Modern Mentorship: Look Laterally

by Jennifer R. Keup

Mentorship is almost ubiquitous in the leadership literature. Find yourself a good mentor and you will receive sage advice, have a strong advocate in your field, enjoy a ready reference from an influential professional, and gain entrance to rooms and conversations that are normally reserved for those at levels above your own. By association, your mentors will allow you to taste the nectar of top-shelf leadership roles and try on the trappings of your next professional positions. The formula for finding professional mentors is also pretty established: find someone you admire in your field who occupies a position a few rungs above you on the professional ladder and ask for their guidance. The potential mentor will be flattered by your invitation, identifies you as someone worthy of investment, and you ride off in to the sunset of mentorship bliss. Perfect, no?

In my experience: not always.

This traditional model of leadership causes professionals, especially women, to view a mentor much like a savior or a hero in a fairy tale. As Sheryl Sandberg says:

We all grew up on…“Sleeping Beauty,” which instructs young women that if they just wait for their prince to arrive, they will be kissed and whisked away on a white horse to live happily ever after. Now young women are told that if they can just find the right mentor, they will be pushed up the ladder and whisked away to the corner office to live happily ever after.

In my own experience, I have generally followed the traditional rules and searched up the professional ladder for my mentors. However, as I have progressed in my career, my professional advancement has left me with a pool of far fewer individuals above me from which to select a mentor. Further, many of those individuals are men and, as I struggle with the challenges of working motherhood more than ever in my leadership role, I feel very strongly that my network of advocates needed to include women. Being the academic nerd that I am, I recently decided to fill this void by turning to the literature on women’s leadership in the hopes that the guidance I couldn’t find in a person, I would find on the page.

So, nearly two years ago, I drew upon my professional peer network to create a Women’s Leadership Book Club. I invited four other female professionals from across the country who I trusted and who were at similar stages in their higher education careers to join me. Thankfully, they thought my half-baked idea was a good one and we quickly agreed to read 5 books per year, one selected by each member of the group.

The truly delightful part of this experience is that I unintentionally capitalized upon the role of peers in the modern mentorship model. We certainly read our books and dutifully discussed them over conference calls and Google hang-out. Yet, these 90-minute chat sessions rapidly became about so much more. They were a safe space to discuss the challenges of work-life balance; to flesh out managerial, administrative, and leadership issues in our respective jobs; to challenge one another to be productive mentors for the next generation of women; to share moments of self-doubt; to leverage our respective networks for job searches and graduate programs; and to celebrate our personal and professional accomplishments as both women and leaders. I could say that these women became my mentors, but the truth is that they always were. I just stopped chasing mentors up the ladder long enough to look laterally and let peer mentors into my life in a more substantial way.

So I encourage you to look laterally for mentors. Your peers may be the strongest professional resource you have and no one will be more understanding, empathetic, and knowledgeable about your challenges, opportunities, and accomplishments.

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