Beyond Mentoring

Yesterday a very talented designer sent me this podcast.

With a heartfelt text she simply said “Thank You.”

Of course I replied sarcastically because I’m not good with the feelings.

“Sweet moment,” she replied. “Don’t ruin it.”

Then I listened to the podcast.

Every sentence in this conversation between the host and two professors is money because decades of diversity training and the power of the #metoo movement is compressed into an easy to digest 22 minutes and change.

While the topic starts with women in the workplace, the narrative dances into every corner of the office dynamic with this common thread: white men are in charge and they get to decide who has access. The power dynamics will always have different players in different seats, but ultimately, the numbers are the numbers.

For me, the most compelling conversation in this must-listen piece revolves around mentorship versus sponsorship.

Being a mentor is admirable. Listening and sharing are notable skills that all leaders should give to those looking to develop. I value every one of my mentors and every minute they shared with me.

Sponsorship, on the other hand, is a much bigger deal. A sponsor takes you by the arm and introduces you as someone that people should help and get to know. A sponsor praises your efforts when you’re not in the room and finds you opportunities that you wouldn’t know existed. A sponsor places their name and their years of good will on you. Mentors and sponsors in the workplace are similar to the ‘chicken and pig at breakfast’.

When my sons entered the private schools of New York City, I met a few black men that had graduated from these not-so-diverse institutions decades earlier. I told them that my sons were about to attend and wanted to know what we should be concerned about, if anything.

Simultaneously they laughed to themselves as though I’d started an often-heard joke and they’d skipped to the punchline.

They told me to keep my eyes open for all of the traditional worries any parent of color would have, but that their real loss in attending the school was not understanding one of the fine points of communication that left them behind.

While the majority of the school was ultra-affluent, the social dynamic of the students was pretty even amongst the haves and the have-nots. The financial and cultural disparities were more the source of awkwardness than of tension. So they enjoyed their amazing education and moved on to higher educational platforms.

At their five year reunion they remembered seeing all of their high school classmates and remarked how similar their paths had been. Whether they chose Ivy League or state schools, their high school had been such an amazing launchpad that their first jobs out of college were consistent with their goals.

Because these schools are relatively small and the students grew up together, the parents often attended events during homecoming weekend. When they’d see all of their children’s friends they would remark how they’d all grown up and pepper each with questions.

After the standard grilling each parent would ask, “Are you good? Need anything? Let me know.”

“All good, Thanks,” was the standard response by these black men 25 years ago.

Another five years would pass and the next reunion saw a subtle shift between the alumni of color and the majority. The white alumni had a few folks that had moved into management or taken on additional responsibilities at their chosen places of employment. But those differences were subtle with respect to their classmates success.

Again, at the reunion would be the same parents that were excited to see how well all of kids had matured. And after an onslaught of questions about dating and jobs, again they’d ask, “Are you good? Need anything? Let me know.”

At the next reunion the difference in trajectory was far more noticeable. While their non-white classmates were just finding their way into the entry way of management and leadership positions, the percentage of their white classmates that were far beyond that point in their careers was high.

Obviously this group of well-educated and motivated black men had something in common that was holding them back. “We looked at every one of those guys like they stole something,” one guy exclaimed.

But there would be the same parents with the smiles and the hugs and the questions that now included settling down and children. The bitterness would turn to half-smiles as they heard the same good-byes, “Are you good? Need anything? Let me know.”

At the next reunion, they figured it out after watching their classmates grow to VP jobs while they struggled in middle-management roles.

When the questions ended with “Are you good? Need anything? Let me know,” the conversations were just getting started. These were the wealthiest and most connected individuals in the wealthiest and most connected city on the planet. They wanted to know if they could introduce them to anyone that might assist them in their industry. Of course there were no guarantees that they could help, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask. They were ready to do more than mentor.

These wealthy and connected white men were prepared to sponsor.

That was the joke. That’s why those black men that had gone to the same institutions of higher learning but had trouble climbing the corporate ladder laughed at my question. They were Paulo Coehlo’s Santiago — asleep under the answer from day one.

While those parents that offered to help meant well, they could have taken one extra step and dragged those young men and women to the meetings that they didn’t know how to ask for. That’s what Howard White did for me. That’s what Steve Horowitz does for me.

Today I tell every high school senior to immediately join LinkedIn and connect with all of their friend’s parents. Find out what they do for a living other than being your friend’s parent. You never know who your sponsor might be. They may not even tell you.

So I was less sarcastic in my next text response to the “Thank You” after listening to the entire podcast. I had actually been a sponsor to someone and she was extremely grateful.

Of course, I responded with an overly dramatic and cheesy text about how proud of her I was and how much I’d learned myself from our relationship.

Her reply: “I preferred your first response.”

Good things.

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