ANJULI SASTRY (HOST): What's in a mentor?
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MARTINA CASTRO (FOUNDER, ADONDE MEDIA): He's just a bucket of advice - good advice. And so he encouraged me to try again, navigating the working world as a young person and as a person who really didn't feel like I had a place there and feeling all the things - imposter syndrome.
SASTRY: Are they a fellow person of color who can validate your experiences, help you overcome a toxic workplace, give you advice on finding a new job? All of the above and more. We're in the middle of this nationwide reckoning. Not only are we experiencing this catastrophic pandemic, but protests against racial injustice and a financial crisis have rocked our nation. Mentorship might be the last thing on your mind right now, but it could be the answer to some of your problems.
This is NPR's LIFE KIT. I'm Anjuli Sastry. I'm a producer at NPR and one of the co-founders of the Marginalized Genders and Intersex People of Color mentorship program here. You've just heard from one of my mentors that I called up recently. Her name's Martina Castro.
CASTRO: Hello? Hi.
SASTRY: Can you hear me?
CASTRO: I can.
She's the CEO and founder of the podcast company Adonde Media. She's also a former NPR producer. As my mentor, she's helped me figure out what I want to do in my career path. Martina and I chatted when things were really going down with COVID-19 this spring. Self-quarantine measures and required work-from-home orders were just being put in place, so we couldn't not talk about all that.
CASTRO: I live alone, and debating whether to go stay with my dad and what that would entail. And, yeah, it is a tough time. How about you?
SASTRY: Yeah, same. It's kind of - we just take for granted being able to go anywhere at any time.
CASTRO: Oh, yeah. Well, the good news is that I think exercise is super encouraged, so I think...
SASTRY: Honestly, exercise is the thing that's keeping me sane right now. Thank you, Martina, for reminding me about that. Martina also dropped some practical professional advice on me during our chat. This advice came from her mentor, Doug Mitchell.
CASTRO: He coached me through my first internship applications. When I didn't get into NPR as an intern the first time I applied, I wanted to give up. I was offended. I was, you know, really disappointed and discouraged. And I was like, oh, I must not be enough, you know? And he said, oh, come on. You can't just give up the first time you get rejected at something.
SASTRY: That piece of advice stuck with Martina and it changed her entire career. She's now the founder of her own company. It also resonated with me. A lot of these little moments are actually mentorship.
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SASTRY: It is what Martina just did for me and what Doug did for her, and it's as simple as it sounds - someone just giving you advice.
CASTRO: It's like offering a different perspective to someone so that they can try on their life through your eyes or vice versa. And sometimes it's asking the right questions; it's not even giving knowledge.
SASTRY: In Martina's case, it was a fellow person of color passing on that knowledge. And she's, in turn, passed that knowledge down to me. And that's why mentorship is so powerful. It can lead to big change in your life. If you find the right mentor, they can help you get a new job or a promotion. You can find your tribe or community, if you're being marginalized at work. And mentorship can help in a crisis like this, especially if you're looking for that new job. So this episode, I'm going to be your mentor for finding a mentor. Get ready.
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SASTRY: So what does a mentoring relationship actually look like?
LISA FAIN (CEO, CENTER FOR MENTORING EXCELLENCE): Mentorship is a reciprocal relationship that's a partnership, where mentor and mentee focus on mutually defined goals that advance a mentee's skills, abilities or competencies.
SASTRY: That's Lisa Fain. She's the CEO of the Center for Mentoring Excellence. She's coached hundreds of mentors and mentees all around the country. She told me that in order to find the right mentor, first you got to figure out what you need.
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FAIN: What do you want to learn? Why do you want to have a mentor in the first place, right? What's the outcome that you want? And then as you go to look for a mentor, who might be able to help me learn those things?
SASTRY: That's our first takeaway - think about what you're trying to learn. Literally pick up a notebook and write down what you want out of your mentorship relationship. What are your short- or long-term goals? Do you need a mentor to help you tackle personal goals or a professional mentor to help you reach the next step at your job?
Look; I get it. There's so much to consider right now. Like, maybe you're taking care of your kids and doing your job and supporting your parents, all while you're staying at home in this pandemic. Think about what's going on in your life. OK, pause this podcast and go write it all down right now. I'll wait.
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SASTRY: All right, now that you've got it all written, next, Lisa Fain says you got to figure out how to find the right mentor.
FAIN: It's not as simple as, you know, getting on LinkedIn and typing in, you know, who's an expert at influencing skills or, you know, project management or whatever. First of all, that's - that can be really off-putting. And second of all, it can be a little creepy. And best-case scenario - somebody says yes but then doesn't even know what that means for you.
SASTRY: I've gotten that cold LinkedIn email, too. It's a little awkward. Lisa says to look at existing relationships to start.
FAIN: Who do I know? But also letting people know what your learning goal is and asking them who might they know who can help you with that learning goal.
SASTRY: And that's takeaway No. 2 - write down who in your life is already familiar with your work. Could they be your mentor? Could they point you to someone who maybe could be? Put these notes in the same place you wrote your initial goals down.
Before Lisa ran a mentoring center, she was a lawyer. She was actually in a mentorship program at her law firm. She got paired up with a mentor, and while they ended up being great friends, they never really talked about work.
FAIN: And it wasn't until there was somebody who saw, at the time, that I had a real passion for immigration and refugee issues and that when I would work on my pro bono work for immigration, immigrants and refugees, I would light up and asked me, you know, how that was going and helped me find more opportunities to develop my skills so that I could be a better billing attorney through my pro bono work - that was the first time that I really saw mentoring in action - what my own strengths were that really could further who I was as a professional.
SASTRY: And that person became Lisa's mentor. By the way, while you're looking for a potential mentor, remember this; mentors and sponsors are two very different things.
FAIN: Sponsorship is when somebody will advocate for you when you're not in the room and help get you that exposure. Certainly, mentorship helps with exposure, too. It's not the mentor's job to advocate for you when you're in the room.
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SASTRY: A sponsor can be a senior-level executive or future employer or boss in any industry that you're interested in. A mentor can be anyone with experience but may not have that same sponsor power or be comfortable advocating for you. A sponsor can actually hire you or give you a promotion, but a mentor may not. However, mentors can help you find and communicate with that sponsor.
OK, next up, get to know the potential mentor that you want.
FAIN: Rather than just approaching that person and saying, will you be my mentor, is being in relationship with that person first. So that means getting to know them. It means having coffees, having, you know, what the - the relationship equivalent might even be, you know, a first date.
SASTRY: Yup, you heard that right. It's like dating.
FAIN: And so in the mentoring context, it's kind of getting to know that person and, as you do that, thinking about, is it a learning fit - meaning, can they help you with what it is you want to learn? But also, do they have the time and the bandwidth and the interest in mentoring? And are they going to be able to be a really good listener? Looking for some - is this somebody who you're going to be motivated to meet with as you advance your goals?
SASTRY: OK, now that you've gone on a date or two - I hope it went well for you - you're ready to take the plunge and make it official. We've arrived at takeaway No. 3 - popping the question.
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SASTRY: Start by pulling out those notes we told you to compile earlier. It's going to help you make the perfect ask. Start the ask with what the person does and how it relates to you and your goal.
FAIN: So it might be something like, you know, Sarah (ph), I really admire the way that you can facilitate meetings and really make teams more cohesive. It's something that I'm working on, and I have a goal around that, and I'm wondering if you might be interested or willing to be my mentor as I pursue that goal.
SASTRY: If you can't meet in person right now because of the pandemic, try to make that ask over the phone. If it has to be sent via email, make the ask as specific as possible, including about logistics.
FAIN: I'd love to, you know, meet monthly. And set forth what it is your expectation is. And then say, is that something that you're willing and able to commit?
SASTRY: Mutually agree on how often you'll meet. Set up a standing calendar invite. If it's on your calendar, you're both less likely to cancel. Right now, this meeting might be virtual given COVID-19 restrictions in your area, and that's OK. You can use Skype or FaceTime or Zoom. Just be on the same page about all this as the prospective mentor. Also, here's where that dating analogy from earlier ends. Maybe you want to learn how to be a leader or have a more technical need, like working in spreadsheets or something.
FAIN: Unlike dating, which usually is a monogamous relationship, there is - you can have multiple mentors. And you can also have a mentor, and if it doesn't work that this person is a mentor, maybe they're an adviser for you. So it isn't a loss if that person isn't your mentor, doesn't become your mentor. And it isn't a loss if the person says no to mentorship because there's other ways to continue that connection.
SASTRY: Takeaway No. 4 - it's OK to have more than one mentor. Consider a board of mentors sort of like a board of directors at a company. Each of those mentors can help you develop different skills. Also, if a potential mentor says no, keep in touch. They could help you down the line.
Remember my mentor from earlier, Martina? She's just one of several mentors I have in my own life. She and I talked about the value of finding an identity-based mentor. If you're a minority or a person of color or identify as nonbinary or another marginalized identity, you can and should seek out a mentor you can talk to you about complicated issues like racism in the workplace, harassment, discrimination, gaslighting, all kinds of microaggressions. Sometimes these identity-based mentors - they just get it.
CASTRO: I think that's why it's so essential to seek out someone who is identity-based as a mentor because you just need someone to talk to who can confirm, A, that what you're witnessing and feeling is real, that it is OK and it - let's put a name on it, and let's talk about it in a way that maybe validates these feelings. And just then can you start thinking about troubleshooting and problem-solving and suggesting solutions. It starts with having some kind of validation and feeling like you're not alone.
SASTRY: In that mentorship program I co-founded at NPR, we wanted to create a safe space for marginalized genders and intersex people of color to come together and talk about issues they faced in the workplace. We've heard from dozens of participants that just having a space to vent and share ideas among people with a common identity - it led them to feel validated and supported at work in a whole new way. Here's Martina on why having a female mentor helped her.
CASTRO: It was always, like, apparent to me that she was going to teach me how to be myself in my professional development, that I wasn't going to have to imitate an alpha male (laughter) to get ahead and to be in a work environment led by a woman who, quote-unquote, "leads like a woman."
SASTRY: So when thinking about a board of mentors, decide if an identity-based mentor is what you need on the board right now.
CASTRO: It's so fundamental to our work lives that we feel like we can be ourselves and call out what we're saying as true and real and worthy and valid.
CASTRO: (Laughter) Like, the real base of the word.
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SASTRY: OK, now that you've got the mentor in your life, what happens next? Heads-up to the mentees in the back, Lisa Fain says mentees got to come to the mentorship meetings open and ready for feedback.
FAIN: Come ready to learn. You know, so often, people are - come into mentoring relationships, and they're just looking for validation or they're not looking to be challenged.
SASTRY: Also, mentees, be ready to do some work.
FAIN: Be prepared to do the work in between the sessions to really drive the relationship. You know, here's the biggest misnomer - misconception in mentoring relationships. It's that the mentor drives the relationship, and that's just not true in effective mentoring relationships. Mentees need to drive.
SASTRY: Hear that? That's takeaway No. 5. I'll repeat, mentees need to drive. It's on you to make the most of the time your mentor is giving you. Walk into that mentorship meeting ready to listen and be challenged. Also, ask for homework to improve on your goals, and follow up. One way to keep track of everything - Lisa recommends making agendas for the meetings. Those agendas will help you remember what you talked about. Send those out via email so your mentor can come to the meetings prepared.
FAIN: You know, putting forth what is it you want to talk about and sending that - sometimes you send it ahead of time, depending on what you've agreed with your mentor, so that your mentor can review that and think about it ahead of time.
SASTRY: Other things you can put on the agenda - whether you need the mentor to review a cover letter or need an edit on a draft promotion ask. Agendas also help keep the conversation on task. Mentoring relationships are not therapy. Try to keep your venting to a minimum and set the tone with your mentor about what is or isn't OK to talk about in the relationship. But at the same time, don't be afraid to discuss your personal life either. It's a balance. It might be good for your mentor to know what factors in your personal life might impact your goals, like if you're dealing with a mental health issue, a loss or a tough financial situation, especially right now.
That goes both ways. I walked into a mentor meeting recently, and my mentor said to me, can I just talk about my family and the rough day I've had for a second? She'd always made clear that these sessions were mostly about me, but she needed to talk to someone about the rough day she'd had. Having that interaction at the start of the meeting really changed the game for us and our relationship moving forward in a really positive way. I saw her as more vulnerable and open, and she saw me, her mentee, as someone she could trust. The point is, be clear about what you can talk about in your meetings. After all, we're all human.
This story also brings us to our final takeaway. It doesn't matter where you are in your career. Both Martina Castro and Lisa Fain told me anyone can have a mentor.
FAIN: Mentors should have mentors. You know why? Because if you're not learning, you're stagnant. You're not growing. And you're really not contributing and adding the value you can add to the world.
SASTRY: Same goes for who can be a mentor.
FAIN: Folks who are junior in the workforce have a lot to add and a lot of value to offer, whether it's within an organization or outside of an organization. I think it's important to remember both.
SASTRY: Lisa actually told me one story of a mentor learning from a mentee.
FAIN: And the mentor was a really senior person who had been at the organization, you know, maybe 25, 35 years. And his mentee was a very junior entry level in a manufacturing position. And while this mentor had been in manufacturing at one point, it had been many, many, many years. By the end of the mentoring relationship, the mentor told us, you know, that he had such visibility and new perspective about what was happening in manufacturing, that he could see that processes and procedures that had worked for him when he was in manufacturing no longer worked. And he never would've gotten that if it hadn't been for having a mentor who had such a fresh, unique and different perspective than the mentor had had.
SASTRY: And that, listeners, is takeaway No. 6 - know that you can be mentored at any time, and know you can mentor at any level. That knowledge that you learned from your mentors, you're just passing it on to others. In the mentorship program that I co-founded at NPR, mentors have come in different forms - as former bosses, as lateral co-workers in different departments, C-suite executives and people totally brand-new to the office. Anyone can do this.
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SASTRY: OK, let's recap the tips for finding a mentor and making the relationship work.
Takeaway No. 1 - write down your goals.
FAIN: So No. 1, what do you want to learn?
SASTRY: Takeaway No. 2 - also write down potential mentors in your existing network.
FAIN: Who do you know who either can offer you what it is you want to learn or who might know somebody who can offer you what you want to learn?
SASTRY: Takeaway No. 3 - once you're ready to make it official, make a clear ask of the mentor. This ask right now might be virtual over email, and that's totally OK.
FAIN: Revisiting the learning goal and then stating why it is that you want that person to be your mentor and what your - what the ask actually is.
SASTRY: The meeting itself might be virtual now, too. Just stay on the same page and figure out logistics with your mentor at the beginning of the relationship.
OK. Takeaway No. 4 - remember that it's OK to have more than one mentor. Part of that is considering an identity-based mentor, someone who gets it, someone who gives you the safe space to be yourself without having to explain yourself.
CASTRO: Yeah. You're building your little tribe, your army of champions because you need people to champion you sometimes, and in different ways.
SASTRY: Takeaway 5 - mentees, be open to feedback and do the homework between sessions.
FAIN: If you come in ready to learn, ready to listen, ready to try things, that can be huge.
SASTRY: Takeaway 6 - you can be mentored or become a mentor at any age.
FAIN: No one's too old or young to have a mentor, and no one's too old or young to be a mentor.
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SASTRY: For more tips on finding a mentor and making it work, visit npr.org/lifekit. And shoutout to my mentors - Theo (ph), Yowei (ph), Loren (ph), Emily (ph) and so many others who brought me to where I am today and continue to support me. Thanks also to Martina Castro and Lisa Fain for talking with me for this episode.
For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. We've got an episode on how to quit your job, another one on dating at the office and lots more. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter.
And here, as always, a completely random tip, this time from listener Savannah Lyle (ph).
SAVANNAH LYLE (NPR LISTENER): Hi. You know those silly little rubber-band-like bracelets that you get at events, like those Livestrong yellow bracelets, and they clutter up everything? Store them on the lids of your jars. They fit perfectly, and they make opening jars a lot easier.
SASTRY: If you've got a good tip, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This episode was produced by Andee Tagle. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is the senior editor. Our digital editor is Beck Harlan. And our editorial assistant is Clare Schneider. I'm Anjuli Sastry. Thanks for listening.
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