateur and professional sports, they become more familiar and comfortable with the mentorship experiences that sports provide, including team-building, peer–bonding, and competition – including competition for equal compensation.
Mentors inform us “how it’s done” and “how to make change happen.” Major professional women tennis athletes, including Billie Jean King, demanded equal prizes for women tennis players. In 1973, facing the threat of a boycott by women players, the US Open became the first major tournament to offer equal prize money for women and men. In 2006, Venus Williams followed that exemplary lesson and wrote an essay published in The Times on the eve of Wimbledon, accusing that organization of being on the “wrong side of history” for their failure to pay women equal prizes. Wimbledon changed their policy and awarded the same compensation for women and men in 2007. Billie Jean King didn’t have to hold Venus Williams’ hand in order for her to become a contemporary disrupter in sports prizes, but the role model effect of King’s total professional career undoubtedly laid the groundwork for Williams’ contribution to the game and to women’s sports history. Now, the Williams sisters become unforgettable role models and mentors for the next generation of young women tennis athletes.
Role models are everywhere. Their wisdom and insight surround us. Let us talk about them and celebrate their gifts to us. What we do with their insight will determine how far each of us goes toward achieving our own personal ambitions.
Elizabeth Ghaffari is a business professional with over twenty-five years’ experience as President/CEO of Technology Place Inc, her own technology consulting business, and another fifteen years’ experience in corporate data processing, operations, economics and project management in the U.S. and abroad. Tapping the Wisdom that Surrounds You: Mentorship and Women is a collection of short stories about how accidental and intentional mentorship helped women succeed. The stories are by and about influencers at home, at school, at play, at work, in the media, in politics and in memorial (from women who have passed away).