Mentoring feedback: Perspective and pitfalls
Editor’s note: These letters are in response to the Forum column in our Sept. 30 issue (“How mentoring can go right, and where it goes off track”).
I manage communications for Spectra (venue management, food services & hospitality, and partnerships). Your piece on mentoring really got me thinking.
My very first mentor was a black male. I’m a white female. That was not intentional, but it was educational. He forced me to think about perspectives and angles I hadn’t considered. He initiated me into the workforce in a way that was both holistic but nuanced. He introduced me to people I may not have met on my own, and I did the same for him — relationships from which we’re both still reaping the rewards. Speaking to the thread of differences, as crass as it might sound, he now often asks me for my “white woman perspective” on complex situations. It’s about acknowledging that we may not understand how other people think and perceive.
However, what I appreciated most about our mentor-mentee relationship was not related to our differences. Instead, it was him recognizing aspects of my personality that I’d viewed as obstacles and subliminally teaching me to harness them. For example, he noticed early on how competitive I am, so as he was teaching me — say, pitching a story to the media — he would present the task as, “I bet I can score more stories in the press than you can.” That one sentence lit a fire, and I worked my hardest to essentially “win,” but it was the department and the organization that wound up winning as well. Nowadays, tapping into my competitiveness in concrete ways has afforded me greater focus and better results.
■ ■ ■ ■
You invited comments on your Forum column with regard to mentoring. I have great trouble with that concept when it occurs within an organization. The senior executive should always resist agreeing to or being identified as a mentor for a junior employee. The simple reason is that there are often dozens of other junior employees who will perceive that relationship as unfair and prejudicial.
I was often asked by a younger employee to be his/her mentor and my answer was that I would be happy to help but I will not assume the role of mentor and, if asked, I will provide the same guidance to everyone in his/her unit or department.
Mentoring a younger person outside of an employment situation is fine. No problem there.