OK, boomer women: When’s the last time you reached out to a younger woman you don’t even know and gave her a career boost without blinking an eye?
That’s what MSNBC’s Morning Joe cohost Mika Brzezinski recently did, according to an article by Peter Sterne in Capital New York last week.
Sterne says that Mika (I’ll use her first name because that’s her TV moniker) had just given a talk at the Columbia University School of Journalism when a 24-year-old woman approached her and said she felt a little trapped in her job as a correspondent for Newspath, the national wire service for local affiliates of CBS, Mika’s former network. The young journalist wanted to learn how she could “break out and take on a role with more responsibility.”
Mika’s Kind Gesture
Mika immediately reached for her iPhone and made a call to a CBS exec, arranging a meeting between the reporter and the network honcho.
Once Mika hung up, Sterne asked her why she’d been willing to go out on a limb for a young woman she had known for only a few seconds. “Because that’s what women should do for each other, anyone should do for anyone!” she said, laughing. “And because I can.”
(MORE: Why Women Need to Be Mentors or Find Them)
My Mixed Emotions About Her Assist
Frankly, I have mixed emotions about Mika’s mentoring move.
I agree that women should help each other out. But I also think that pulling strings for someone without knowing the quality of her work is not cool. In fact, it’s pretty show-offy and flippant. To me, the call felt almost like “Look how cool and powerful I am.”
But when I asked some of my female friends for their view, they didn’t necessarily agree with me.
They were willing to give Mika the benefit of the doubt and applaud her stepping up to help a young woman trying to get ahead in the tough television business. My pals noted that Mika could’ve just said “Good luck, keep at it,” but she went beyond that.
Too often, my friends told me, they feel that midlife women can’t be bothered to help younger women with their careers. And, they added, the person Mika called had no obligation to hire the woman if she wasn’t qualified.
4 Ways Women Should Mentor
Mika’s mentoring moment got me thinking about how women in their 50s and 60s should assist younger women professionally, which can be very rewarding for both sides. Here’s my advice:
1. Make the time. As I started to write this blog post, I suddenly remembered that I hadn’t responded to a recent Facebook message from Megan, a young woman who’s a friend’s daughter and graduated from college last year.
I’d been too busy to write her back, even though we had previously emailed and met for coffee to discuss her hopes of pursuing a career in journalism. I mentally shelved responding to Megan for a later time. Shame on me.
So as I was working on this post, I stopped writing and sent a message to Megan.
She quickly got back to me, explaining that she has a job writing obits at a small community newspaper near Pittsburgh. “I will be here a year in February, but I would love to be a travel writer and am trying to figure out how to do that,” she said. “I don’t have the money to travel on my own, so I am trying to find a job that involves traveling.”
I’ll return her note when I’m finished with this post. See how simple that was?
I admit my guilt-inspired exchange made me feel good. I was flattered that Megan wrote to me to share her career angst and reach out for help. I’m looking forward to doing just that.
2. Find a pre-career “mentee.” (I’m not wild about that word, but it is what it is). This is the strategy that Charlotte Beyer, founder and CEO of the Institute for Private Investors, uses. The former banking executive likes to mentor young women in college.
Beyer’s in her fourth year doing just that at Hunter College of the City University of New York, where she mentors one student each year. “I’m continually inspired by these mentees, whom I stay in close touch with, even after our official year of mentoring,” she says.
Hunter’s management of the mentoring program is a key factor in its success. Mentees and mentors must apply to participate and then attend orientation, midyear check-in meetings and a year-end evaluation reception. “A certain minimum time each month of face-to-face contact is expected and tracked,” Beyer explains.
Her mentees are first-generation Americans whose families emigrated from India, Ukraine and Siberia. “I feel it is an honor to mentor them,” says Beyer. “Not giving advice so much as exposing them to the business world, helping them network toward a job or internship and sharing stories from the real world.”
My older sister, Pat, 55, is trying to reach out in a similar way. She applied to be part of a Philadelphia high school mentor program that has a pretty rigorous acceptance process. Pat’s waiting for all the background checks to come back so she can be assigned to a particular student.
3. Let your mentoring happen organically. Kate White, former editor of Cosmopolitan and author of I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This: Success Secrets Every Gutsy Girl Should Know, shared her advice with me.
White says you can sense when young women you’ve worked with or know informally are looking for counseling. “They are probably eager for mentoring, but don’t know how to say it,” she says, “and you just make that first gesture.”
If it’s been a while since White last saw the young woman she mentors, she might invite her to come over to her home for a glass of wine to catch up.
“It’s good to keep a certain amount of face-to-face time with women you mentor because that gives them the opportunity to ask questions they might feel uncomfortable about by email,” says White.
White also sends her mentees emails every once in while to say “Hey, how’s it going?”
And she makes sure the women she mentors don’t feel shy about contacting her. “I give them signals that its OK to touch base if you have an issue you want to run by me,” White says.
4. Limit the number of women you mentor. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an economist and author of Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor, culls her protégées to three. “These are people I feel have special promise that I invest it in major ways,” Hewlett says.
She recommends you identify no more than two or three women who you want to groom. “You need to believe in them and see their value. There’s a certain amount of risk in that,” says Hewlett. “You’re aligning your reputation. They’re going to be walking around with your brand on them.”
Once you’ve selected who to mentor, Hewlett says, actively promote their careers.
If they work for you or with you, “have them in mind when a stretch opportunity comes up,” notes Hewlett. When raises are on the table, recommend that the women receive them.
And here’s a bonus: mentoring this way could boost your career. Leaders who sponsor two or three high-performing talents progress faster themselves, according to Hewlett’s studies.
Where to Find Women You Could Help
Don’t know where to find a woman or two or three to mentor?
If you have a job, see if your employer has a formal or informal mentoring program. Your high school or college alumni association may offer one, too.
Also, professional associations such as the National Association of Women Business Owners often match younger members with experienced mentors. Your local Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce are also good resources.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to give Megan a quick call and introduce her to someone I know who works in media relations for the Adventure Travel Trade Association.
Kerry Hannon has spent more than 25 years covering personal finance for Forbes, Money, U.S. News & World Report and USA Today. Her website is kerryhannon.com. Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon.
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