The Careerist: Mentors Are Real, Not Mythological

Q: I just landed my first professional job, and I love my work and colleagues. Now that I’ve settled in, I want to set a career path and goals, but feel I could really use a mentor to help me set that path. Problem is, I have no idea how to actually find one or what to expect.

A: Mentor. It’s such an elusive word, conjuring up visions of passing the secret torch of knowledge. Actually, that’s how it started. In ancient Greek literature, Odysseus left his baby Telemachus with his dear friend Mentor, whose job was to teach the boy while Odysseus was away fighting. Then the plot twist – Athena decided she would complete the boy’s education, disguising herself as Mentor so she could whisk him away to learn more about his father.

With that intimidating origin, no wonder you don’t know where to start! The good news is today’s mentors are simply those people you admire and who help you chart a life path that’s appropriate for you. To get concrete suggestions, I turned to Matt Skeele, director of strategic partnerships at ProService Hawaii. Skeele sees mentoring as an ongoing and essential part of career development, both as the one being mentored and the one doing the mentoring. Ideally, he says, we should all be doing both. “Have the vision to mentor and be mentored,” he says. “Consider it part of your strategy and core vision.”

Skeele says start with your boss, or perhaps someone else within your company whom you admire, whose professional track might be one you’d like to mirror. “But be patient,” he says. “It’s hard to find someone who knows how to listen well, not simply tell you what to do. Not all people in leadership are good mentors.”

Successful mentoring relationships help you over a season of time, according to Skeele, and the best relationships sprout organically due to shared interests and time together. Said differently, a mentor isn’t something you can toss in your cart at Fisher along with binders, pens and a dry-erase board.

To find one, be alert and observant of the people you work with, both in your company and the community. Mentors are typically a decade or so older and traveled a similar road when they were your age. When you find someone intriguing – the rock star at work who still finds time for family and personal interests – invite her to have coffee. At a minimum, you add to your network of solid contacts or, ideally, you’ll find you’re having coffee regularly with someone with whom you click, whose counsel is valuable and who brings clarity to your personal vision. That’s it: You’ve found your mentor.

When that happens, remember to turn around and look behind you. Chances are, someone’s watching you, learning from you. Invite him out for coffee, too.

Q: My wife and I just had our first child, and I really want to be a present dad, not one who works all the time and misses milestone moments. My company culture is somewhat flexible, and my female colleagues routinely take time away for child-related things. It’s less frequent with the men, because the “old-boy network” seems to value work relationships, golf games and long lunches, rather than preschool concerts. Any suggestions?

A: Does it help to hear you’re not alone? Recent research from the Pew Research Center reports what you already know: The roles of moms and dads have changed dramatically, with the responsibilities for bread-winning and diaper duty converging. The parent/work juggle is now a shared stress, with 56 percent of working moms and 50 percent of dads reporting difficulty in balancing it all. What’s more, while 23 percent of moms feel they don’t spend enough time with their kids, a whopping 46 percent of dads feel that way. And dads and moms report equally that being a parent is central to their identity: dads at 57 percent and moms at 58 percent.

Here in Hawaii, there are glimmers of hope. It’s been widely reported that Gov. David Ige’s daughter preferred him to do her hair bun before dance recitals – she said he was better at it than Mom because he had more practice. (When you run into him, ask. I did once, and he was happy to share the story.)

Figuring that nothing says “old boy network” like real estate development, I turned to the folks at Howard Hughes Corp. for their input. Many of the top executive spots are held by men, several of them with young children – a fact I know because I’ve seen these guys with their kids at company events like Courtyard Cinema, the monthly outdoor movie screening that HHC hosts at its IBM Building headquarters.

“If the culture exists in your company, don’t think of it as men versus women,” says Todd Apo, VP of community development. “Treat it for what it is, a culture that recognizes the importance of family.” Take that and run with it, he advises, making the time to be there for those milestone events while also getting your work done. Of course, don’t abuse the privilege.

“Start the habit now, setting the expectation at work that you’re going to make it a priority to participate in family events,” he advises. “And make sure you tell your co-workers why you’re taking off a little earlier and that you’ll finish your work after getting your child to bed. They will understand, and likely applaud you.”

Apo recalls an older colleague once saying he wished he had a list of all the times he prioritized work over his kids, and the reason he’d done so at the time. He regretted it, Apo recalls, and adds that lesson has stuck with him. Be the guy who pushes the culture forward at your place. You won’t regret it, and neither will your colleagues, who may follow your lead.

Q: I hear all about work-life balance, but what about community-work versus work-work balance? I sit on boards, volunteer with nonprofits, not to mention my kids’ school events and fundraisers. I know my visibility in the community is good for me professionally, and it’s a benefit for my employer, since my job includes community relations. But what about me? Sometimes I feel like my head’s going to spin off.

A: I remember that moment perfectly. Three kids, two on-going volunteer projects, one board, endless homemade cupcakes and costumes for school events, my 60+ hour work week, and one month where we never shared a family dinner. I stomped my feet, dropped the board, turned to Safeway cupcakes and off-the-rack costumes, cooked dinner, and cuddled up with the kids in front of the TV.

But surely there’s a solution that avoids the adult equivalent of a foot-stomping temper-tantrum.

Kim Gennaula, Iolani School’s executive director of advancement, inspired many of us at HB’s Wahine Forum last fall with her wise counsel on balancing work, life and all the stuff in between. Her secret seems to be discipline and a focused attention to what matters.

“Before I attend other things, I think about the value it brings to my job,” she says. “And I’m also very careful about how I help,” pointing out she serves on only one board, choosing instead to help other organizations with projects and specific needs.

Gennaula knows she has greater flexibility in her job than some people might, but she also lets her boss know what she’s doing in the community and what that adds to her responsibilities at Iolani.

“It’s OK to prioritize your family over your job and those commitments,” she says. “Sometimes I decide I’m just going to sit home and watch a movie with my kids.” She figures that’s the greatest and best use of her time – and, while I didn’t ask her, I bet she’s right there with me on Safeway cupcakes, too.



Categories: Careers, Leadership, The Careerist