Last week was my company’s annual Staff meeting. 6,000 of us gather in a concert hall for 1 hour to listen to updates and stories from the past year. Despite the firm being a massive business, the atmosphere in the staff meeting is always relaxed, not stiff, and we are able to enjoy information and words of wisdom from a variety of top managers.
This year, the overarching theme was diversity. And my attention was particularly caught by one of the speaker, a woman, who was explaining her success that way : “Someone saw something in me that I didn’t know I have”. She then went on to encourage all of us to take a deserving more junior staff member under our wings and to develop them. That got me thinking about my experience with mentoring.
When my manager became my mentor and role model
When I first began my career, my first manager (who would remain my boss for almost 6 years) was a woman.
She was 5 years older than me, had graduated from a similar university, was married and had a family. In many points, she embodied what I wanted to be in 5 years time. I very much thought of her as “she is me in 5 years” and I think she might have thought of me as “she is me 5 years ago”. As she was my line manager, it wasn’t a typical mentoring relationship, but she played a massive part in my career. I modelled my behaviour and ways of working on hers.
When Lion and I became working parents, we copied some of their household organisation (50/50 childcare split, alternate evenings and mornings). Not only did they give us an immense quantity of good tips, more importantly, they showed us it was possible to have a family and dual careers.
A mentor who looks like you is very useful. He/She can relate to your situation in a way that someone else couldn’t. It is easier to open up to them about your fears and weaknesses and it is easier for them to give you relevant advice. They act as powerful role model and provide a “how to” that you can directly apply. They also give you hope, as they are the living proof that whatever you are looking to achieve has been done before.
A mentor who is different brings growth
However, having varied mentors or role models that help you think in different ways is also valuable. Without them, there is a risk of getting stuck in the same patterns and at some point, stop growing. This happened to me : after 6 years under the leadership of my esteemed manager and mentor, people started to see us as 2 versions of the same person, with me being the copy of the other, not the original. I was stuck as her junior forever, in her (brilliant) shadow.
I had to branch out and find someone else to guide me. This time, it is a man, who can relate to the career and parenthood topic as he is a father himself, but who also is different enough from me that my growth is accelerated under his management. With my previous manager, I learnt how to approach new disciplines, how to be creative when boundaries restrained me, how to be a credible woman in the workplace. With my new manager, I am learning how to be assertive, how to convince, how to think bigger. He is close enough to me that he can understand me, but far enough that he can bring me many new skills. And in a way, I’d like to think I may be bringing him something too.
Learning to being a mentor myself
I think a lot about how I can give back and try really hard to develop the people under me. I think that I can inspire and motivate some of them and I know I have encouraged many younger women to reach high, not by being prescriptive, but simply by being a role model.
So far, I have had 1 formal experience of mentoring myself. It was a young women, who was very clever, articulate and hard-working, with a fairly senior job but who lacked gravitas. When she spoke, people still thought she was the junior intern. We worked together for 6 months to try and improve her public speaking. I learnt a lot from her, from her humility and her management skills, and I think she learnt a bit from me about how to appear credible. The reason why this mentoring was successful is that there was something in her that I could relate with : looking too young for the job. This common point created empathy on my side and established me as somewhat of a model for her (for public speaking only, as she had nothing to envy me for otherwise, being such an accomplished professional.
I think this is probably where the golden balance is : having a mentor who has in common with you a difficulty that they successfully overcame, without being a complete copy of yourself.
I think you know you have become a very good manager the day you are able to relate to everyone and therefore to become relevant, inspiring and motivating for all your staff. Still a long way to go for me but I’ll keep trying !