by Gwen Moran
The minute Joan Stewart had a chance to hear Cheryl Muskus speak, she knew that Muskus had to be her mentor. Stewart, the owner of Saukville, WI-based The Publicity Hound, a media relations and employee retention consultancy that publishes a newsletter by the same name, knew she needed a mentor to help her grow her two-year-old business. While searching for one, she had come across the Milwaukee Women's Business Initiative, Inc., a nonprofit that aids women business owners, and found out that the group sponsors a mentoring program that matches more seasoned female entrepreneurs with those who are a bit newer to the game.
"She was strong in the areas that I was weak," explains Stewart. "When I found out that she had been assigned to someone else, I immediately got on the phone and told them 'I need to have this woman as my mentor. I'll do whatever it takes.' "
That was nearly three years ago and although the formal arrangement has ended, a warm and ongoing friendship remains. Muskus, an accounting software consultant based in Muskego, WI, helped Stewart set up business systems in finance and information management. However, one of the most valuable assets of the relationship was that Muskus told Stewart she was not alone.
"She would listen to my problems and say 'Joan, the questions that you are struggling with are problems that most business owners struggle with. You are not unique. You are not crazy. You are not incompetent.'"
Most successful women today have mentors, according to Sheila Wellington, president of Catalyst, a Manhattan-based nonprofit research and advisory organization that works toward advancing women in business. Catalyst's research reveals that men have mentors more often than women and that while women make up 46 percent of today's workforce, only two have made it to the helm of a Fortune 500 company. In her new book, "Be Your Own Mentor," Wellington describes the challenges women face in finding a mentor and shares some sage advice from such heavy-hitters as Carly Fiorina of Hewlett-Packard, Andrea Jung of Avon and Judith Rodin, president of the University of Pennsylvania.
"Women have a much harder time finding mentors than men do," Wellington explains. However, she adds, one of the surest ways to scare off a potential mentor is to approach her and ask "Will you be my mentor?"
Victoria Moran* agrees. Moran is the mentor of author and speaker Leslie Levine, who first contacted Moran several years ago to write the foreward to her book, "Will This Place Feel Like Home? Simple Advice for Settling In After Your Move." Moran, who penned Shelter for the Spirit and the forthcoming Lit from Within: Tending Your Soul for Lifelong Beauty, agreed and the two have been in close contact ever since.
"If I would have had a formal label, it probably would have made me nervous," says Moran, who thinks of Levine as more of a friend than a protégé.
When Levine, whose new book is "Ice Cream for Breakfast," explains Moran's contributions, however, there is no doubt in her mind about the title. In addition to writing the foreward for Levine's book, Moran has offered advice about dealing with publishers and deadlines, as well as providing a sounding board. Levine explains that the mix of honesty and supportiveness is the key to the mentor/protégé relationship.
"[With a good mentor], you're going to get honest feedback," Levine says. "You don't have friendship in the way. If friendship grows out of it, that's wonderful. But you have to have someone who can give you honest advice without being afraid of hurting your feelings."
In Stewart's case, her mentor often made her look within for advice, especially in ethical dilemmas. Instead of offering answers, Muskus would ask questions to probe Stewart's own thoughts on the matter.
"She didn't want me to live by her code of ethics," Stewart explains. "She forced me to think about where I was going, rather than follow someone else's path."
For women who are looking for mentors, Levine, Wellington and Stewart each offer some helpful tips:
- Define what kind of help you need. Sometimes you need someone with skills different from your own, while sometimes you need someone whose skills are similar to yours, but who has progressed further up the corporate ladder to show you the way, says Wellington.
- Location, location, location. Once you've decided what kind of mentor you need, attend functions where you might find this type of person, says Stewart. You might find her through a chamber of commerce, alumni association, professional group or even within your own company. Find out if these groups have a formal mentoring program.
- Let the relationship progress naturally. "You can't shop for a mentor like a skirt," says Levine. You need to let the relationship grow. Take her for coffee. See if she's willing to give you advice, but be aware of the value of her time. Muskus required that Stewart submit an agenda for each of their meetings.
- Don't limit yourself to one mentor. You can have different mentors for every area of your life, says Levine. Wellington adds that women should approach building a mentor base as if they were building a Board of Directors for a company.
The bottom line, says Wellington, is that mentors can shorten your learning curve in a variety of ways. "Think about where your gaps are, what your goals are. Be strategic and choose people who have the knowledge and clout to help you become stronger in those areas."
Be Your Own Mentor by Sheila Wellington, president of Catalyst
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* Victoria Moran is no relation to the writer.
Gwen Moran is a freelance writer and entrepreneur. E-mail her at gwen@BoostYourBiz.com