Forum: How mentoring can go right, and where it goes off track
Opposites attract. Must have a willingness to educate, listen and learn. Honesty. And a commitment of one’s time. Those are among the tenets of a successful mentor/mentee relationship that were articulated during an insightful panel at our Game Changers conference this month. The theme of mentorship pervaded that event, and has become more and more prevalent in my conversations with industry leaders.
Our Game Changers Mentoring Challenge, which was established by CSM in 2016, has aligned dozens of young women with senior leaders in sports business, and the response to the program has been overwhelmingly positive. Young women find the program inspirational, and the mentors get energized from their younger industry colleagues. In a panel moderated by longtime NFL executive Scott Pioli, a pair of industry mentor/mentee relationships — Jets senior adviser Neil Glat and Hawks executive Nzinga Shaw; and the NHL’s Susan Cohig and GumGum Sports’ Katie Carew — talked about how connections were made and friendships developed.
Shaw recalled how she supported Glat when they worked at the NFL more than nine years ago. She was in HR and he ran the corporate development division. “We spent a lot of time together,” Shaw said. “When you have long conversations about talent, you eventually start talking about other things in the business. I would ask him a lot of questions. There were things about the complex NFL business that I didn’t understand, that I knew that he had knowledge about. And so, I used him as a means to learn the business. We evolved and developed into a mentor/mentee relationship.”
Likewise, Glat drew from Shaw’s insight. “Nzinga really understood the dynamics of the NFL,” he said. “She understood the personalities, and it was a learning opportunity for me. The best form of relationships are when you’re both learning.” One benefit, not obstacle, Shaw noted, was that the two were very different. “What I loved about him is that he was completely opposite of me,” she acknowledged. “Sometimes when we look for mentors, we look for another woman or another person of color or somebody that you can relate to in some of the marginalized experiences that you go through. But I liked Neil because he was the complete opposite, and I truly believe in diversity. I’m a woman, he’s a man. I’m black, he’s white. I’m Christian, he’s Jewish. I’m shy, he’s outgoing. When you are around someone that is completely opposite of yourself, you start to think about problems very differently and that forces your mind to become active in a new way.”
Glat agreed, but stressed, “You find common interest. We’re both New Yorkers. We both value friendships. We maintain relationships. Even though you may think you’re coming at it from a different perspective, you find those commonalities pretty quickly in terms of tackling business or personal challenges.”
But not all mentoring relationships are as positive, and Glat recalled, “The relationships that I’ve found less gratifying is where somebody comes to you and says, ‘I’d really like you to mentor me,’ and they’re most interested in just getting to the next promotion. It can’t just be transactional about their career.” Pioli agreed, adding, “If upward mobility is the only concern, as a mentor, it just puts you in an awkward place, because what you really want to do as a mentor is help someone move ahead, and you really want to educate.” Glat followed up by adding, “You want to help with the journey, not necessarily the shortcut to get to the next step.”
Pioli asked participants to offer one word that would serve as the foundation for a successful mentor/mentee relationship, and he started by saying, “Unconditional. The help that I’m giving, what I’m doing, I want to be unconditional.” Shaw added, “Selfless. Because it takes a lot of time and energy to mentor or be mentored.” Glat stressed, “You need to be earnest and you can’t be flippant about these relationships. These conversations are critical to people, so take them seriously and make sure that you don’t have an appointment in five minutes or running to the next thing. People are going to listen, and they may make decisions which may affect who they are. Really take it seriously.” Carew’s choice: “Ask. You need to be able to ask yourself if you want a mentor, and if you have time to have a mentor,” she said. Cohig’s advice resonated as well: “Honesty, because as a mentor, you have to be willing to sometimes have hard conversations.”
This is an important topic as we look for the next generation of leaders in sports. So please share your thoughts, comments and questions with me about what sucessful mentoring looks like in the days ahead.
First Look podcast, with issues Abe is watching this week, at the 23:32 mark:
Abraham Madkour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.