Being a Mentor

In the not too distant past, I was asked to do an NPR interview on women and mentoring. It got me thinking in specific terms about what mentors “do,” and ultimately led me to conclude that we use the word “mentor” far too casually. Often, as mentors, we stop short of what we can and should be doing. This is especially important in our quest to increase the number of women in technology leadership positions.
At the simplest level, mentoring involves the sharing of information. “Hey, Lucy, I saw a job posting online that may interest you.” That type of thing. It’s great – helpful – but even more helpful is the next level of mentoring: counseling and advice. “I wouldn’t take that job if I were you. You’d be in way over your head. You’re not ready.” Or, “Go for it. The job has your name written all over it.” This sounds safe enough so far, because it is – it’s “low-risk” mentoring. Don’t get me wrong. It’s wonderful and much needed. But, let’s notch it up a level.
The third level of mentoring is being an advocate for somebody – taking a risk and sticking your neck out. If they should fail, you look bad. “I think we should give Lucy a chance. She’s a quick learner and needs this type of experience to advance in her career. I’ve been impressed with what I’ve seen so far.” But let’s not stop there.
My fourth and final level of mentoring is intervention. What happens if the person you are mentoring messes it up, as they sometimes will? As a mentor, you must deliver the coaching they need to hear – “Lucy, what WERE you thinking? Knock it off and go apologize.” And, you will sometimes need to intervene and correct or mitigate their downward spiral, if you believe it’s warranted: “I know Lucy messed it up big-time, but she’s learned from it and it won’t happen again. Let’s give her another chance.”
In my career, I’ve been fortunate to have some wonderful mentors, in the truest sense of the word, and I’ve tried to be one myself. My mentors cleared the way for a flexible work schedule (in 1983) when I had my first child. When I made seemingly outrageous suggestions about technical innovations, they encouraged my creativity and celebrated my successes. When I messed up, they told me in no uncertain terms to go clean it up, and they helped me do it. And when I was promoted to an executive level, they were the first ones to call me. Now, as we launch the National Center for Women & Information Technology, many of them are pitching in and helping. I continue to benefit greatly from their advice, their advocacy and their consistent presence in my life.
We need more mentors. Mentors take risks. Mentors open doors. Mentors share power. Mentors shape careers, and mentors can reap tremendous satisfaction in the outcome. Be a mentor!

Lucy Sanders is CEO of the National Center for Women & Information Technology, a Bell Labs Fellow, and a mentor to many.

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