How Female Executives Can Mentor during a Pandemic—And Why They Should

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I’d like to share with you why mentorship is so important, especially now—during a pandemic.

What qualifies me to do this?

First and foremost, you should know that I speak and I write on this topic because I’ve lived it.

Second, I propose to you that I am imminently qualified because I am, and always have been, female.

Third, I was part of a small team of three that started up a new commercial construction business (quite a few years ago, admittedly). I have hands-on knowledge, some street cred—with bumps along the road and bruises to show for it. Blood, sweat, and tears in hindsight, I was one of the first females in an otherwise male-dominated industry. I lived to survive and excel in a rough-and-tumble field, not by words, but by action and knowledge—yes, I stood behind my claims with professionalism and due diligence. Ultimately a $50 million business ensued with 100 management-level employees—within three years. Indeed, this business experience was transformative, and it parlayed into a consulting career in commercial real estate. This resume allows me to share a stage with my fellow women executives who also have “been there, done that.” What a wonderful sisterhood!

Fourth, I’ve had the good fortune of mentoring within my area of expertise. My contribution was sharing marketing, strategic planning, and business know-how with inner city youth. Not only have I mentored kids for 20-plus years, I also developed a mentorship model that grew to be national in scope—in 12 regions, for the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE). The school program teaches youth to not only write business plans but to launch small businesses. I was so motivated by this mentorship engagement, I have written a book and countless articles about mentorship—bringing skilled practitioners to share their knowledge with the next generation. To that end, I’ve consulted with education institutions and corporations on its value and impact, and I have been a guest speaker touting mentorship’s importance across numerous industries.

Tiffany’s Story

Enough about me. The proof is in the pudding. Right? This mentee letter says it all. It’s from a 14-year-old girl, who wrote this at the end of her school year:

With the help, knowledge, and down-to-earth friendship you provided, it affected me in a big way. Today, there are rare occasions when you find people who are willing to visit, teach students, and enjoy it. Especially at a predominantly African-American school where we are looked down upon with stereotypes and chosen to fail. With your encouragement, I have walked away with the knowledge of running a business—which I was completely unaware of before. Thanks to you I have found a whole other view of the world and the kindness of strangers.”

—Tiffany, age 14, June 2010.

This young woman had little confidence in September when we met. Little did I know that Tiffany viewed herself and her culture as one that was looked down upon. I was flabbergasted to learn that a little coaching and support could change a life, a self-perception, and an acceptance of an adult, white, stranger. I began to realize—with Tiffany’s help—that we were on to something. I began to think, “There needs to be much more skills-based, Project Based Mentorship.” How can we make that happen?

I propose to you that as female executives, when we hire, we should step back a minute and gain perspective. Think about the “Tiffanys” in our own work worlds. Folks from minority backgrounds, disenfranchised, those shooting for the American Dream, those reskilling or upskilling; those scared first hires who might also lack self-confidence, self-motivation, or may not have developed the work practices or ethics that meet our standards.

Indeed, as we take on employees—an investment of time, kindness, methodology, expectations, role modeling—I suggest that mentorship’s best practices can and do spark change: confidence, innovation, leadership, motivation, collaboration, a spirit of generosity, loyalty, and so much more.

How Have We Changed as Employees During the Pandemic?

Now, consider this same population during a pandemic. OMG—let us count the ways that COVID-19 has changed our worlds. Getting work done is imminently more challenging.

We have lost proximity to: associates, collaborators, teamwork, guidance, and leadership.

Now our new worlds are laced with confinement, isolation, anxiety, and disruption. Accomplishing simple tasks has grown in complexity. Getting groceries, going to a bank, getting gas; even childcare, school, house cleaning, meal preparation, marriage, exercise, and sleep are impacted.

Work assignments are no longer shrouded in the sanctity of a quiet workspace, with ample time to execute and contemplate. Many employees lack a support system for technology, for questions, for shared assignments, edits, research, community, coffee time, etc.

Employees are laid off. Income is down. Food lines are infinitely long. Security is diminished.

Apprehension is up.

What expectations are we putting on employees and what role are we taking to support and encourage them, right now?

Where and How Does Mentorship Fit into this Kind of COVID Environment?

A little history. My favorite description of mentorship was written by Cornell University Professor Urie Bronfenbrenner, the founder of Head Start. He studied mentoring relationships in Japan and found that a one-to-one relationship between a pair of unrelated individuals, usually of different ages, can have a profound impact on an individual’s development. He offered this definition: “A mentor is an older, more experienced person who seeks to further the development of character and competence in a younger person.”

In 1927, a study of The Early Mental Traits of Three Hundred Geniuses found that mentors played a crucial role in the lives of one after another of the geniuses in their field.

Indeed, history provides important examples in every field where transformative mentoring relationship occurred:

  • Socrates mentored Plato.
  • Freud mentored Jung.
  • Medici mentored Michelangelo.
  • Haydn mentored Beethoven.
  • Hammerstein mentored Sondheim.
  • Miles Davis mentored John Coltrane.

In today’s work environment, I often recommend something I’ve coined as Project Based Mentoring.

Essentially, it places a project at the center of an intergenerational relationship—whereby the mentee is the responsible party for completing the task, the idea generator, the overseer of actional steps, the research, planning, and presenting results. In turn, the practitioner, as mentor, plays the devil’s advocate on core principles, coaches through master planning, provides support during the inevitable hurdles, offers light accountability toward timing and deadlines, offers methodology inputs, and ultimately helps guide the mentee in their final summarization or oral presentation.

The mentor is not a boss. She does not have authority. She cannot hire and fire. The mentor does not sit in judgement. I often suggest that the mentor knows that their ideas and inputs can be rejected by the mentee. The goal is to allow the mentee to learn and grow and take ownership of the project, its process, and the outcome.

During this time of COVID-19, I strongly believe that a regular weekly call from a Project Based Mentor who fits this description could further train and inspire an employee who is struggling at home. The project could add dimension and interest, excitement and growth to the employee—particularly with an assigned senior manager/mentor. The investment is slight, and the return on investment is a multiplier.

What a magnificent way to broaden the sisterhood, and pay it forward, by sharing best practices and encouragement in a non-judgmental and safe environment.

PATTY ALPER, author of Teach to Work, is president of the Alper Portfolio Group, a marketing and consulting company, and a board member of both the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) and US2020, the White House initiative to build mentorship in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers. She also has been appointed to the corporate committee for Million Women Mentors.

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