Tag Archives: mentoring

Bad Networking Advice to Young Women Professionals & Seven Better Ideas


gear-67138_1280A young woman I’ve been mentoring for a few years told me about a women’s professional forum she recently attended. She is not the type who sees gender issues in every office interaction, and, in fact, she didn’t have much interest in attending this women’s forum.

I come from an earlier generation. As a young female attorney thirty years ago, I was glad of opportunities to speak with older women about how they had handled problems in the workplace and in balancing work and home activities. I appreciated the stories they told of how they coped—with clients, with colleagues, with managers.

The working world is a (mostly) easier place for women now than thirty years ago. But I still believe there is a need for senior women to mentor more junior women. We can all benefit from hearing how people like us have survived and thrived in difficult circumstances—and every career has its share of difficult circumstances.

But some of the advice given at women’s forums is appallingly bad. At the conference my young friend attended, there was a session on networking. Many of the young women in attendance expressed their discomfort with the small talk that networking requires and wanted to know what to talk about.

What were they told? Compliment the women on their hair and shoes; talk to men about sports.

Why would senior women perpetuate this stereotyped view of men’s and women’s interests? Why would experienced women professionals tell their younger colleagues to focus on women’s appearance?

It so happens that my friend is a better athlete than most of her male peers. It so happens that if men were given similar advice—talk to men about sports and women about hair and shoes—they would risk charges of sexual harassment.

Why are we still segregating men and women with the advice we give them?

Here are some much better conversation openers:

1. When meeting someone at a conference, ask what they thought of the last speaker. Or if the introduction takes place before the sessions begin, ask what they hope to get out of the conference.

2. Ask if they’ve ever been to this location before—depending on the circumstances, you could ask about the city, the hotel, or the conference center. Then ask follow-up questions about what they like or dislike about the venue.

3. Try to find shared experiences with the person you are trying to speak with. You can use their clothes as a clue—if you are a runner, ask a person in running clothes if they know of a good running route in the area. But I wouldn’t comment on the “cute top” they have on. If you’re not a runner, stay away from the topic. Remember, the point is to find shared experiences.

4. Another technique is to build empathy. If someone drops something, pick it up, and say, “They’ve given us way too much to carry here.” If someone looks like they’ve lost something, ask, “Can I help you find something?” Be friendly and helpful.

5. You can also find ways to let the other person shine—if they made an intelligent comment during a meeting, let them know, and ask another question on that topic.

6. Once the ice is broken, ask where they grew up. Perhaps you’ve been to that city or state and can take the conversation toward sights you’ve seen there. Or comment on what you’d like to see there. Or ask what they liked best about growing up in that location.

7. If nothing else, talk about the weather. It’s safe. Religion and politics are not, unless you’re at a meeting related to those topics.

But avoid conversation about hair and shoes and clothing and any other personal attributes. At least until you know them better.

Remember, if you couldn’t make the comment to someone of the opposite gender, it probably isn’t appropriate for any networking situation.

For a list of questions that might help (though some of these seem outlandish to me for a first meeting), try 48 Questions That’ll Make Awkward Small Talk So Much Easier, by Aja Frost at TheMuse.com. Even if these particular questions don’t work for you, it is a good idea to have some topics prepared in advance when you know you’re going to have to meet new people.

What bad networking advice have you heard over the years?

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Filed under Diversity, Human Resources, Leadership, Management, Workplace

Planning and Leadership: You Get What You Plan For


leadership-1714497_1280The title of a recent TLNT article caught my attention—“Leadership Takes a Plan”—so I read it. The article was good (most of the TLNT articles posted on eremedia.com are good), but I was surprised at the direction author Randy Hall took in “Leadership Takes a Plan.” I had expected recommendations for how leaders should communicate with their staffs and organizations.

The leaders I worked for focused on communications, and that has been my focus also. I think of leadership as a hierarchical thing, while Mr. Hall focused on leaders as mentors and developers of people—a very important aspect of leadership. I was somewhat embarrassed to realize how narrow my first reaction to the article’s title had been.

In the article, Mr. Hall says that leaders need a plan for how they will mentor people. Leaders should schedule their mentoring, have a strategy or process for developing people, and measure the results of how protegés develop. All valid points.

I’ve written before about the importance of discretionary time, and I come back to the concept over and over again as I plan my weeks and months and as I make daily choices in how to spend my time. Like Mr. Hall, I believe that if you don’t put things on your calendar, then they must not be important. Scheduling planning time is important to me. I schedule daily (or at least weekly) time to work for long-range projects. And, as Mr. Hall says, it’s important to schedule time to meet with people you are mentoring. Do you have regular meetings set with your protegés?

The strategy for developing people may be more difficult. You probably need individual plans for each person you are actively mentoring. Some might need work on their communications skills, so getting together before and after presentations or other major communications opportunities might be important. Other protegés might be working on their project management skills, so periodic check-ins to discuss their project plans might be needed. And sometimes protegés might not even know you are actively focused on their development (though transparency will probably have a bigger impact), so regular meetings with no set agenda might work.

Lastly, Mr. Hall recommends measuring results. With people development, that can be a difficult task. Still, there are ways to set measurable goals—a certain number of opportunities to present, readiness for the next promotion, favorable reactions from certain managers and executives on a presentation, etc. The point is to think about what success looks like on the person’s development, and then plan your plan to reach that result.

As I’ve reflected on his article, I’ve realized that the point Mr. Hall makes—that you need to plan how you will develop people—is crucial in everything we do. Yes, it is important for developing people. But it is equally important for corporate communications—where I thought initially he was taking his article. And planning is important for accomplishing long-range projects. And for everything else.

With everything you want to get done, you need to articulate what you want to accomplish. Then put it on your calendar, have a strategy, and measure your results.

What do you need to spend some time planning? Do you need to focus on scheduling it, developing a strategy, or measuring results?

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Filed under Leadership, Management

Three Turning Points in a Career


I recently came across something that an old mentor of mine once wrote me as I approached my 30th birthday in the mid-1980s:

“There are three turning points in your career you will go through:

“1. Wondering if you really like what you do, at about age 30.

“2. Mid-life crisis, at about age 40, when you have a strong desire to do something else, and have a sense of losing your youth and vitality, wondering why you haven’t done more and why you’re not at the top.

“3. The end of your career, which might come any time after about age 60, when you’re ready for retirement, want to do more with your life than work, but may have some regret that you haven’t achieved your goals.”

His words weren’t the most artful description of career stages I’ve read, but they had an impact on me, and I’ve had occasion to think about these turning points over the years. He described pivotal times that I did in fact experience in my career.

MP900341467We all go through our individual variations on these career stages. Our chronological age may vary some from what my mentor stated (in particular, retirement in today’s world can come much earlier or much later than age 60). The depth and severity of the emotional conflict each of us feels are likely to be different from person to person, and one turning point might hit one person harder, while someone else is impacted more by another turning point. Finally, how we choose to cope with each of these turning points will be as personal as each of us and our career paths are.

My mentor wrote this to me when I was approaching my 30th birthday and at turning point #1. At that time, he had passed turning point #2, and was beginning to think about #3. Now I’ve passed #3 myself.

In my case, I gutted my way through turning point #1. I stayed in the same career with the same company for another decade after my mentor and I discussed my disillusionment with where I was at that time. But at my #2 turning point, I switched careers, moving from law to Human Resources. And my #3 came when I was only 50—I quit the corporate world to turn to consulting and writing, which I expect to continue for many years into the future.

In my mentor’s case, he moved into management from an individual contributor role at his turning point #1. He changed careers and industries at #2, though remained in a corporate setting. At #3 he also left the corporate world and moved into a teaching position at a small college in a poor, rural community, which he continued to do until he turned 70, when he retired completely.

My mentor said one other thing to me in that letter he wrote long ago,

“Very few think about these things. They just go as far as they go.”

He encouraged me to really ponder what I wanted out of life at each turning point I faced. Perhaps that’s what started me on my journey of self-assessment.

How have you coped with turning points in your own career, and what helped you work your way through them? How have you mentored others facing turning points in their careers?

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Filed under Employee Engagement, Leadership, Philosophy, Workplace

How To Recognize and Avoid Toxic Mentors


MP900302921A regular reader suggested recently that I write about toxic mentoring. I’ve been interested in mentoring programs for over twenty years now. Throughout my career I’ve had good mentors and not so good mentors (meaning they weren’t really mentors at all, but thought they were). But I’m not sure I’ve ever had a “toxic” mentor, so I had to give this topic some thought before writing.

What Is a Toxic Mentor?

In my view, a toxic mentor is one who makes you feel worse about yourself and your career, rather than better. It isn’t just that this person doesn’t help you, it’s that he or she actively makes things worse. Confusing or bad advice. More interested in themselves than in you. More like a parent than a coach—they control rather than teach.

Here are a couple of articles with good descriptions of toxic mentors:

What Is a Good Mentor?

MP900341467You may not be able to recognize toxicity in mentoring relationships in advance, just like you can’t always recognize it in a friendship or romantic relationship. So it is best to tiptoe into finding a mentor. And get recommendations from other people of who has helped them.

I think the best thing to look for in a mentoring relationship is mutuality—mutual respect, mutual honesty, mutual desire to get something out of the relationship. If you don’t have this type of reciprocity, you cannot build a good relationship.

My favorite article about finding a good mentor was published in Forbes. What I like about it is the emphasis on someone who is self-reflective, curious, and generous. Most articles don’t focus on these traits. But if a mentor does not know himself or herself through self-reflection, he or she is not going to be very good at helping you assess yourself. And curiosity and generosity are two excellent traits to look for in any coach or friend.

Here are some good articles on what to look for in a mentoring relationship.

How Can You Avoid Toxic Mentors?

Maybe the reason I haven’t personally been zapped by a toxic mentor is that I’ve never relied on one person to mentor me in all things. There were senior attorneys who taught me how to practice law. There were older women who’d successfully raised children while working in demanding jobs many years before I did, whether they were more senior to me in the organization or junior. There were women I admired as people who could be effective without aping how male executives operated. I needed them all to develop my career the way I wanted to.

And there were some things for which I had no mentor, just good bosses and trusted colleagues to help me muddle through.

Still, there are a few suggestions I can offer about how to avoid negative mentoring relationships:

1. Enter the relationship slowly. So many times, mentors are assigned, or the mentor’s role in the organization makes the relationship seem necessary, yet the personalities of mentor and protege simply don’t mesh. If your mentor isn’t helping you, then build other relationships that can get you what is missing in the first mentoring relationship.

2. Have goals for both the mentor and the protege. Ideally, the mentor can learn from the protege as well. That way, the relationship is not as needy.

3. Don’t expect one person to “fix” you or your career. In fact, don’t expect a multitude of mentors to be your savior. Recognize that your work and your personality are what will get you ahead. Mentors can only help you avoid the minefields.

What has been the best help or advice you ever received from a mentor?

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Filed under Human Resources, Leadership, Management, Workplace