Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Helping Hand

A while back, I was talking to a friend of mine about mentoring. We agreed that, when done right, mentorship is a powerful thing. We were both able to point to at least a couple of women in our lives who seemed to enter at the right time and nudged us along in our development. They continue to steer us in the right direction without feeling pressure to give the "right" kind of advice, and without us feeling that they're telling us what to do.

Then our conversation turned to the other side of mentorship. Mentorship programs can sometimes feel forced: you are given one person who is supposed to be your guide, but sometimes has no connection to you. They don't understand who you are. Maybe they can give insight from their own experiences, but there can be an impersonal quality that pretty much defeats the purpose of having a mentor in the first place.

I bring all of this up because I've been thinking about my own unofficial role as a mentor in other people's lives. The idea of joining an official mentorship program has always seemed strange to me, but I do want to help other women fulfill their potential.

Organic or not, having a mentor must be better than having no direction at all. Being a woman, especially a woman of color, is challenging no matter what field you want to go in. And, of course, there's the personal connection. Even if a relationship feels somewhat forced, at least there's one there, right? At least there is somebody out there who actually cares about you and the decisions you make.

I feel that it's my responsibility to lend a helping hand, because there was somebody there to help me. But how do I go about doing that? How many of you can say you've had a mentor in your life? How many of you have been a mentor to somebody else? Was it part of a program or did it develop naturally? I'd love to hear everyone's thoughts.


Pauline Karakat said...

Sometimes being a mentor can be a thankless job. I have experienced the highs and lows of mentoring family members, friends, and some co-workers, but I ultimately feel that I did my best in all of those situations. I learned to listen and to react appropriately to those I helped. These experiences have benefitted me immensely in my personal and professional lives, so I look forward to mentoring again in the near future. I feel that it gives me a sense of purpose, and it helps me as much as those I have mentored.

Jenny said...

When I went into local politics at the age of 22, I worked with a woman who'd been in politics for about as long as I'd been alive. She taught me a lot about staying true to yourself and your ideals and still be able to reach a compromise when necessary. She helped me learn to debate without being too "feminine" and "emotional", so that my voice would be heard.

After I moved across the country we lost touch. The last I heard was that she'd left politics because of the misogynism of the local party leaders...

Anonymous said...

I have acted as mentor to several people over the course of my career.
Many years ago I mentored a young man who was interested in multimedia. The organization put us together because I worked in IT and was close to him in age ... turned out to be a bad match because my experience didn't match his goals - not even a little bit!
They then paired me up with the grant writer for the Homeless Prenatal Program in San Francisco - a perfect match!
From my perspective, both matches were the luck of the draw and I *hope* that young man learned something, even if it wasn't what he was looking for. I know I did!

Anonymous said...

How apposite.

I've just been promoted at work, and one of the expectations in my new (very senior) position is that I'm expected to help guide/mentor upcoming engineers.

I. Have. No. Clue.

Is there a guidebook on this somewhere? Because this girl didn't get into programming because she had people skills ...

sally said...

Thanks, everyone, for sharing your experiences! I'm more confident that whatever I try, it will at least be a learning experience, as kjrambling said.

MouseJunior, I obviously have no advice for you since I'm clueless myself. Does anybody have any thoughts on starting up as a mentor?

Kekla Magoon said...

I think that to be an effective mentor, you have to care about your mentee on some level, even if it's a professional or pre-matched relationship.

As far as what to do, there's no formula, but basically you are there to support and share knowledge and experience with someone who is coming up behind you. Maybe try to put yourself in the mentee's shoes, and think about what you would want to know, or what would have helped you get through certain situations. It's important to make yourself open to their questions, so they can help direct what support and information they get out of you. You will get to know their needs that way.

Also, if it's someone who may eventually compete with you professionally, you have to be able to give honest advice without feeling threatened when the person makes progress.

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