17 November 2009

The mentoring dilemma

As I was walking into the office this morning, I met up with a colleague in the elevator lobby and we rode up to our floor together. She mentioned that she saw me pull into the parking garage and thought to herself that I was someone she really looked up to professionally. She said she admired the way that I was handling my career and considered me a mentor. I, of course, returned the compliment with some supportive words of encouragement, acknowledging how wonderful she is and what an important contribution she makes.

This exchange gives me pause to consider. How important is it for us to have professional mentors or role models with whom we can personally identify? Does it contribute in a meaningful way to job satisfaction? What are the behaviors or characteristics of those individuals most often identified as mentors or professional role models?

A number of years ago I worked for a large professional consulting organization that implemented a mentoring program specifically for mid-career females. It was structured as a group, with a designated senior professional as the group leader. The premise was to provide a network of peer contacts plus a senior mentoring contact for each female in the group. The idea behind this premise was splendid, but the only drawback for me, was that I had no relationship with any of the members of this network because I worked in a different business unit. The level of effort required to build the trusting individual relationships that would make this network a solid resource for me, personally, was not on my short list of things to do. I already invested plenty of time in my job and every spare nanosecond I was able to detach from it was precious. So while on the one hand the mentoring network was something I felt I wanted, the investment-versus-payoff balance was out of whack.

Earlier this year, I attended an industry lunch meeting and was surprised beyond belief when one of the speakers, a rather senior female executive in another organization, spoke quite frankly about gender disparities. Our field is dominated by females, yet there are few females in senior executive roles. This is true. The speaker took it a step further, suggesting that we, females, do ourselves a disservice by not supporting each other. She suggested, in fact, that our behaviors actually undermine our opportunities to succeed.

If my own response was a barometer for the rest of the audience, I would have to say that we were startled, and perhaps even uncomfortable by her frankness. The subject seemed taboo. No one ventured to ask a question. But the truth is that I would have liked to have delved into the conversation further. In a different, safer forum.

I often feel a nonspecific subliminal tension with my own manager. She is very smart and I respect her. I do not know why the tension exists and I do not know how to replace it with something that is healthier and stronger for us both.

The only thing that comes to mind, in light of this morning’s exchange, is to turn her into a mentor. What if I made an effort to let her know that I valued her professional accomplishments and considered her an amazing role model? What if she wants to know that I value her and my behavior is just not confirming my feelings? Perhaps I can influence the transformation of this relationship into something better and I have nothing to lose from trying.

1 comment:

  1. I think it's hard to balance between being mentored and being a suck-up. :(