August 6, 2007
Paying it forward: The joys of mentoring
Carol Gee is an editor in the area of organization and management at Goizueta Business School.
I learned firsthand the power of mentoring early in life. While all of the people who have had a profound effect on me are too numerous to remember, a few I will never, ever forget.
People like my mother, long gone. A woman ahead of her time, my mother left the family’s farm in Virginia at a very young age and moved to Washington, D.C., where she put herself through beauty school, later securing a position working for the federal government. Over the years mother bought property, and owned and operated several beauty shops. I can still see her, so tired from her day job that she was unsteady on her feet as she fixed a neighbor girl’s hair free of charge so that she looked nice for school, church or the prom, instilling in my sister and me the importance of helping others.
I learned it from Mrs. Yarborough, my second grade teacher, who often taught siblings of an entire family over the many years that she taught school in the District of Columbia. Mrs. Yarborough looked beyond the drunken slant of my cursive writing to see the individual in me. From her I learned to listen to the rhythm in my own soul.
And I learned it from Mrs. Hunter, a manager of military service clubs worldwide, who opened her home to me, a young female soldier recuperating from pneumonia, showing me that angels did exist. Admiring her beautiful objets d’art, I listened as she spun wonderful tales of travels abroad. From her I learned to appreciate the beauty of other nations and cultures. Modern Sojourners all, my mentors knew even back then what many are discovering today: that a lack of mentors is often a barrier to success. Each in their unique way helped me to become the person that I am today.
A public health analyst, an educator, an HMO provider relations manager, and an attorney are just a handful of the young adults whom I have mentored over the years, and continue to befriend. Well established in their careers, our relationship spans from eight years to nearly 15. All graduates of this university except one, they represent the best part of my 15-year tenure on the Emory campus.
Webster’s Dictionary defines the word “mentor” as a wise and trusted counselor or teacher. Mentors are this and much more. Mentors are coaches and cheerleaders, advisers and confidants. Being a mentor requires that you be knowledgeable in a wide variety of topics that reach far beyond the field of education, or the formal classroom. Simply put, mentors bring who they are to what they do. So the careers that I chose: soldier, counselor, educator and writer seem natural prerequisites for this role.
Frustrating to many of the women that I mentor has been the lack of people willing to take the time, effort and energy to help them. Many also struggle with the perception of not being on as equal footing as men in their careers. Sadly, this is a systematic part of organizational reality. Using the listening techniques I honed as a mental health counselor, and through engaging in frank, open discussions, we arrive at personal truths that allow them to find their voice and their authenticity, while keeping their integrity.
Mentoring men consists mainly of being a sounding board, or being a resource for networking and professional contacts. More often than not, my interaction with them consists of discussing decisions that they have already decided upon, career or otherwise.
Long ago I learned that mentors can’t be squeamish about discussing personal matters. I have been tasked on numerous occasions to share my thoughts on everything from weighing the pros and cons of dating someone they just met on the Internet, to my thoughts on dating, period. However, they first had remind me what dating is like today, as having been married for over 34 years it has been quite a while since I’ve dated. This I suspect comes as great news to my husband.
Being a mentor does not require anything fancy. And you don’t have to dress a certain way. While mentoring may be formal as well as informal, my relationships with my mentees are pretty informal, which suits all concerned. We’ve met during lunch hour. Over bologna sandwiches I have critiqued resumes, crossed out words and added new ones with a red pen, flashing back on my days as an adjunct instructor. Sometimes we meet simply to talk; other times to vent or to brainstorm some idea.
I have held mock job interviews from behind my desk in Goizueta, or helped decide whether a skirt suit or pantsuit was appropriate for a particular interview. My mentees and I touch base regularly by e-mail or by phone. And no matter how insistently life gets in the way, with my job, my family or with writing articles or promoting my books, they know that I am never too busy for them.
Alas, while the thought of adding one more thing to an otherwise jam-packed schedule is enough to make us long for anything — Calgon (or Jack Daniels) to take us away — becoming a mentor is worth it. Being a mentor is worth every laugh, every tear. I have learned more from my charges than I suspect they have ever learned from me. And I have grown in ways that I never thought possible.
The next generation can benefit from our experiences as they claim their own destiny. Recently, a young lady on campus, also an aspiring writer, asked me to be her mentor. Flattered that she asked, I immediately agreed. Although she is not sure where she wants her writing to lead, I hope to be there every step of the way.
As I reflect on my life’s accomplishments, I am indebted to those who individually and collectively nurtured me. So in homage to them, I am paying it forward. Benjamin Franklin once said, “If a man empties his purse into his head, no one can take it away from him. An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.” Help build a future, be a mentor.