Fay Donohue and Pamela Reeve have come full circle in their careers. They’ve been mentored and been mentors. Donohue is the chief executive of Delta Dental of Massachusetts, one of the country’s biggest providers of dental benefits, and Reeve is the chair of the Commonwealth Institute, a nonprofit that advises women-led businesses, and the former chief executive of software firm Lightbridge Inc. Both recently met at The Boston Globe to discuss mentoring and what follows is an edited transcript of their conversation:
Donohue: Have you had a mentor? How many?
Reeve: I feel like I’ve had many mentors.
Donohue: If you define it as anybody who has helped, coached, worked with you along the way, then there are literally hundreds. What I get hung up on is the sense a mentor is someone who sounds frankly a lot more like a therapist. They sit there, they help you talk about your career, they help you think through ideas.
Reeve: They must meet with you 22 times a year, or they’re not really a mentor!
Donohue: In some ways a good boss, a good manager is a mentor. And you want them to develop their staff, to build talent, to encourage talent. Isn’t that a definition of mentoring?
Reeve: I think it is. But what is a good mentor? A mentor, I think, is generous, a mentor is honest, perhaps painfully so. Sometimes all a mentor really does for you is play back what she heard that you might not realize you’re saying. ‘You’re telling me you hate your job.’ ‘I didn’t say I hate my job!’ But you’ve just spent 10 minutes talking about all the things you’re unhappy about. So I think about that reflection and how a mentor doesn’t have an agenda.
Donohue: But they, in many cases, do have an agenda of promoting their team, promoting their company. Some of the best mentors are those that really, really take somebody in an organization and help them rise to a new level.
Reeve: I call that a sponsor. Someone who’s more active and actually does stuff for you. And that’s very powerful because I think the thing that is missing for a lot of people and particularly a lot of women is the sponsor. Someone who can actually open a door, put you in a job, give you a project to get you into that position.
Donohue: That goes back into what you said earlier about generosity. Very early in my career I had a very generous boss who, for example, was expected to give this presentation on this new thing we were doing. And he said, ‘I’m gonna bring Fay.’ Nobody knew who Fay was. Fay was a munchkin. And he said, ‘No, no, you’re with me, you’re fine.’ It was my moment, and that was a gift.
Reeve: I feel like I’ve benefited from that more than once. When I was at BCG [Boston Consulting Group] I was a lowly consultant and the managing partner at the firm started throwing things my way that were way beyond my pay grade. He thought I could do it, thought I had the skills to do it, and that completely changed my career.
Donohue: It’s harder for women to find the person who’s going to take the risk to say, ‘Alright Pam, let’s put you three levels above your pay grade.’
Reeve: That person does have to know you well because that person is taking on a risk. It’s maybe their career, definitely their reputation, and their judgment that’s being put on the line. It isn’t the three-cups-of-coffee-twice-a-year kind of thing.
Reeve: How do you find a mentor? Have you ever had one assigned to you?
Donohue: I only had a mentee assigned once, and I hated it. It’s got to be organic. I don’t think you can take someone suddenly and mentor. My biggest advice is be curious. If you are curious and you ask questions, everybody loves to talk about what they like and are interested in. You will learn an amazing amount and create those kinds of relationships.
Reeve: Some of these formal programs, I don’t know if they result in the kind of mentoring we’re talking about. However, they do expand your network of connections.
Donohue: Some of the people you learn the most from are certainly not senior executives but sometimes peers.
Reeve: If you use the broad definition of people who give you insight about yourself, your performance, it can come from anywhere. Some of the biggest insights that I’ve gotten about how I come across are actually from people who worked for me.
Donohue: The other mentoring is not necessarily formal mentor programs in enterprises or companies, but in a lot of the groups like Commonwealth Institute or Boston Club where women can talk about business issues in a very safe environment. It’s mentoring in the sense of people giving you great ideas, discussions, here’s what to think about. It’s like a group mentor.
Reeve: Have a lot of people said to you that you’re their mentor?
Donohue: Yes, oh yes.
Reeve: Cause you think you’re just having a conversation, you’re giving advice, you don’t have that label on your head.
Donohue: It may be brief conversations about a work issue and most of the mentoring is on how do you approach things or think about things, less the actual solution to the problem.
Reeve: Mentoring is such a hot topic, people are advised to go seek out a mentor, which I think is terrible advice.
Donohue: When someone comes up to you and says, ‘Will you be my mentor?’ What do you say?
Reeve: It’s very awkward. What I usually say is, ‘Why don’t we have a conversation. I’m happy to have a cup of coffee with you, and we’ll go from there.’ But I would not commit to someone just walking up.
Donohue: It’s usually I’ve met you, or I’ve seen you and I’m looking for a mentor. But what are you really looking for? Some people say, ‘Well, I’m looking for someone to take me by the hand and lead me,’ and ‘I’m thinking, no, that’s not me.’ Some people have the impression, ‘if only I had a mentor, I would be able to move forward.’
Reeve: It’s not having that one silver bullet mentor, but knowing that it takes a village for any of us and knowing that’s OK. Nobody makes it alone, no matter how we promote that lone ranger. It’s just not true . . .
One of things that was so valuable to me when I was running Lightbridge was peer mentoring.
Donohue: Mentoring at that [CEO] level is often peer to peer. They’re who gets it.
Reeve: If you think about the position a CEO is in, the most senior person. If you’re really in a situation where you’re noodling through a problem, who’s the person you’re going to talk to where there’s not some risk either of someone who will judge you or have some ripple effect in your organization? You’re almost forced to an external peer to have that conversation.
Whenever you’re in your own head all the time, that’s a bad place to be. That’s one of the reasons mentors are needed to get you out of your head. The other reason you need a mentor sometimes is affirmation. Maybe you’re thinking about it exactly right, and you may need someone to hear it and say, ‘Yep, I think you’re approaching it exactly the right way,’ and say, ‘Go with it.’
One of the things we haven’t talked about here is mentoring across ethnicity. I have had three mentees of nonwhite race, one Hispanic, one African-American, and an Asian-American. And I loved that and felt that I got as much as I gave, but I don’t know if that happens as naturally because like attracts like.
Donohue: It’s very helpful to have mentors who are different. For women having male mentors is incredibly important. Looking at it from the whole and thinking about it from different perspectives is very important.