Women@Work: Tailor-Made Mentorship beats the Off-the-Shelf Stuff


“Mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push in the right direction.” — John Crosby

I know sponsors are all the rage these days and we have already talked about them here. Despite that, I believe that one can never underestimate the value of the right kind of mentorship. I say mentorship rather than mentor deliberately. The traditional view of a mentor is a powerful, successful and influential individual that you meet with for a couple of hours every few months and they give you advice and inspire you. Occasionally, they connect you with the right people to advance your goals.

I believe mentorship and the selection of the sources of that mentorship are much more complex matters than that. It is about recognising that we can not advance one aspect of our lives to the exclusion of the others. It’s recognising for example that as a mother of a toddler, whatever career goals I set must take into account my goals for my relationship with my child. Do I want to see him before bed every day? How will that work with needing to put in long hours in order to get a promotion or to advance to the next stage of my career? For that, I need a mentor who can relate and who, having experienced or seen it close up,  can navigate me through the new mum career haze.

I remember sitting in my office feeling exhausted to tears soon after my return from maternity leave. My workload seemed insurmountable and I still wanted and needed to get home in time to give the baby a bath and put him to bed. One of the consultants my employer uses walked in and I thought, “She is beautiful. She is always put together. She has 2 young kids and a successful business. How on earth is she doing it?” So I asked her exactly that. She sat down and explained to me that I needed to speak up and make arrangements with my boss that would allow me to be functional. She suggested negotiating temporary flexi-hours. It had never occurred to me that I could. She also suggested ways in which I could fit in personal grooming and exercise into my workday. After our conversation, I felt like a mountain had been lifted off my shoulders. It was doable after all.

A few short months later, I found a colleague, newly returned from maternity leave, crying in the kitchen. “It is all too much and I am exhausted,” she said. I sat her down and told her exactly the same thing I had been told. The very next week she was looking like a reborn woman with a revised delivery schedule from her boss and some breathing space.

When I stressed about cosleeping and sleep training and how it related to work, some of the most helpful advice I got was from a senior male member of our board of directors. He got divorced when his children were both babies and he was a single dad for a while. Don’t sweat the small stuff. It’s the big things that matter. Are the kids happy, healthy and well-fed? Then you are doing great.

When I took on an additional department at work and ran myself ragged trying to do a lot for everyone but unable to work a miracle for each person, I remembered that the same man is generally spoken of for his high moral standards in a cutthroat industry. So I went back and asked, how? How do you drown out the noise to make so many objective, good decisions? His answer was simple. You can not please everyone. Pick the principles by which you wish to be defined and apply those consistently to each situation and person. Suddenly it seemed so simple yet I know that I could never have seen it by myself.

When I was looking to be connected with a network that could help me change my career direction, I sought out connected individuals. On whether such a change was the right move for me, I spoke to those who had done it to find out how it went and what they would have done differently. Sometimes when the inspiration runs low, I turn to books written by the likes of Michell Obama and Sheryl Sandberg. When in need of spiritual fine-tuning, it’s Steven Furtick for me. The realities of balancing marriage and career? You better have someone for that.

Sometimes I just need a cold hard dose of the truth. One of my mentors says stuff like this, “the corporate environment old boys’ club was hard enough for me to navigate [to directorship] as a woman, it will be harder for you as a black woman because you will have to try a lot harder to prove the same things. Be ready.” I can always trust her to not bother with the slightest varnish.

I guess it all boils down to this: the type of mentorship I need determines the mentor I seek out. My thinking is that unless you can find a mentor without a day job, I find it hard to imagine that one can receive all the guidance and direction they need from one source. Not only that it is neither wise nor likely that one person is absolutely everything you want to be. It is vital to participate in your own mentorship by working out what exactly about a person will add value to what you are trying to do and then ask them for that. Stopping Thuli Madonsela in the elevator and randomly asking her to be your mentor is just not going to cut it. What is she supposed to say to you requestor number 786 456? To my mind, it’s taking pieces of advice, inspiration, direction, and influence from different and relevant sources and weaving them into an intentional roadmap for yourself that makes mentorship truly valuable.

“A lot of people put pressure on themselves and think it will be way too hard for them to live out their dreams. Mentors are there to say, ‘Look, it’s not that tough. It’s not as hard as you think. Here are some guidelines and things I have gone through to get to where I am in my career.’” — Joe Jonas

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great piece Chio.

    Have you come across any women Directors or C-suite members who’ve ‘made it’ with their marriages/ families intact?

    During my short stint in the corporate-world I found that families were the first to be sacrificed for the sake of career success.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you 🙂 Majority of the female directors I know personally across different companies are married with children and successful in their careers. One, I know, recently got divorced for reasons unrelated to her career. She and her husband didn’t want and didn’t have children so family wasn’t really ever an issue.

      It is important to keep in perspective 2 things: first, that the pool of female directors is very small relative to men. Somewhere in the region of 13%. That is a very small number of women making it to the top so we must be mindful not to assess them as a full representation of “all women” . Maybe a post for another day or a coffee date discussion 🙂

      2nd there is an unconscious bias across genders directed at career women. I have never heard anyone ask whether a man who is divorced and happens to be a director, sacrificed his family to get there but it an almsot “natural” question to ask of women. Most of us do it without even realising it. Often when I speak of career related things, I get feedback around whether or not I am a good mother. It is both fascinating and frustrating.


  2. Tumi says:

    I swear you’re always in my mind, reading me like a book.

    I’ve actually found this approach to be much more effective and meaningful for me

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wish life skills classes in high school and Varsity included stuff like this in addition to sex education. It takes so much time to figure it out all on our own.


Got something to say... I'm all ears ;-)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s