We're All Mentors
- Future of work, Networking, Community, Multigenerational workforce
"A mentor is someone who sees more talent and ability within you, than you see in yourself, and helps bring it out of you."
— Bob Proctor
I recently attended the Faculty Research Leadership Mentoring Program at Pratt Institute, where I teach design methodology. Before I began to process and organize the insights we reached into thoughts I might share, my mind first traveled to memories of my own experiences with mentorship- specifically, the mentors I was privileged to have as a young woman as I built my career.
It would be no exaggeration to say that those relationships were vital to who I am today, and that they continue to stand out in my mind as some of the most important formative and educational experiences of my career. I call them “relationships” because this is at the core of what mentoring means, and as we explored at Pratt, its greatest benefit: that we have a long-term connection to another human being whose presence mutually enriches and betters our professional experiences.
But as I reflected on those relationships- many of which continue today- it was impossible for me to ignore how many of them were entirely the result of serendipity: a manager never walked me to another woman’s office and said, “Fanny, this is Maria, she’ll show you the ropes for the next ten years or so on her own time.” In many cases, I was lucky enough to encounter some of my most valued mentors because our work-lives overlapped at some points, and we happened to have a touchstone of shared interests or vision that led to a wonderful supportive relationship.
While that serendipity was wonderful in the ways it worked out for me, it’s not a formula for any kind of assurance that every person who needs a mentor- or several mentors- can find and get one.
There are stacks of research- easily found on your own- that mentorship is especially crucial to women, minorities, and other disenfranchised groups in having a successful upward career trajectory. A good mentoring relationship causes wisdom to be shared rather than hoarded, for success to approach mutuality, and for the beneficiaries of a mentoring experience to feel, and be, truly included in an organization. A real mentoring relationship is also enriching for everyone involved- the mentee “recipient” also offers the mentor “giver” new perspectives, promotes self-reflection, and by their presence creates a context for the mentor to reassess and evolve in their own work.
For these well-known reasons, access to good mentoring should be a priority of any org, no matter its shape or size- and while happily, there’s growing interest in expanding access to this vital opportunity, it’s still an admitted challenge to bring mentoring experiences into the careers of every woman who needs them.
This is where the discussions we had at Pratt make me inspired and hopeful: there’s tremendous potential for expanding access to good mentorship by, in turn, expanding our vision of what mentoring looks like, and how it works.
Let’s look at the narrowly-defined image of what mentoring has looked like until now: a dyadic relationship, typically between a junior and superior within an organizational hierarchy, where the superior imparts her learned experiences and organizational know-how directly to her junior, who takes it in and emulates the superior’s behavior to hopefully similar results.
Yogi and discipline, Jedi and Padawan, teacher and student- an almost universal cultural phenomenon, but there’s no reason mentoring HAS to look like this- or even necessarily SHOULD. For one thing, limiting mentorship to this model greatly reduces its availability- you’ll need a willing “superior” for every willing “junior,” both of whom need to be a good fit, etc. Likewise, especially as organizations increasingly move towards flatter org charts and very dynamic roles, a hierarchical relationship isn’t necessarily going to be relevant or even advantageous in imparting the most valuable learning and growth.
Some of the more exciting concepts we discussed included the ideas of mentoring circles and mentoring networks, two models that map very well onto the professional and social dynamics of women in the modern workplace, especially younger women early in their careers. They are, simply put, self-organized communities within an organization with the common goal of mutual empowerment and support: inclusive, non-hierarchical, and goal-oriented. They can arise to address a specific topic, org issue, or change, and disband at a mutually-satisfactory point- “pop-up mentoring.” Or, they can become a fixture within the organization, gradually building a store of institutional memory and self-guided roles. They can exist as a standing coffee break, lunch, or evening gathering, or can exist entirely within a Slack circle or a moderated private forum.
These kinds of networks can still promote the kinds of connections that lead to the long-term dyadic relationships of traditional mentoring- but will be much more likely to do so than a woman simply standing up in her cubicle and calling out, “can someone help me with this?” and able to give the same kind of sustained career support and development to people who don’t necessarily want the traditional arrangement. They’re also likely to foster the kind of mentoring relationships that don’t rely on hierarchy to work- while they may begin that way under traditional circumstances, the best ones evolve into more level and multifaceted relationships.
We can put this into action immediately: if you already enjoy a mentoring relationship, engage that person to try to expand it; if you’re in a position to mentor, immediately examine your existing connections to women who could benefit; if you’re one of the many who want and need this valuable resource, don’t wait for a “wise master” to come along: join or activate a mentoring circle or ask your employer to start one- and let us know how it goes!