Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get. —Forrest Gump, 1994
Well, I’m here to tell you that your search for mentorship does not have to be a guessing game of which bon bon has the your favorite filling. Yes it is true that mentorship should happen naturally and needn’t be some awkward or uncomfortable moment where you spring the question on your college president, “Will you be my mentor?” But it can and should be intentional and thoughtful. It should be with people who are accessible and yes available. Maybe asking the president of the college is not the right choice at this stage. The president is probably more likely to be a candidate for a sponsor. But we will get to that in a moment.
It also doesn’t have to only be with someone who is above you in the hierarchy. It certainly can be and you will need higher up mentorship as well. But today is about what I like to call co-mentorship. When we think of a mentor, we tend to think of someone who is at a higher level than us, someone who will take us under his/her wing to teach us the ropes, connect us to important people in the field and even provide recommendations for future opportunities. But co-mentorship is much more profound.
Co-mentorship happens between equals. It implies community, shared values and an intention to lift as you climb. We often discuss the value of peer-to-peer influences in higher education when talking about how to move our students to action. This approach is equally valuable for professionals.
There is research that shows that women in corporate America, Latinas in particular, find isolation and stigma as the biggest challenges to success. The same holds true for students of color at our institutions of higher learning. Students who engage outside the classroom and find a positive community of peers tend to be more successful. I believe the same is true for professional women. Latinas, for example, often feel isolated at institutions where the lack of other Latinos fosters stigma or discrimination. Even at schools with large numbers of students, staff and faculty of color, Latina women in middle management or higher are often the first or the only at their institutions. How many Latina or African American Directors and VPs are there at your institution?
Finding a relevant community that you can relate to at your place of work is crucial to your success. Don’t be afraid to seek out that community or to create it yourself. Higher Education is ripe for and supportive of community-building. If we role model it, our students will also do better and may overcome feelings of isolation as well. Our white students can benefit from witnessing diverse community-building at work. Co-mentoring is a type of community building that can break down silos, create models for our students to follow and provide YOU with an important outlet.
Find someone on your campus who shares your values and your ambition. Work together to support or co-mentor one another in your endeavors. Relationships at work need not be adversarial or unnecessarily competitive. If we are all keeping students-first in mind, then it becomes obvious that collaboration is a valuable tool. Collaboration has been sited as a valued characteristic among Latinas in the workplace. Take advantage of opportunities to collaborate with colleagues you trust in your unit but also outside your comfort zone. How great would it be for women from student affairs, academic affairs and the budget office to co-mentor one another? It can catapult you and your co-mentees up the ladder of higher ed, providing each with insight into new areas of the college. On some level, insider information may help set you apart in meetings or in one-on-one conversations with your supervisor. You don’t just need to pair up with people who look like you either. Share the wealth.
Lifting As We Climb
When you co-mentor, there is a distinct possibility that one or both of you will eventually become a sponsor for the other. You become tremendous assets for one another. So remember where you came from and help bring others along with you.
Mentorship vs. Sponsorship
There is a lot of discussion today about mentorship and sponsorship. What’s the difference? According to Sylvia Ann Hewlett author of Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor and Executive Presence, mentors advise while sponsors act. Sponsors can help you move up by vouching for you in ways that can help get you to the next level in your career. Sponsors have power and authority in your field and can take action on your behalf. This is where you want your work and values to stand out above the crowd. This is where you need the president of your college to take notice.