Lean In Chapter Six: Are you my mentor?


Sheryl Sandberg flat out calls this an awkward and misguided question.

Will you be my mentor?

And to an extent I have to agree.

I have had young, eager college girls with a hint of desperation behind their wide eyes, asking me to ‘meet with them’ or ‘mentor’ them.

Mentor you in what, exactly?

But I have been on the other end, too, and it is just as awkward and vague.

Young, eager and more than a hint of desperation behind my own wide eyes.

Will you be my mentor?  Can we meet?

During this season of my life, I am floundering a bit.  I really miss having a formal supervisor.  I have lots of questions.  Lots of needs.  Lots of ideas.  And I just don’t know where to turn, or to whom to turn.

We have been created as relational beings, and need partnership, community, guidance, opportunity and wisdom; whether or not you are a fast-paced career person, a college student, or a stay at home mom.

It’s really just a fancy, professional way to say:  HELP ME!

She shares this anecdote from a time she spoke to Harvard Business School.  During the Q&A session, the men immediately asked great, specific questions like “What did you learn at Google that you are applying at Facebook?”.  However the first two questions from women were “Do you think it’s okay to work for a company that competes with the company you worked for before business school? and “How can I get a mentor”  She then writes:

My heart sank.  The men were focusing on how to manage a business and the women were focusing on how to manage a career.  The men wanted answers and the women wanted permission and help

This resonates strongly with me.  I feel alone in my endeavors and like I am muddling my way in the dark.  It makes more sense to just ask for a flashlight.

Sandberg and I agreed on some basic premises of mentorship, including:

A.  They are beneficial for both mentor/mentee.  There have been some crucial people in my life who have been formal supervisors and coaches.  Also, in a more informal fashion, those that have given me opportunities, taken time to meet with me or answer questions, passed on useful training and imparted priceless wisdom.  I have benefited IMMENSELY from others taking risks on me and sharing their time and energy with me.

On the flip side, some of my richest relationships, best times of personal growth, and most fulfilling moments have been when I was the mentor, not the mentee.

B.  They often happen better ‘organically’ than by the awkward “will you be my mentor” question.   Just like other relationships in life, when there is a ‘click’ of personalities, goals, mutual respect, it becomes more natural to continue pursuing that.

C.  More men should mentor more women, carefully.  Sandberg shares an example of a colleague who suggests “Breakfast and Lunch” meetings between opposite genders, as oppose to dinner meetings that can feel or appear an awful lot like a date.   My own husband has, rather successfully if I do say so myself, mentored lots of women in his work.  I actually think he is really gifted at mentoring women.  These relationships involve leadership development and debrief, but also because of the nature of the ministry, some counseling and prayer and personal conversations.  He pretty much only meets with these women in public places and sets clear boundaries, but his commitment to not just shuffling the females to the nearest ‘older woman’ but actually investing in them himself is a wonderful thing.  Of course sometimes they want to ‘talk to a woman’ about specific things, which is where I might come in 🙂

If most of the people in senior level positions – and that goes for ministries as well as fortune 500 companies – are men, my sister Sheryl and I think a level of intentionality on the part of these senior men would go a long way to help women.

There were a couple of points where I pushed back against her ideas and perspectives, and that is, once again, probably because I am coming from a ministry/stay at home mom perspective and she is not.  And you know, the whole Christian/non-Christian thing.

I think that it is possible that, while women are capable of holding their own in all spheres of society, they do bring different needs and concerns along with that.   Sandberg puts down the idea of this kind of relationship in the marketplace,

I asked what a mentor mean to to her.  She explained that it would be someone she spoke to for at least an hour every week.  I smiled, thinking, That’s not a mentor – that’s a therapist.  Few mentors have time for excessive hand-holding…using a mentor’s time to validate feelings may help psychologically but it’s better to focus on specific problems with real solutions.

In a previous chapter she applauded bringing ‘our whole selves’ to work, but apparently not in a mentor relationship?

But I think if women are bringing their whole selves to the table, then bringing our communal, emotional needs might be part of that package.  I fully distinguish between a supervisor/mentor and a therapist, but I also have been blessed by mentors who not only were furthering my professional development, but also impacted other areas of my life.

On the other hand, while I am not running Facebook (but man I’m on there enough!) I am running the Phillips Household and so I can’t hold a lot of hands right now.  One of the lessons I’ve learned is that I truly can’t say yes to everyone.  It is wise and discerning, albeit difficult, to choose who I can give my time to.  My time is valuable, and I am happy to say I have gotten a little bit smarter in using it since becoming a mom (ironically one of my mentors was key in helping me learn this!)

Here are a couple of tips, a meld of Sandberg’s thoughts and my own:

Don’t ask for a mentor, ask specific questions.  If one of those college-aged girls had asked me to help them learn how to cook, to help them pray, to help them study scripture, to help them manage a budget, I would have been far more excited to meet with them.

Similarly, there are specific opportunities I want and questions I have, so finding the right people to ask and the right questions to ask, is critical for me right now.

Acknowledge the ‘informal’ mentors you do have.  I don’t have someone who will sit down with me on a regular basis and talk in a one-on-one fashion.  I don’t have a supervisor.  If you asked me, I would say I really want a mentor but don’t have one.  But that is sort of a lie.  There are women who are teaching me, very much in the spirit of Titus 2, about their faith, about raising children, about the fruits of the spirit lived out over the ups and downs of years on this Earth.   Also, during this season of pretty much “just” being a stay at home mom, I have been provided some unique opportunities from people above me to grow and participate and learn.

Don’t expect a mentor to make you excel.  Excel, and mentors will find you.  This is Sandberg’s wording and I would change it a bit.  If we are talking about the Kingdom of God, and I am, Jesus simply asks us to say yes to Him. To follow Him.  To seek first His Kingdom.

If I am waiting around for someone to invest in me to fulfill my dreams and goals or to have a Kingdom impact or to mature me spiritually (or professionally), I may be waiting a looooong time.  But as I say yes to Jesus, yes to his Kingdom purposes both at home and at church and yes even in the workplace, I can trust God’s provision for partnership.    I want to be teachable, faithful and adventurous in Christ and for Christ.

Lastly, be a mentor.  Speak truth into younger men and women.  Be willing to share opportunities.  Don’t cling to your knowledge or skill set or ambition. Don’t fear the word mentor, or in the church, ‘disciple’.   Share what you do, what you know, and who you follow.  There is probably some lost soul just DYING to be in your kitchen, or your office, or across the table from you at Starbucks.


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