As my friend Lisa and I were leaving the restaurant where she had just treated me to lunch, she spotted someone she knew. She pulled me to his table as if she had something important to tell him. Then she said the best thing I’d heard in ages: ‘This is Rona, my mentor.’
When Lisa worked for me, I asked her if she’d considered managing people. She looked startled when I said, ‘You’d be good at it.’ It was the spark that lit her ambition; today, she’s at the top of her profession.
Ask successful people how they got where they are, and chances are many of them will cite a mentor. Unlike a role model, who inspires from afar, a mentor can open doors, and challenges you to be your best. Joni Mitchell dedicated her first album to the Grade 7 teacher who pushed her to write from her own experience. Primatologist Jane Goodall credits Louis Leakey with taking her on as his assistant when all she had to offer was a desire to work with animals. And Kevin Spacey reportedly still remembers when Jack Lemmon told him, ‘That was terrific, kid; you oughta do this professionally.’
A mentor’s guidance is powerful for women, studies show, influencing both our tenure in a job and our confidence in applying for promotions. But the notion that women need female mentors is a myth, says Montreal-based psychologist and author Susan Pinker, who reviewed research on mentorship for her book The Sexual Paradox: Extreme Men, Gifted Women and the Gender Gap. Both men and women tend to fare better with mentors of the opposite sex (perhaps because it’s human nature to compete with someone of your own sex). Pinker also debunks the theory that women avoid non-traditional fields because of a lack of female role models to mentor them. If this were true, she asks, then why did women surge into formerly male bastions such as medicine and law? ‘Women are no slouches when it comes to finding mentors. They’re just as good at it as men.’
When I began searching for a mentor in my mid-20s, I assumed one generous-hearted, all-knowing boss could secure my future in the magazine business. No such guru appeared, so I borrowed wisdom from my real-world bosses. Boss Number One, aloof and controlling, took a chance on me for an entry-level job, even though I lacked formal qualifications. She taught me the importance of trusting your instincts. Boss Number Two gave me the freedom to shape big ideas that didn’t always work. She taught me that achievement requires the courage to fail. Boss Number Three chose me for a huge promotion, but couldn’t explain why my work disappointed him. I wouldn’t have called him a mentor then, but he was teaching me more than I knew. He pushed me to express all of the strengths that had moved him to hire me. Years later, when I was a boss, I resolved not to follow his example.
I feel blessed to have found more mentors than I ever expected. They turned up in unlikely places (or so it seemed then). A peer gave me a kick in the pants when I had outgrown my job (‘Is your resumé out yet?’ she kept asking). A woman I barely knew changed my life by nominating me for an award, overcoming my insistence that I didn’t deserve it. As I helped her draft the letter that eventually clinched the award, I came to understand that I did deserve the honour.
It’s partly as a tribute to my own mentors that I was keen to mentor others when I got the chance. Jack Lemmon was speaking for me when he reportedly told young actors he mentored, ‘If you’ve been fortunate enough to be successful’it is your obligation to send the elevator back down.’
A wise mentor draws the line between help and self-sacrifice. When I finally reached the corner office, I initially found it tough to get away from work if someone was hovering outside my door. I learned to say, ‘We’ll talk tomorrow.’ Years after I left that job (where everything I created has been remade a time or two), I have a living legacy: the people I mentored‘who, by the way, now mentor me. While grappling with a problem the other day, I thought, ‘Lisa will have the answer.’ Wouldn’t you know, she did.
This article was originally titled "Can mentorship change your life?" in the March/April 2009 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience’and never miss an issue!’and make sure to check out what’s new in the latest issue of Best Health.