At a sisterhood conference in Jamaica recently, former judge and Jamaican Senator Marlene Malahoo Forte asked a searching question that added a new angle to ongoing thoughts and discussion on mentorship among women. To a group of leading women in the public and private sector, she asked “are you willing to help someone achieve even if they surpass your own achievement? The desirable answer to that pivotal question is “yes, of course”. But for many professional women, offering dedicated help to another young woman to achieve anything at all (regardless of who surpasses whom) is unlikely to begin with and for understandable reasons. I imagine that it is particularly unlikely for some professional women because many of them sacrificed so many things to achieve their professional ambitions – a marriage, whole actualized children, their health and personal friendships are some of the casualties left in the wake of their ‘success’. So if these women were unable or unwilling to ‘mentor’ their own children, invest in their love life or inner circle, how can they earmark time and commit to mentoring an oftentimes unknown young woman? It simply doesn’t make sense, because the best mentors don’t just put on their ‘mentorship’ hat now and then. No. True mentors develop a culture of community, cultivating relationships and sharing, not only with a special single person but in the way they lead their lives. Certainly, you can’t make the same level of investment in everyone that you interact with, but investing in people is usually their way of life.
So with that in mind, the first level of mentorship should occur in families and small groups that women are naturally a part of. Accomplished corporate mothers and businesswomen should first take the time to build a strong relationship with their children and immediate circles of influence such as professional bodies, social clubs etc. Still these efforts may not quench the real need that countless young professional women have to find that special mentor who can guide them into greatness from an arsenal of experience. Indeed all the how-to books and articles pointing you to the proverbial ‘7 steps to success’ speak to the importance of mentorship; and it is for good reason. At the crux of it is the need that we all have to get guidance from someone who has ‘done it’ before. But again, I believe one of the main reasons we are hung up on getting a specific single mentor to help and to guide, now more than ever, is the fact that we (collectively) have lost the art of building sincere relationships.
Advice for young women on mentorship
If a successful mature person of integrity who you may not have a relationship with offers to mentor you, process the offer carefully and accept it all being well. But don’t ask a stranger to be your mentor simply because they are successful and you want what they have. It is better and more organic to form relationships. A man sees an attractive intelligent woman who doesn’t know him. He hasn’t met her yet but he believes she is wife material. “Ahm excuse me, you are so beautiful, please be my wife, when can we get married?” he may incredulously ask. Except for extreeeemely exceptional circumstances, this is not the way to go about trying to form a relationship; whether in marriage or mentorship.
Here are a few suggested strategies for how young women can benefit from mentorship:
- If the potential mentor you admire is close enough to you – meaning in the same company, professional body or service club – offer to volunteer on a project or activity they are working on. Moreover if you get a chance to work with them, don’t look down on menial tasks to which you may be assigned.
- Read about the persons who you would like to mentor you but seem to be out of your reach or physical location. Follow them on social media – see what they are reading and check that out too. Social media provides a little doorway into their lives and their thoughts on various subjects. Be careful though – don’t be a stalker and don’t think you know them or their values because you read their tweets!
- Understand that at the core of mentorship is getting strategic wisdom and guidance and so you don’t have to have one person with that label in your life. What you do need is a council of wise persons who can offer wisdom on a variety of subjects. “Without consultation, plans are frustrated, But with many counselors they succeed” – Proverbs 15:22. Depending on your life experience, your mom can be a great sounding board on how to balance life and work. She can tell you about some of the mistakes she made and how she wished she had done specific things differently. Your colleagues can also be a great resource for helping you to make decisions. I have an email group of excellent brilliant women (from college days) who live across the globe; some creative and artistic, others analytical and methodical who provide some of the best advice on almost any subject – from negotiating contracts, office politics and entrepreneurship to parenting, marriage or cutting off my hair!
- I think there is a rush to find a mentor these days because we don’t spend enough time truly cultivating relationships with the people who cross our path. Let us open our eyes, hearts and minds to the gems around us. CEOs have a lot of tried and true success habits to share, but so do small business owners, consultants, HR managers, line managers, university lectures, friends, successful co-workers, pastors and family members. Some of the best mentors in my life as a youth were my direct line managers and they didn’t officially wear the ‘mentor’ title.
- It is more likely that a mentor will notice you if you are respectful, are eager to learn, helpful and have a great attitude. Indeed maintaining a good attitude is part of how you position yourself for success. You can also position yourself by attending the events that cater to professionals in your industry and be sure to have your business card handy.
Finally as it relates to the question posed by Senator Malahoo Forte, a true mentor is not concerned if the mentee surpasses her own achievement. Her objective is generous and generational; it’s about depositing the wisdom she has gained. Any ‘mentor’ worried about the possibility of a mentee surpassing them is not a true mentor in the first place – they are better defined as a competitor.
Ultimately always know that God is the master mentor, through whom we get faultless guidance and divine direction. It is in our favour to hook up with him, through the scripture and meditation on a regular basis. These spiritual efforts too are far more successful when a relationship is what is being formed rather than simply approaching a stranger for advice.
Shelly-Ann Harris is a communication specialist who has held senior positions at several public and private sector entities in Jamaica. She has also worked as a consultant for internationally funded development projects in Jamaica and the region. Follow this blog www.letsgoUpstream.com to get an alert when the next post is made or follow on Twitter @harrisshellyann