“… searching for a mentor has become the professional equivalent of waiting for Prince Charming. … young women are told that if they can just find the right mentor, they will be pushed up the ladder and whisked away to the corner office to live happily ever after.”
Phyllis Thompson’s comment on last week’s Jungle Gym chapter from Lean In is priceless and a great bridge to this week’s discussion on mentors since she’s on my shortlist of wise people I turn to for advice. (If you’ve missed previous chapters, the links are below.)
“Are You My Mentor” focuses on the indispensable help others provide as we move forward in our careers and also how we pay it forward by coming alongside others.
Sandberg begins by puncturing false (and forced) ideas of what mentoring is all about. As someone highly qualified to mentor women in the corporate world, she finds it awkward and off-putting when a woman approaches her out of the blue and asks her to be her mentor—hence the chapter title, “Are you my mentor?”
“If someone has to ask the question, the answer is probably no. When someone finds the right mentor, it is obvious … Chasing or forcing that connection rarely works. … The strongest relationships spring out of a real and often earned connection felt by both sides.” (pp.64, 67)
She makes the interesting observation that women often fail to recognize when they’re being mentored because the relationship doesn’t come with the official “mentor” label. A woman she personally mentored and advised on major decisions for years illustrates the point and serves to challenge us to think more organically and less in terms of a formula.
“I never used the word “mentor,” but I invested a lot of time in her development. So I was surprised one day when she stated flatly that she had ‘never had a mentor or anyone really looking out’ for her. I asked what a mentor meant to her. She explained that it would be someone she spoke to for at least an hour every week. I smiled, thinking, That’s not a mentor—that’s a therapist.” (pp.70-71)
Since there are fewer potential women mentors at the top, she doesn’t limit mentors to other women but also includes men. Sandberg herself acknowledges benefiting from more male mentors than female.
Having said that, she raises the “tricky issues” that include “the perceived sexual context of male-female relationships.” She cites a Harvard Business Review report indicating “64 percent of men at the level of vice president and above are hesitant to have a one-on-one meeting with a more junior woman” with a corresponding avoidance of senior men among junior women (p.72)—a problem Sandberg insists must be overcome, as it holds women back and impedes progress for the organization.
She also encourages readers to think in wider circles for mentoring—not just formal mentoring programs, but opportunities to learn from peers, as well as from those who are junior to you—and admits to being surprised at how and when a mentoring relationship may show up.
I loved Sandberg’s open/organic approach to mentoring. Programmed, formulaic approaches limit our options. Mentoring I’ve received and given has most often been serendipitous and spontaneous. It can be a single encounter or morph over time into a significant friendship.
When I’ve been in situations where I didn’t know a soul who understood the work I was doing (as when I moved into the world of computers and software development), I’ve found “mentors” in professional organizations and conferences where the “experts” introduced me to new ideas, taught me the skills I needed, and provided resources where I could go if I got stuck. Most if not all of my professional mentors in the world of technology were men who gave no indication of being Christians. They were just great friends who knew the business and cared about me and my work. The Internet expands these possibilities.
I’ve also been blessed with a line-up of Christian mentors who have taken turns to coach, encourage, and challenge me. Similar to Sandberg’s experience, most of my mentors have been men—the kind of men who genuinely live out the gospel and are not threatened by “girl” friends. Some of them are even complementarians (although very soft complementarians to be sure).
Frank was my first “mentor,” although to be honest, I think he owed me that much since he was the one who pushed me through whatever door of opportunity opened and even some doors that didn’t open without some effort. He has always been the first to tell me “You can do it!” and backed his words by being a sounding board for me.
I have to acknowledge Stan Gundry, Zondervan Editor-in-Chief, as a mentor who coached me into my first publishing opportunity and over a number of hurdles that were new to me, but familiar to him. Then there was George Bingham, COO at KeyLife (Steve Brown’s radio ministry), who was interested in what I was doing with WhitbyForum and Synergy and, when he couldn’t meet me in person, was only a phone call away with wise business advice I couldn’t have done without. Bobb Biehl gave me important strategies for my ministry and writing. Dr. Pamela Reeve (now in her mid-nineties) blazed the trail I’m on and is always ready with advice and encouragement for a path that isn’t always easy. And of course I love brainstorming with Phyllis Thompson, a savvy business consultant and smart thinker.
Some of these “mentors” would be surprised to learn that I considered them mentors, but like any good mentor, they were friends first. The word “mentor” never came up. None of those relationships have been programmed or regularly scheduled, but more impromptu and on an as-needed basis.
For Christian women (and men) in the workplace, the church community is an often overlooked gold mine of professional mentors. Sitting next to us in church pews Sunday after Sunday are scores of incredible experienced senior business people whose expertise goes untapped because they don’t happen to have ministry careers and who, I guarantee, would be both interested and willing to engage a conversation about work. Many would find such a conversation refreshing. Better still, they can talk about the issues from a Christian perspective.
It seems to me that part of what it means to be an ezer-warrior is a willingness to engage wise mentors—not in a pathetic “please-help-me-I’m-drowning” way, but in a self confident “I’d-like-to-pick-your-brain” sort of way.
Sometimes I wonder if the so-called “lack of mentors” may merely reflect boxed-in thinking and the need for greater creativity. This chapter of Lean In expands the possibilities.
On the flip side, I share Sandberg’s unease with open-ended “mentor me” requests, as they imply more commitment in time than I’m able to give (like her young friend’s hour-a-week mentoring expectation). At the same time, nearly every week, I’m engaged in some form of mentoring through emails, phone calls, and meetings face-to-face and online. Almost always I learn something new myself from those encounters.
This chapter underscores the reality that no matter where we are on that jungle gym, we need interaction with others who can give us good advice, help us see things from a different angle, or simply stimulate our thinking. The challenge that remains is how we can access the resources before us to connect and learn from one another.
So What’s Your Take?
Who are your mentors? Are you willing to engage a male mentor or to seek out a non-Christian mentor? Why or why not? What challenges have you faced in finding mentoring resources to help you grow? How can we in Christian circles do a better job of opening this kind of interaction in the church? How are you paying it forward by helping others?
Lean in with your comments!
Previous Lean In Posts …
- Introduction: Women, Work and the Church
- Chapter 1: The Leadership Ambition Gap
- Chapter 2: Sit at the Table
- Chapter 3: Success and Likeability
- Chapter 4: It’s a Jungle Gym, Not a Ladder
Other related posts …