Grass-Roots Mentoring

There’s a common vision of the mentor as an older, more seasoned employee, but what if you don’t have a good older model to follow? With the surge of women in the workplace a relatively recent development, many of us in our 40s don’t have a more seasoned woman to turn to for guidance. And many of the more experienced women in the workplace experienced a far different environment, both for the better and the worse, from what we are experiencing today.

That’s the point Ann Friedman makes in a recent piece in New York magazine, “Can’t Find a Mentor? Look to Your Peers.”

She has a point. When my mother, an accomplished health-care executive, was still alive, she was mentor to my sister and me as professionals. We would tell her what we were experiencing in the workplace, and she often could relate, and explain what she did in similar circumstances. Now that she’s here in spirit, but not here for easy career conversations, I find myself in the same boat as Friedman. And many of my peers do, too.

Just today I sent a text to a friend about a meeting I had with my department head. He let it slip that my boss had anointed himself “Director of Content,” rather than having that title bestowed on him as part of a promotion, as I had assumed. It came out in the course of a request for a title change for myself. I joked with the department head that if I had known we were making up titles for ourselves, I would have started calling myself The Empress.

I’m waiting now to hear my friend’s take on that. It turns out my promotion (at least in title) is still in play, but corporate politics-wise, it’s an interesting situation that’s arisen. My boss isn’t as beloved by the executives over him as I had thought. That might open new opportunities for me.

It works both ways. When this friend had sexual harassment woes at her job, I could relate to some of what she was talking about in a way an older woman might not have been able to. It’s now illegal to sexually harass another employee, but it’s still happening in more subtle ways. An older woman, who probably experienced much worse, may not be as sensitive to this newer form of harassment, and may not even realize it’s no longer acceptable. One of my friend’s male co-workers consistently would respond in teasing, playful ways to serious business questions, engaging with her differently from how she saw him engage with her other colleagues. He also would speak to her as if she were a child, and once even blocked her way to the computer printer, forcing her to interact with him. I haven’t experienced the exact same circumstance, but I know what it’s like to have the discomfort of a male colleague who’s on hyper-alert whenever you’re around and wants to interact with you as a child or a barmaid, rather than as a professional colleague.

For men, too, much has changed in the workforce over the last 30 or 40 years, so older colleagues may not have the perspective needed for the best advice. For instance, years ago, family dynamics were different, with women carrying the heaviest load in home management and child care. Now, even the busiest young male executive with a wife and children often is expected to contribute significantly to the responsibilities a housewife of the 1970s or 1980s often took care of nearly all on her own. That makes it easier to get work-life balance advice from a colleague who is in the same boat.

Like their female counterparts, men face greater competition in the workplace than their older male colleagues did, a topic I blogged about last week. Who better to commiserate with, and seek support from, than a person running alongside you in the same race? A fellow racer miles ahead of you, nearing the finish line, is too far ahead to lean against (limp against some days).

The search for the ideal mentor reminds me of the political search for a leader. It’s reflexive to look up for guidance, wanting an authoritative, or even an authoritarian, voice to give guidance. But frequently, the greatest power comes from the bottom up. You could call it grassroots mentoring.

What kind of mentoring can peers provide to each other? Do you feel mentoring needs to be top-down, or that employees at the same level can mentor each other?