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"When you think of mentors in pop culture, the stories are endless..."

Jean Rhodes,
The top 25 mentoring movies of all time!
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Gracious reader,

One of the most powerful mentoring experiences I've had was a single conversation, with someone I only met once, about 20 years ago.

I sat next to a senior woman at a networking breakfast.  I don't remember her name.  It's unlikely that she would remember me, or the casual conversation we struck up while waiting for the speaker to come to the podium.

The topic of our conversation doesn't really matter.  But she made one point that served to catalyze my insight around an experience I had been having at work. 

Her track record, and wisdom, enabled her to re-frame my experience as part of a pattern:  it wasn't about me.  It was about how the workplace worked.  Or didn't.
Formalware

Maybe you'll have access to a formal mentoring program, either because you're part of a large organization with a lot of infrastructure, or via a professional group.

Either way, it's up to you to step up to what's requested or required. 
  • The Common Pitfalls in Mentoring Programs is a good quick read on why mentoring programs fail.  Though this is content marketing, it's full of useful information that might help you to guide your participate in any program.  Some of the pitfalls include structure, poor matching, and failure to commit.

    I'd suggest that you take special care before participating in optional programs that you might find outside of your organization, maybe through a professional organization.  It's been my experience that some well-intentioned efforts are led by people who are not sufficiently trained and oriented, and who are working on a volunteer basis.  Ymmv.
  • One academic review, Does Mentoring Matter? A Multidisciplinary Meta-Analysis Comparing Mentored and Non-Mentored Individuals concludes that workplace mentoring programs may not have an outsized impact on people's careers. 

    I'd guess that this is because the range of programs across organizations is large and hard to study.  And the range of experience for individuals within a single mentoring program is probably wide.  For example, a relationship may or may not "click."

     
  • "If you find yourself in a situation where you are not satisfied with the quality of your mentoring relationship, take a critical and honest look at yourself and your behaviors. What might you be able to do to improve your relationship with your mentor? If you are satisfied with the quality of your relationship, take note of what is working. Then, use that knowledge to establish successful mentoring relationships with others in the future." How To Be a Good Mentee by Tess MS Neal, at Association for Psychological Science.
Business Casual
  • "Mentoring can take the form of one-time intervention or a lifelong partnership. It can be as formal as a structured employee orientation or as informal as an element of a professional friendship. Anyone who has been successfully mentored recognizes the impact on their life or the result in their career, but may not have been able to put a name to it at the time."   Building Effective Mentoring Partnerships is an epic training website that has a ton of resources on how to be a mentee (and how to be a mentor.) 
     
  • "Do not ask someone to be your mentor in your introductory email or in your first meeting."  In fact, I don't think it's necessary to ask someone to be your mentor.

    With exceptionally busy people, you might get an automatic "no," as they consider the time commitment and emotional labor implied by an ongoing mentoring relationships. 

    However, that same busy person might answer your (well considered) email, talk with you at a conference, or grab a coffee with you. 

     
  • "A little bit of planning can go a long way in achieving your mentoring goals."  I’d Meet With My Mentor, But I Don’t Know What to Talk About, by Kristene Henne at Argonne National Labs. 

    This is an example of awesome mentoring program information you'll find online via universities and government agencies.  All of this (free) information is useful as you navigate informal mentoring relationships and conversations that are more typical for most people.
DIY

Finally, one of the most challenging -- and satisfying -- mentoring situations I've found is a DIY peer mentoring group with several women who own businesses.  Two of us started the group over a decade ago, and we've been through a lot of changes and challenges. 

It sounds like a good thing, and it is.  It's also a challenge.  We've had to let go of people who were disruptive or not committed.  We've had to figure out how to juggle scheduling while having 5 kids, many elderly parents, cross-country moves, business commitments, and our own "stuff" of all kinds.  We are all justifiably proud that we've been able to grow and build together. 

Our core group spent a lot of time working through Bill George's True North Groups, (library) (Indiebound), a practical guide based on George's experience with groups in Minnesota church basements and in the halls of Harvard Business School. 

A few years ago, as part of a test in a professional association's mentoring program, I offered George's book, some guidance, and (very light) facilitation to a test group.  It was not a success:  in a group like this, participants must provide all of the infrastructure that makes it work. 

(If you've ever been in a book club that works, you've probably seen that someone always does a bit more to make sure that things happen.  Shout out to my friend Marjorie, who always sets up and sends out meeting reminders and a Zoom link!)

That said, if you're up for the administrative and emotional labor it takes to keep a group going?  #recommend.
There's a notion of mentors as elders who will take you in hand and bring you along, via heart-to-hearts over coffee, and almost magical transmission of wisdom. 

Not always, and not necessary.

I've been fortunate to have a couple of long-term mentors.  But those relationships did not start in a formal program.  Or with awkward "will you be my mentor" conversations. 

Instead, the relationships developed over time -- and I'm always looking for ways to give back to the gracious people who always take my call.

And sometimes, I've been mentored by people I don't really know.  I would even use the term "mentor" to describe a couple of people who have actively not supported me.  The key is being ready to see and learn from other people's wisdom, even when it comes in an unexpected conversation or interaction.


Thanks,

Anne Libby

P.S. From the archives -- from May, 2017, one of the How to Have a Job test issues, on Mentors.
P.P.S.  Anne Hathaway is a frequent movie mentee!  Everyone should be so lucky to have a Nigel.  Or a Robert DeNiro.
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