Sarah E Murphy Following Your Bliss
A Career Advice Column
by Sarah E. Murphy
writer, photoartist, entrepreneur and seasoned job-seeker

Someone To Watch Over Me
The Value of Finding a Career Mentor
Posted: May 2003

When I look back on my years in school, what stands out most, besides the plethora of happy and sometimes horrendous memories of those turbulent years, are those extra special teachers. They were the ones who made class an exciting place to venture. The ones who were as enthused about the subject matter as they were about your opinion of it.

Two of those people were Anne Steele for seventh grade English, and Mike Rainnie for Poetry and Creative Writing senior year of high school. They were the teachers who recognized me not only as a student, but also as a writer. Their validation helped my self-esteem tremendously during those difficult times of adolescence, and I was able to define myself within the walls of those classrooms.

So why must all that end once we finish school and are forced into the “real” world?

"These people are mentors, and they, like teachers, can be a pivotal force in a person’s life."

The reality is, no matter how much we accomplish or learn or evolve, we should never stop looking to others for guidance. We’re always going to need a little help along this rocky road of life, someone to point us to the right path or remind us of the light at the end of the tunnel. They are the ones cheering us on when we start to disbelieve ourselves. These people are mentors, and they, like teachers, can be a pivotal force in a person’s life. The word mentor comes from the character in The Odyssey who helped the son of Odysseus fight for leadership during his father’s absence.

Mentoring in the Medical Field

The Multicultural Affairs Office at MGH has developed the second regional Hispanic Medical Students Mentorship Program (the Mentorship Program) in the nation. Established in 2000, the goal of the program is to provide structured professional and social support throughout a medical student's training. The Mentorship Program matches Hispanic medical students with faculty from the four Boston medical schools: Harvard, BU, Tufts and UMASS.

The relationship is intended as a four-year mentor/mentee relationship, with the hopes it will continue after graduation. Director, Dr. Ernesto Gonzalez started the program largely because formalized mentoring programs are scarce in the medical field. He also wanted to serve as an advocate for Hispanic students, having been a minority student himself. "I didn't want Hispanic students to feel alienated, but I also didn't want to segregate them."

He has succeeded, as his program crosses ethnic and institutional barriers. "This way, a Hispanic student from BU can work with a faculty member, of any ethnic background, from Harvard, Tufts, or UMASS Boston."

Since 1992, Dr. Gonzalez has informally mentored a BU med student, and feels that he has gained just as much from the relationship. "Mentoring is a symbiotic relationship that goes beyond coaching. It is similar to parenting, but the authority is not as overt. However, you feel a similar pride." He himself never had a professional mentor throughout his medical training, but strongly believes in the impact of such a relationship.

Taking Initiative

Dr. Gonzalez stresses that in order for a successful mentoring relationship to occur, the mentee must be the one to take the initiative. He must show his passion for the subject while being politely persistent. "It is important for the mentee to remember these are very busy people taking time out of their lives to share their knowledge, which they will gladly do if they believe in the student's sincerity."

"...if you can't find a mentor, it is most likely because you are still struggling with what you really want to do."

With his permission, his own mentee often called him at home and they would engage in conversation not limited to medicine. "His enthusiasm was contagious," Dr. Gonzalez said. He believes that one of the benefits for the mentor is the rejuvenation an eager mentee can bring to the subject matter. Their personal rapport outside of their now shared profession is one of the things that has made the relationship such a lasting one.

Having similar personal interests is vital to a successful mentoring relationship. The Mentorship Program includes an interview process covering personal and social prefences, in an effort to match students with the most fitting mentor. "We like to match mentors and mentees based on outside interests such as a love of theater or sports, in addition to their chosen professional interest, so that they have other things in common."

Look Within Yourself

Dr. Gonzalez believes that if you can't find a mentor, it is most likely because you are still struggling with what you really want to do. "I think that if a person is having difficulty finding a mentor, it is probably because they are not yet focused on what pathway they want to follow. In order to find a mentor, first you must identify that."

Just last week, Harvard University awarded Dr. Ernesto Gonzalez the prestigious Mentorship Award. Harvard Medical School gives it every year to recognize mentoring among the 8,000 faculty members in the medical school. The nominations are made by students, residents, fellows and other Faculty members. "I am very proud to be recognized," Dr. Gonzalez said.

For more information about The Mentorship Program, go to: http://www2.massgeneral.org/mao/urmmsmp.html

Corporate Mentors

Mr. Warren Lindley, Manager of People Development for Pizza Hut in Dallas agreed that finding that special person can make all the difference in a person’s career.

“My experience has been that when you ask a World Class executive why they are where they are today, 9 times out of 10 they say that they had a specific person that positively influenced them in a way that they had not seen up until that point which fundamentally changed them in some way.” He believes that employees learn and grow not only through challenging and emotional experiences they have on the job, but also from sharing their experiences with mentors who can provide context and coaching for those experiences.

“The way our Mentor program works is that we formally set up our best leaders with less experienced, high potential junior associates within the company. We bring them together and provide resources and tools for the mentors throughout the year.”

However, you will find that many of the relationships come not from formal HR programs, but rather, a mentee that has the initiative to set up a relationship with someone and work to make that relationship positive for their development.”

Mr. Lindley also believes that identifying what you really want to do is vital. “I always say, let your competencies and passion lead the way and great things will follow.”

Female Mentors

Women are seeking the advice of other, more experienced women in the workplace, a factor contributing to the growing number of formalized mentor programs for women. Last year, the Center for Gender in Organizations at the Simmons College School of Management administered an online survey to businesswomen at a National Women’s Leadership Conference in Boston. In a 1996 Catalyst study of women in corporate leadership, women cited lack of mentors as a serious barrier to advancement. However, the results in 2002 show there is a significant increase in the amount of female mentor/mentee relationships:

  • 82% of the businesswomen have an informal mentor-someone with who they have developed a relationship, on their own, for career consultation.
  • 60% of the women with mentors report their mentors are female
  • 77% say they themselves serve as mentors
  • Of those respondents with mentors, 86% say their relationship is “professionally productive.” Those with mentors reported a greater number of promotions, greater job satisfaction than those without mentors, and their mentor relationships helped reduce stress.

Speaking From Experience

While writing this article, I reflected on the amazing impact my own mentor has had on my life. Robin Paris has been more like a guardian angel to me. She takes time from her busy life to share not only her business acumen, but also her soul. She understands what it’s like to be obsessed with a sunset or the desire to capture an unguarded moment. She was the first person to ever call me an artist, and encouraged me to start identifying myself as one.

I look to her as my example when I start to question the relevance or practicality of being an artist. After spending many years in corporate America, she left a successful, lucrative career to follow her bliss.

I asked Ms. Paris why she believes in mentoring. “I am a mentor because I think outwardly. It is my desire to make a difference and to make a positive contribution back to the world. I have been blessed to follow my dream in life and there is nothing I would enjoy more than to see others do the same. With the vast business experience I achieved as a successful executive in corporate America, coupled with my creative ability, it helps others to think more globally in an effort to meet their respective goals.”

She agrees that mentoring is a mutually beneficial experience, and believes that helping others is its own reward. “The person I am mentoring can benefit from my experience and knowledge, and I benefit spiritually by knowing I have given them something that will help enhance their growth professionally and personally. For me, there is no greater feeling than to know I have helped someone, which completes my dream of serving a higher purpose with my life.”

Ms. Paris stresses that finding a mentor is paramount, and that women should look to other women for mentoring. She is the president of the Cape Cod Women’s Organization, which encourages that exact mission. “Our goal is to provide women with a venue to network and mentor one another in an organized and orchestrated fashion. It helps women to enhance their personal and professional goals and gives them a forum to come together to grow.”

Lead The Way

So think of your mentor as a compass, someone to help you along this road of life and point you in the right direction. However, you can’t expect them to make the journey for you. You are still in charge of your own destiny, and in order to get anywhere, you must put one foot in front of the other.

- Sarah E. Murphy