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Focus on Mentoring

Boss or colleague, friend or parent -- a mentor can be any of these (though probably not all of them at once). What's critical about mentorship, say Illinois alumnae who have been there and who know, is understanding. Even for women in a male-dominated corporate culture, "a good mentor doesn't have to be a woman," said Norma Lauder, a 1971 accountancy graduate who is now senior vice president and director of taxes for Bank One, and who also chairs the college's advisory council. "The key to a successful relationship with a mentor is mutual respect, working well together and being able to learn from each other." Made in an exclusive follow-up to the February 2002 Chicago Round Table, held at the Illini Center, Lauder's views on mentorship are presented below, along with those of other participants at the event, including Joan Ryan (Accountancy '78), Teresa Poggenpohl (MBA '86), and Victoria Shire (Communications '77). While their original discussion, led by business administration faculty member Susan Cohen, ranged from leadership, empowerment, and the changing numbers and roles of women in the corporate world, the key topic that emerged was the importance of mentorship in a business career. Pictured are (l-r) Cohen, Ryan, Poggenpohl, Lauder, and Shire.

Increasing Responsibility

And for a woman carving out a career in the business world of the 70s, being mentored by another woman wasn't necessarily even an option. "I went to work for Arthur Andersen tax department in 1971," said Lauder. "At the time there were about a hundred people in the department. Only three others were women. The organization was largely male-dominated -- there were no women at all at the higher levels of the company. And there was definitely a feeling among us that we were given more 'scut work' than men." Lauder described how in her second year with the company, she got a break that made all the difference. "One of the tax partners came back from a two-year stint in London. He had a reputation as someone who terrorized people and there were those who even called him 'a woman-hater.' Through the company's mentoring program I was assigned to him by a counselor in the personnel department. When I asked why, the answer I got was 'no one else wanted him.' So I was stuck." Or so she thought. And indeed, on the various projects she did for him, her new mentor proved to be "a workaholic and very demanding." However, Lauder also found that "He was a rainmaker who brought in a lot of business." As Lauder worked with the clients on the projects he was overseeing, he gave her more and more responsibility and because of this, she said, "I progressed to a higher level in the company far more quickly than I would have otherwise. He was a great role model and our working relationship lasted until we both went to work for different companies in 1986. Fifteen years later we're still friends. Being assigned to him was the luckiest break I ever had. As for his reputation -- well, it taught me that I didn't necessarily have to listen when someone expresses strong views about what is right or wrong for me."

Over the Years

Teresa Poggenpohl, partner and director for global advertising and brand management for Accenture, credits her long-time mentor with getting her through some decisions that had enormous implications for her future. "I had a solid foundation of trust that I built with a former supervisor," she said. "We had worked together for five or six years. Ten years later we're still very close. We might not talk for six months. But when we do make contact, we're very glad to see each other and very comfortable with each other." She continued: "A couple of years ago at the height of the dotcom frenzy, headhunters were calling me with lures of -- literally! -- millions of dollars worth of stock. I didn't know what to do. It was a time when you could easily get pushed into something that went against your gut feeling." Fortunately, she had help. "My mentor was able to provide a roadmap and a screen to get me through the decision. He had a really strong understanding of the start-up and recruitment process and was able to objectively talk me through each offer and decision. In one case, the headhunter was very aggressive and the CEO was extremely strong. But the business model seemed flawed. It could easily be replicated. The company seemed to have no competitive advantage. I had several opportunities that I was able to evaluate with his help, and ultimately I chose not to take any of them. Three of those opportunities are no longer in existence. Another is still around -- trading under $1 a share."

Multiple Mentors

Joan Ryan, executive vice president and CFO of Tellabs, a company that designs and services a diverse line of communications equipment used in public and private networks worldwide, believes that, for her, mentorship "has been extremely helpful throughout my career." Ryan said, "I have had the opportunity to work at several different companies for and with people who are truly outstanding." And along the way, she has worked for people who, in a caring, coaching fashion, have guided her through very difficult situations and decisions. "That's the best mentoring -- having others help you watch out for the landmines," she said. "That's what I try to do too, when I mentor people downstream. And for mentoring to be successful you have to be humble -- that is, be open to listening. We all know we have a lot to learn. The hard part is when people tell you something you don't want to hear -- even though, upon reflection, you know that it's true. That's where a mentor really adds value."

Ryan said that she feels mentoring is especially important for women, because "men -- especially men in executive positions in the company -- have more informal networking opportunities. They spend time together -- golfing, for example. They generally have more gender-related activities in common. Women have to reach out for those relationships." Most of her mentors have been men -- something that she regards as a reflection of the proportion of men to women in the corporate world. "I have never worked for a woman," she noted. "It probably would have been nice to have had a woman as a mentor -- someone who could stand in my shoes." But for Ryan, as for the other women interviewed, the best mentoring relationships come about "through day-to-day interaction, by observing the ways in which people react to situations and gleaning their leadership styles. . . . As relationships develop and evolve you come to seek people out, in effect acting as mentor and mentee."

How the Culture Worked

Vicky Shire, who is senior vice president with printing and communications giant RR Donnelley, observed that "having the opportunity to mentor men and women at this point in my career gives me great pleasure -- doing for others what my mentor did for me. It's a matter of listening, coaching and providing encouragement." For Shire, having a mentor was especially important when she joined NICOR in the 80s. "I was a right-brained communications type, working with left-brained accountants and engineers. I knew I had to find ways to reach these people and build my credibility before I could even hope to sell my ideas and do the work I knew I needed to do to help the company grow. My mentor helped me by providing insight into how the culture worked. That knowledge saved me from wasting time spinning my wheels. I quickly earned a reputation for getting things done and staying ahead of the curve. The things my mentor coached me on during the early stages of my career have stayed with me throughout the years. It's that same knowledge that I'm able to share today."

All in the Family

Certain mentor/mentee relationships seem to offer a patriarchal dimension that hearkens back to early models of high achievement, such as the impact an exacting father can have on a child's ambitions and skills. At the age of 5, Poggenpohl, who grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, started tagging along to work with her father at his vacuum cleaner distributorship. In high school, she kept the company's books and processed credit applications as a way of earning college tuition money. When she got to the University of Nebraska, she found that her experience working in the family business was paying off in a lot of other ways as well. "It provided me with a strong work ethic and basic business skills, including the ability to work and get along with a different kinds of people. When I got to college I also already had a solid foundation in accounting issues and an understanding of business issues that was considerably more advanced than most of my classmates." Today, her youngest mentee is her seven-year-old son David, who comes to work with her on a regular basis, knows about various projects she is working on, and is "already talking about what he might do in high school."

Whether in the office or at home (or both), mentoring relationships thus seem destined to be born rather than made. "I have found that it is very tough to match up mentors and mentees in formal programs," said Poggenpohl. "There are so many travel and business demands that it's hard to coordinate schedules. When a mentor emerges naturally from a mentee's work group, the relationship has a solid foundation and flows much more naturally."

Responsibility for All

Concluded Lauder: "I have done both official and unofficial mentoring throughout my career, on different jobs, with many different people. . . . Mentoring is taking an interest in people with a great deal of potential. It's a responsibility that everyone has at all levels of the organization -- to inspire, teach, and support the people who are coming behind you. Plus -- it's fun. Of course, ultimately younger people must take responsibility for their own careers. It used to be that you could join a company with the confidence that, if you performed well, you would have the opportunity to progress. Now it's key to ask, 'How can I get to the next level?' It's very, very important to be proactive in your career. What a mentor can do is to show you what to expect. And how to grow."

--Mary Timmins, Publications Editor