Erica. Role Models, Mentors and Other Heroes

posted April 3rd, 2009 by Janet Graham - Leave a Comment

When I asked Erica to tell me about her role models, mentors and other heroes, she told me she had had lots of both from an early age. The first ones she recalled were the women who worked in her father’s real estate company. She remembers these women being in their late 40s to mid 60s and describes them as having “fabulous lives and great clothes” and to her they just seemed to have the world by the tail. She always thought they were great! She liked their energy, the way they had fun, enjoyed each other’s company and had “nice clothes”. (She did mention their clothes twice. Obviously, their clothes made a big impression on young Erica!!)

She remembers her first mentor being a friend of her parents. This woman admired Erica’s response during a boating incident and nominated her for a position in the community (organizing teen activities) based on her assessment of Erica’s decision making abilities and quick thinking. Erica says “people would always see something in you that you didn’t know you had.”

She describes herself as being shy during these years and it may be instructive that someone saw something in her she didn’t see in herself and put her in a position to develop qualities she couldn’t see for herself. And she was aware enough to question how she had arrived in certain positions or been given certain responsibilities, to come to some understanding of what had taken place.

In this vein, she says she didn’t recognize some mentors as mentors, especially when she was younger. Sometimes, she was surprised to find herself in positions of leadership or responsibility and didn’t understand why she had been selected for “stuff”. It was only later, she realized someone had been mentoring her.

She believes mentors “want something out of the mentoring relationship” and feels there is always some connection/chemistry between the mentor and mentee. The mentor wants to see the mentee grow and develop. They see something in the person that they want to develop. It may not always be conscious but it can become conscious eg “this is somebody I want to invest my time in.”

At work, she felt she had a “ton” of mentors, both women and men; people she could go to in different situations. Different decisions, different mentors. Different people for different reasons.

For example, a senior man decided to take her under his wing and introduce her to a lot of subtleties in terms of how things worked; things she didn’t get before. He explained it was because “he could see she was getting there on her own anyway and he wanted to make things clearer to her.”

She was not part of an official mentorship program; they didn’t exist for her generation.

She did look into making such mentorship programs available when she was in a position to do so and decided not to proceed because she thought mentoring involved a lot of chemistry between the mentor and mentee which formal programs couldn’t guarantee. She doesn’t believe this chemistry happens very often and says even when you have it such relationships can come to an end. For instance, the mentee can outgrow the mentor and need to move on to continue to grow and advance. Regardless, she is still friends with everyone who mentored her.

She believes mentors had a big impact on her becoming successful. Two mentors at the Schedule A bank where she worked, she considers mentors who had a significant impact on her success because both were in a position to promote her.

In one case, it wasn’t common for women to get promoted in the area, so she needed someone to really champion her. And in another case, she was the only woman the male superior had ever promoted to the position of Vice President. Without these mentors, she believes she wouldn’t have made it. She felt she needed these champions to achieve the levels of success she achieved.

And she believes mentors provided her with a different sense of her work. “When you go to work; it is more welcoming when you have a mentor.”

Other times without a champion or mentor, you know you are on your own and you go to work and you know you are not being listened to and no one is supporting you; it isn’t much fun to go to work. “You can’t win. No matter what you do, you can’t win”.

Erica sees herself as a role model and mentor. In fact, she mentors a lot of people and believes she is a role model for others. She says she is often asked: “What should I do with my life? How should I work this problem out?”

Again, she believes there is chemistry involved. The people she mentors are looking for a mentor, for sure. She says she wouldn’t simply offer unsolicited advice because she thought a person could benefit from it. She offers assistance when people ask for it, when people seek her out. Occasionally, she will offer advice but mostly the other person is looking for it and it’s a good fit.

Sometimes, people are looking for advice and she does not offer it because she sees them as “users” but this does not happen often, there is usually a mutual fit.

On the job, she mentored people because she felt it was part of her role. However, in this case too, mentees sought her out, she didn’t volunteer her services. Working in a corporation, she often felt mentees were networking, looking for a place to work or their next position, assessing the potential fit of a particular role. Mentees approached her looking for their next job or a better position, essentially assessing whether she would give them a job. Others simply sought her advice and counsel.

And she says she has mentored people through really tough situations, for example, bringing sexual harassment charges against their bosses. Even though she thought to herself, this person will be fired for taking this on, she talked to them about it anyway. A couple of these individuals worked through the process and succeeded and she was amazed at their success. She felt she was able to be a good mentor in these circumstances, despite the fact it was not something she would have pursued personally because she was able to give the support the mentees sought. (Interestingly, she never brought sexual harassment charges herself, although she felt she could have done so. Perhaps, this is another reason she was able to mentor these individuals; she believed their stories when she heard them and did not attempt to deny their experience.)

Two of her most senior mentors, a male and a female had a lot in common. They were both profoundly independent. They could take a decision others did not support. She saw them as having a lot of courage for doing this. They did not let their personal feelings override their decisions and could be very tough which Erica thought was an admirable quality.
When I asked Erica whether she saw herself as a leader, she said she did, although she admits she does not have the ambition she once had which keeps her from actively pursuing a corporate leadership role. She doesn’t have the desire to have the huge scope and responsibility she once had. She says: “I did at one point and I think it drove me forward.”

In terms of leadership in the community, she says she is always getting involved and will often get the leadership role eg alumni association, charitable work etc because she “likes to organize, likes to herd, get people organized and working on stuff.”

And to my final question regarding who else had inspired her? Who are your heroes? Erica responded without hesitation, Pippi Longstocking, a character from one of the books she had read as a child. Erica says when she was a kid, Pippi Longstocking was a big influence. She “got me into women’s lib.” In the story, Pippi was the daughter of a sea captain whose mother had disappeared. Her father gets in trouble and Pippi ends up back in the family’s house in Sweden on her own where she is completely unruly.

Pippi is a great character. And Erica’s best friend liked her too. And together she and Erica were “very women’s libber.” She remembers being nine years old and going to her friend’s ottage and the two of them deciding boys shouldn’t be the only ones able to take their shirts off to enjoy the sunshine, so they took their tops off too!!

What strikes me?

The importance of mentors and chemistry

Work is more welcoming when you have a mentor

The requirement for great leaders to be independent thinkers

The strength it requires to take a decision others do not support or to raise issues others would prefer to leave alone

Being brave and doing what is required despite your personal feelings

The inspiration which a display of strength and courage provides

Key words are Pippi Longstocking, books, organizing, women’s lib, independence, strength and courage, chemistry, ambition, admiration, leadership, inspiration

What strikes you?

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