Today I am watching and reading the stories of the amazing spirited women highlighted on Spirited Woman's “Sharefest,” Nancy Mills’ brilliant creation that allows women to learn from, be inspired by, and even lean on one another. And it reminds me of the important responsibility we have to help one another.
Two years ago I was asked to make a presentation on mentoring to a women’s business organization. The woman who asked viewed me as an informal mentor of hers, and apparently thought that qualified me as somewhat of an expert on the topic. I felt ill-equipped – mentoring had been an ongoing part of the give and take of my life and career, but I had never stopped to think about the profound impact it had on me.
When I took a look back over my life and asked myself how I gained the experience, skill, knowledge, and ability I have today, I realized that perhaps the most significant learning came from the advice, counsel, and sharing of experience by others – none other than “mentors,” both formal and informal. I would not be doing the work I am doing today if not for the contribution of mentors.
To prepare for that presentation, I conducted an informal survey of many of my colleagues. I received incredible stories of how mentors impacted lives – influenced career direction, helped them through low points or gave information needed to affect an important result. But I was most struck by two things.
1. Several of the women I spoke with had received little or no mentoring. Probing, most of them said they were hesitant to ask. Some said that at least in the past, they had too much pride, or saw asking for help as a sign of weakness – they thought they should be able to handle everything. One stated it well: “Super women who are locked into do-it-yourself can't even see that they need help. Others are super women because they know how to ask for help and involve other people.”
2. Others who had indeed received valuable mentoring had never mentored others – because they felt they had little to offer!
One colleague I spoke with offered a less formal definition of mentoring as a “co-creative” relationship. She participates in ICAN’s Women's Leadership Circles, patterned after Meg Wheatley's model of shared inquiry and dialogue. Unlike traditional mentoring programs, these circles are based on peer-to-peer learning conversations. The belief is that when you speak, you are acting as mentor and when you listen you are a mentee.
Perhaps we should relax our definition of mentoring and take advantage of the incredible opportunity social media (to name just one venue) offers us to “speak and listen” – opportunities like Sharefest. At any moment we can choose people or messages that either bring us down or build us up. And it’s a choice.
A few years ago, Newsweek published an article listing qualities of successful women leaders. It said we don’t listen to other people who try to discourage us from reaching our goals, and it also said we don’t try to be the expert in everything. To me, that makes a great case for having positive mentors in our lives.
A mentor can have a transformational impact on your life. And when you contribute as a mentor to someone, the gift keeps on giving.