Ten years ago, Shamim Wu was a blank canvas, inexperienced in the sales career that she had just begun. But when the 23-year-old attended what she assumed would be a boring training course run by Traci Bild, the president and founder of Bild & Company, a national consulting firm in Clearwater, Florida, Shamim got more than she bargained for.
“I thought, Wow, this woman has it all,” says Shamim. “I was impressed by Traci’s ability to present and her approach to sales, but also by the fact that she was balancing a marriage and raising a child. I was completely inspired.”
Immediately after the class, Shamim convinced Traci to take her under her wing. “I started to emulate her,” says Shamim, “and my career took off.” Now, at age 33, Shamim is the mother of two young children and the Los Angeles–based executive vice president of a senior-housing company. Shamim says that following Traci’s lead has empowered her at work and at home. “A huge portion of my career is what it is today because I had Traci as a mentor,” she says.
Shamim’s glowing view of mentorship is widely shared. Mentorship is touted by everyone from President Obama, who issues a yearly proclamation in honor of National Mentoring Month, to major Fortune 500 companies—71 percent of which now have formal mentoring programs. Mentorship is often cited by workplace experts as a key strategy for bringing more women into the upper echelons of corporate America and eventually shattering the glass ceiling for good. But what is mentoring, exactly? And what can it do for you?
The definition is fluid by design. Just as every friendship or romance has its unique qualities, so, too, does a mentorship. But the relationship is more intimate than the one you might have with a role model, who is someone you admire, often from a distance. A mentor is an active participant in your professional and personal spheres, who draws from her own experience to provide knowledge, support, and resources.
“When you want to progress, few moves help you more than finding a mentor,” says Anna Beninger, a researcher at Catalyst, a nonprofit devoted to expanding opportunities for women in business around the world. “But the benefits go beyond career advancement. A mentor can help you flourish in all aspects of your life.”
Sound too good to be true? Some think so, claiming that the glorification of the mentoring relationship can be detrimental to career growth for women. In her best-selling book, Lean In, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg calls the wish for a mentor “the professional equivalent of waiting for Prince Charming.” She writes, “Now young women are told that if they can just find the right mentor, they will be pushed up the ladder and whisked away to the corner office to live happily ever after.” The implicit message: The notion that there is a person out there who is poised to make all your dreams come true teaches women to be too dependent on others.
2 of 4Robert Maxwell
“If she says it’s going to be fine, it will be fine.”
Mentor: Alexandra Wilkis Wilson, 36, a cofounder of Gilt Groupe (on left). Protégée: Kellee Khalil, 29, the founder of Lover.ly.
Kellee Khalil couldn’t have been more excited: At the networking program for women in e-commerce that she attended in the spring of 2012, Alexandra Wilkis Wilson’s name appeared on a list of prospective mentors. Kellee, the founder of Lover.ly, a wedding planning and shopping site, jumped at the chance to work with Alexandra, a cofounder of the online retail giant Gilt Groupe. “Gilt revolutionized the way people shopped online—something that I’m trying to do with the bridal industry,” says Kellee. “And since she was based in New York, like me, I thought we could actually build a relationship.” Two weeks later, Kellee and Alexandra met for lunch.
Why Alexandra chose Kellee to be her protégée: “When I met Kellee, I thought, Wow, her energy is amazing and inspiring. I know she’ll succeed. As a founder of a company, you’re trying to convince the world to believe in you. You need that ability to electrify people and get them excited.”
The most genius advice Alexandra ever gave Kellee: “She told me to set the expectation that every employee should come in wearing a million hats, and that each person’s role is going to change as the company grows,” says Kellee. “I had to let someone go about two months ago, and if I hadn’t taken Alexandra’s advice—and told this employee that she was expected to be flexible—I know that the person wouldn’t have understood where I was coming from. The whole experience would have been so much more difficult. “But Alexandra doesn’t just help with tactical advice.I e-mailed her over the holidays last year when I was really overwhelmed, and she quickly responded with ‘Take a deep breath.’ Just having her tell me that something is OK is reassuring. If she says it’s going to be fine, it will be fine.”
The biggest mistake a protégée can make: “Not asking for help as much as she should,” says Alexandra. “I appreciate it when Kellee asks me something specific that I can actually answer, like ‘Do you know anyone at X company? Can you make an introduction?’ If I can, great! If I can’t, I’m honest. “The worst-case scenario is that you ask and the mentor doesn’t get back to you, or she says no. Even then, that’s not such a big deal. Always remember: If you don’t ask, you don’t get.”
3 of 4Robert Maxwell
“It’s so important to find protégées who are willing to take a risk.”
Mentor: Katherine Phillips, 41, a business-school professor (at right). Protégée: Safiya Castel, 24, her research assistant.
Sometimes rejection pays off. That’s what Safiya Castel learned after applying to, and being turned down by, the Ph.D. program at Columbia Business School, in New York City, where Katherine is a professor of leadership and ethics and the highest-ranking woman of color on the faculty. “She didn’t get in, but she was whip-smart,” says Katherine, who had interviewed Safiya. Although Safiya was accepted to other graduate programs in the related field of industrial and organizational psychology, she told Katherine that her ultimate dream was to work within a management program like the one at Columbia. And Katherine was moved: “There aren’t very many women of color poised to make it as professors in the top business schools, and one of the biggest barriers is a lack of exposure to that environment.” So in 2012 Katherine created a full-time research-assistant role for Safiya, in which she could gain valuable experience collecting data and coordinating projects and learn what life as a student (or a professor) in business school would be like.
Why Safiya chose Katherine as her mentor: “I was afraid to turn down schools that had accepted me in favor of the unknown. But my dad told me, ‘She wants to take you in and nurture you. You can’t buy that.’ In my gut, I knew he was right, so I said yes. And I’m so glad I did. This spring, after working with Kathy, I was accepted to several Ph.D. programs in business management.”
What matters most in a mentoring relationship: “Vulnerability—on both sides,” says Katherine. “It’s so important to find protégées to jump off the edge with, who are willing to take a risk. They’re the ones who will also open your eyes to new ideas, as Safiya did for a challenging project of mine. The clarityand insight she brought to it changed everything.”
The most important advice Katherine gave Safiya: “She told me, over and over again, ‘You need to believe that you belong here. Otherwise how will other people believe it?’ ” says Safiya. “It wasn’t so easy for me. I grew up in the inner city and didn’t have the cultural or educational exposure that I assumedColumbia students had. But Kathy believed that I had the capacity to be just as successful as my peers. Through her encouragement, I began to see that the strength of my ideas and my work ethic were really what determined my potential.”
4 of 4Robert Maxwell
“She inspires me to aim higher than I ever thought I would.”
Mentor: Binta Niambi Brown, 39, an attorney (at left). Protégée: Kate Pynoos, 26, a law student.
In 2006 Binta Niambi Brown, a senior associate at a major law firm in New York City, asked her alma mater, Barnard College, for an intern to help her with outside philanthropic and political activities. Within the first five minutes of meeting sophomore Kate Pynoos, Binta knew that they were a perfect match. “Kate had terrific energy and enthusiasm and reminded me a great deal of myself at the same age,” says Binta. While Kate’s initial job description was to pitch in with the presidential campaign of then senator Hillary Clinton, for which Binta served as an informal national-security adviser, the pair collaborated on other projects. And their mentoring relationship has followed Kate into her second year of law school at the University of California at Los Angeles.
How the mentorship evolved: “I started out a bit guarded, thinking that if this was going to be a professional relationship, I wanted Binta to know me as a professional first,” says Kate.
“But since then we’ve spent a lot of personal time together. I’ve traveled with Binta to India, and she’s even met my 91-year-old grandmother, Rita. Those experiences, I think, have helped her tailor her advice. After all, making important decisions is not just about taking the next logical step on a career path. It’s about considering all the elements that shape our lives.”
What matters most in a mentoring relationship: “You need to have mutual trust. But more than that, as the mentor, you need to make yourself available,” says Binta. “You’re busy, of course, but if you make it clear that you will be accessible, your protégée is more likely to come to you with a broad range of issues.”
The best advice Binta ever gave Kate: “She reassures me that the doors that I want to be open to me will not necessarily close if I take a less expected path,” says Kate. “For example, although Binta went straight from college to law school, I took a few years to work first. But she supports me no matter what direction I take. And she inspires me to aim higher than I ever thought I would.”
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