Best mentors give challenging advice, criticism
Trusted individual can bring areas to your attention that you might not have noticed
Barbara Rose, Chicago Tribune | YOUR SPACE
March 24, 2008
The best mentors offer advice we don't always like to hear. They chide us, goad us, challenge us. Some even have the gall to tell us to straighten our frizzy hair.
Sometimes we reach out to them, but just as often they attach themselves to us. They can be annoyingly opinionated, and it can be hard to remember they have our best interests at heart.
Consider the experiences of Cook County Circuit Court Associate Judge Patricia Mendoza. She never planned to go to law school until a family friend and lawyer got on her case.
"I was very shy," recalls Mendoza, who talked about her friend at a recent "speed mentoring" event sponsored by Chicago's Alliance of Latinos and Jews, a 14-year-old non-profit group that builds bridges between the two communities.
"You would look at me and I would blush. My mother's friend insisted I apply to law school. I kept saying no. I told her, 'That's you, that's not me.' I just couldn't imagine being her."
When the older woman brought her an application to DePaul University College of Law and insisted she fill it out, Mendoza consoled herself with the thought she would never get in—but she did.
When she tried to drop out before her first set of finals, a professor refused to sign her withdrawal forms.
When she passed the bar and settled into a satisfying public-service practice, her mentor—by then a judge herself—prodded her again.
"You really should think about becoming a judge," she recalls Circuit Court Associate Judge Consuelo Bedoya-Witt telling her.
"No, that's not me, that's you, again," Mendoza told her.
But the seed was planted, and once again it took.
"One piece of advice I give to people now is, if someone you trust encourages you to do something and you're thinking, 'It's just not me,' don't just dismiss it. Sometimes people see something in us we don't see in ourselves."
Angelique Power, director of marketing at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, was a graduate student at the School of the Art Institute in the early 1990s when she took a part-time job working for an executive at a large corporation.
Oblivious to the company's unspoken codes, she dressed like an art student—rhinestone-studded cat-eye glasses, untamed hair—while taking a keen interest in her boss' work.
"I made sure I understood what was happening and, whether I was asked or not, I would talk to her about my opinion," Power recalls. "I think she was kind of taken aback and amused so she started to build a relationship, ask me questions, hand me challenges and allow me to rise to the occasion.
"She would invite me along to watch meetings, hand me projects to run, and when I graduated she offered me a full-time job" and later promoted her to run the department.
But not before setting her young protege straight. For starters, she told Power to straighten her hair—a potentially sensitive directive to a multiracial woman.
"She said, 'Here's the uniform, take it or leave it.' I took it,' " Power says. "There's always an unseen map. There was a cultural code you had to follow to be taken seriously. It's not anything you would find in any handbook, but it was critical for me."
The mentoring relationship deepened into a mutually beneficial friendship.
"This was a woman who was a high-ranking executive, but in my role I could always be very honest," Power says. "Others might be sycophantic. I became sort of the beacon of honesty."
It was hard to break away, Power recalls. But when she left the company and her mentor for the MCA, "I was ready to take everything I learned, all this business savvy, and bring it back to the art world, which is really what I wanted to do all along, and not brush my hair if I don't want to."
Thinking big picture
Aon Corp.'s chief diversity officer, Corbette Doyle, a champion of corporate mentoring, counts among her early influences a college professor who persuaded her to change her major from mathematics to economics.
"He gave me a world view of global business and made me think big picture in a way that I hadn't," says the Tennessee-based executive. "First I was going to be a lawyer, then a math professor, then an actuary. They were all fairly narrow disciplines. He really pushed me to take a lot of liberal arts classes and to think broadly about the array of opportunities."
When she was offered a fellowship to get her doctorate in economics he convinced her to turn it down.
"Go to work and get somebody to pay for your MBA," he told her. And that's what she did.
"He was the epitome of a great mentor," she says. "The best mentors help you think twice about paths or steps you shouldn't take, and that takes a lot of insight into the person you're helping."