Why you need a mentor

Mentoring is important for everyone, but it’s especially critical for women and other underrepresented groups.

workplace mentoring
Credit: Pixabay

My first job after college was as an editorial assistant in the professional/computer books division of a global publishing company. Though my two immediate supervisors were male acquisitions editors, the managing editor, I'll call her Jessica, took me under her wing.

She was petite but fiery, with a penchant for Ally McBeal-style micro-miniskirt suits and sky-high heels. But it was more than her attire that commanded attention and respect -- she was well-spoken, assertive, warm and witty, and she knew exactly how to manage the intricacies of wrangling scatterbrained authors, overloaded copy editors and proofreaders and had a talent for cajoling our printer to bump priority projects to the front of the queue.

She taught me how to be assertive, but not abrasive. She gently corrected me when I'd made an editing mistake, or had spoken brashly and unwisely in a meeting. We practiced how I would approach authors whose chapter submissions were overdue, or whose work needed a severe overhaul. She helped me through the process of developing, scheduling, editing and publishing my first book acquisition.

She also encouraged me to look for greener pastures when, after acquiring a number of books for the company, I was passed over for promotion in favor of a male colleague with no practical experience but with a newly minted master's degree.

[ Related story: Should You Teach, Coach or Mentor? ]

While I never realized it, she was a mentor to me, and the lessons I learned from her are still useful to me today. In every job after that, and without being fully conscious of what I was doing, I found myself seeking that same kind of relationship with professionals who were wiser and more experienced to help guide me as I learned and grew. One such person coached me through the nerve-wracking process of confronting an author whose work I'd discovered was plagiarized. When I moved into the world of magazine publishing, I looked to my managing editor and editor-in-chief for help transitioning from Chicago style to AP style and even organizing stories -- "They go together like a train. Your lede is the locomotive that powers through first and has the momentum to carry the reader, and then all your supporting information is linked together like box cars!" he would say.

Mentoring isn't just about onboarding talent so that they understand the workflow and process norms of a company, it's about culture and nuances of learning a profession, communication skills and growth as a professional and as a person. It's also about a deeper connection with someone who has "been there, done that," and lived to tell the tale.

Especially for women, and especially women in IT, a mentor can be a lifeline when you're underrepresented, undervalued and sometimes, overtly discriminated against. Mentors can provide support and guidance, and can vouch for your achievements and accomplishments; they can also help you keep going when all you want to do is walk away.

In an interview I did with Erica Lockheimer, vice president of engineering at LinkedIn, I asked about her experiences with mentoring, as LinkedIn has a formalized program that pairs every new hire with a more experienced mentor. Lockheimer says she's had mentors throughout her career, both male and female, and has developed mentoring relationships with both supervisors and subordinates. The importance of the mentoring relationship really crystallized for her, though, when she joined LinkedIn and was invited to be part of their Women in Technology initiative.

Though Lockheimer says she had great support, encouragement and guidance from male role models, colleagues, peers and mentors, she always felt like something of an outsider.

"I've had mentors my entire career; most of them were male, but that wasn't an issue. It was always a great experience, but I didn't realize how much it mattered that I had different experiences by virtue of being a woman. Early in my career, I know I felt I wanted to push myself further toward my goals, but I never saw anyone who was 'like me,' so I wasn't even sure that was possible! When I got to LinkedIn, almost immediately a few other women reached out to me, and it was a truly eye-opening experience. I thought, 'I'm not alone. Everything I've experienced, they relate to. This is incredible,'" says Lockheimer.

She now heads LinkedIn's Women in Tech group, and actively encourages participation by and with male colleagues to help drive awareness and promote greater diversity and inclusion.

"There is just something so validating about knowing that everyone in the group has faced similar obstacles -- been talked over in meetings, incidents in the workplace. Getting involved with WIT here gives me such a big platform to start changing the conversations around these discrimination and underrepresentation issues -- not just of women, but of racial and ethnic diversity, too. One thing we try to do is bring on as many of our male allies as we can, because they have the power and privilege to stand up and be heard, where we might not be," she says.

I wouldn't be here, blogging and writing, without the support of my mentors. If you have the chance, it's worthwhile to consider joining a formalized mentoring program (or starting one), or even coach a colleague informally. You never know how powerful that relationship will be.

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