A Word About 'Mentoring'

About 10 years ago, give or take a few, I got an email from the head honcho in my office, which was one of three across the country that made up an ambitious, culture-driven marketing company. Two of my colleagues received the same message.

We were all women. We were all managers of teams and or task sets. We were all invested in what we did. And we were all acknowledged as valuable contributors in one way or another. 

We all, also, had no idea why we were being summoned to the principal's ... erm, chief strategy officer's ... office. We were pretty sure that none of us had done anything to jeopardize the health and well-being of the business. And none of us could recall having irked the same person or group of people in recent days. (We all routinely irked someone, just not the same someone at the same time.)

Together, our crew of 30-something females jogged up the steps to the glass-walled office above the bullpen in our retrofitted factory office building. One slim, high-strung, tall and blond, in conservative, very fashionable business wear. One strong, dark-haired, in a trendy casual outfit that belied her art career. And me, calmer, shorter, wider, and (never the clothes horse) likely in jeans and a sweater, because that's what I almost always wore.

Our CSO met us at the door. Then in his early or mid-50s, he bore a striking resemblance to an outdoor catalog model. Whip-smart, generous, ethically tough (and ruggedly masculine, athletic, and well-dressed), he no longer inspired awe among the three of us. We'd all been there for close to or just more than five years. And while we didn't always agree with his decisions, we certainly respected them and granted him a degree of trust that he'd earned by sharing the reasons for those decisions ... even the ones with which we disagreed.

With varying levels of grace, we dropped into the armchairs and sofas in his office. I teased the boss about knowing how meetings with no topic on 15 minutes notice were rarely good. He grinned and got right to the point.

The leadership team guarded the company culture with a remarkable level of zeal. Once a year, the entire staff, in all three offices across the country, took an exhaustive survey that gauged satisfaction and areas for improvement. The whole staff saw the results and the comments, every time. Staff volunteers joined managers and executives on task forces mandated to improve troubling situations or to investigate options and ideas. 

In the most recent survey, there had been a couple of comments about the lack of female leadership or mentorship. When the executive team got together to discuss the results, they looked around the table and noted that there was only one woman among the four or five faces. (The chief financial officer, widely respected as a brilliant financial mind, compassionate and dedicated team leader, talented triathlete, and all-around good egg.)

We nodded. In a growing company spread across two nonconsecutive time zones, the executive team was admirably small, with widening, cross-office circles of senior vice presidents, vice presidents, directors/managers, and specialists ranging from senior levels of experience to fresh-from-college assistants. 

Our fearless leader dove into the issue at hand. "Well, the executive team was discussing ideas about how to improve that situation. The idea of creating women's groups in each office came up. There was some thought that it might give women the opportunity to get to know one another better, to talk through challenges, mentor one another, build a network ..."

We three women assiduously avoided one another's eyes as we listened to the idea and the rationale for it. The one man in the room began to develop a mirthful twinkle.

"I said I wanted to talk to you three before something like that rolled out. There are a few others being consulted in the other offices, too. So, what do you think?"

"Fuck that!" 

"Yep. What she said."

"No fucking way." 

We all remained totally relaxed in our seats, a leg tucked up in the chair here, arms folded there.

"And that's why I asked the three of you!"

All four of us roared with laughter, exchanging understanding glances around the room. 

After the first reactions burst forth, our conversation turned respectful while remaining candid. All three of us thanked the CSO for asking our opinions and explained that we didn't just answer for ourselves, but for the women reporting to us. We expressed our gratitude that the C-suite had taken seriously the concerns in the survey and recognized the need for some level of attention that they, nearly all men, might be ill-equipped to provide.

Then, we pointed down to the open office space below. Of the 35 to 40 people at our site, only somewhere between four and seven were men, including the one speaking to us, and that stasis had existed for years, even with staff turnover. Every senior-level manager and all but one manager at our level, in our office, was female. One of the other offices skewed more male across all levels; the other was more evenly weighted. But in our office, the last thing we needed were more women exerting their personal opinions about professional growth.

All three of us explained that we wanted to learn from the people who did what they were doing best, whether they were women, men, or salamanders.

What we didn't want to do was to make institutional the unique challenges that often arose in a female-dominated workplace: cattiness, insecurity, a double standard for mothers and childless women, and the sense that senior women or entrenched peers sometimes felt threatened by forthright and rising talent. In short, we wanted those senior to us to advocate for and encourage us the same way we all tried to advocate for and encourage the women and men reporting to us. If anything, we explained, we actually found the executive team, men though they were, more invested in the unique talents and success of people at our level.

We also discussed the fact that we rarely noticed whether we had men or women on our teams, unless we were dealing with a client who disregarded the female team leads. We kidded our CSO about sitting at the table when we needed his backup. That's because, when we asked him to attend meetings with clients who responded better to men, he arrived smiling and suave. Then, he introduced us like rockstars and deflected every question posed to him to the team member best suited to answer it. It just so happened that every one of those team members were female.  

I don't agree with everything the man did. Nor everything the rest of that C-suite did. It would be nearly impossible for that to be the case! 

For me, personally, though, our CSO was quite possibly the first person in a leadership position who verbalized a challenge that I have always faced. In reviews from my peers, I sometimes ran across the word "condescending." I don't doubt for a minute that I may have, at times, sounded condescending (or even been condescending). More often than not, though, I was actively trying to avoid triggering that perception. 

That particular leader finally put together that his wife, an accomplished and respected university professor, also often faced the impression that she was "condescending." Having heard her speak, he'd realized that what he considered sounding "knowledgeable" and "authoritative" was what her reviewers (and mine) deemed "condescending." Therefore, while it was something to be aware of, there was only so much that I could or should change.  

By taking the opportunity to help me polish my rough edges and excel in the areas where I was naturally inclined, he helped me build a great deal of confidence and experience. His interest, guidance, and compassion have stuck with me.

I dislike the word "mentor," as a general rule, because it still implies an ongoing hierarchical relationship. I prefer "friend" or "colleague" or "compatriot." But whatever the name, the task is still the same. It's not just upon the student to learn, but upon the more advanced student to teach, and to open doors, and to support development.

I've tried to do that for the women and men who reported to me or with whom I interacted. Sometimes, I think I succeeded. A few years ago, a bright and very capable college intern was taking notes for me during a series of interviews with world-renowned scientists at a global corporation. I told her before we walked into the room that I wasn't introducing her as an intern, and that if she heard something that she thought needed more detail, she should ask a follow-up question. Months later, long after I'd forgotten the event, she gave me a note thanking me for making her feel like she was a real member of the team and belonged at her place at that table. 

With all of that history behind me, it's no wonder that a Facebook post this morning caught my attention. It announced a new initiative from Lean In called #MentorHer. It's a movement encouraging men to mentor and advocate for women in the same way they may mentor and advocate for other men.

It appears that an unanticipated, but predictable, ramification of the #MeToo efforts is that men in the workplace are avoiding one-on-one interaction with female colleagues and subordinates, out of fear that the situation will somehow be misconstrued. This does a great disservice to businesses as a whole and to women who may (as I did) rely upon their male colleagues to help them blaze their own trail.

Clearly, the answer isn't to shut women out of what's considered "normal" interaction. Instead, it's to become even more invested in the success of capable women in all fields. And, it's to change the idea of what "normal" is, so that it's no longer defined by gender, but by capacity, capability, and character.