Escape from Mentoring Women

Escape Room picture

The word mentor was first introduced as a character in Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus, king of Ithaca, fights in the Trojan War. Odysseus turns over the care of his household and son to Mentor, because Mentor is trusted to act in Odysseus’s image. In today’s rendition of mentoring, we connect a senior, more experienced,  leader with a junior, up and coming, employee in the organization. Mentors are expected to share their experience and insights with their mentees to illuminate their work odyssey. Many mentoring programs focus on giving women a hand up in the organization. There is data to support this idea- according to a Forbes article, employees who received mentoring were promoted 5 times more often than those who did not. So what’s wrong with mentoring women? Mentoring, in its traditional format, reinforces the idea that men have the answers and experience needed to succeed and that women will succeed if they can be trusted do exactly as their male mentor would do. Instead, I’d like to propose a new model for mentoring that looks more like an Escape Room game- one focused on outcomes, challenging assumptions, and solving problems.

Focusing on outcomes. Mentors can be good sounding boards. Many mentoring meetings are a safe space to blow off a little steam, and a place to get some advice on what you could do differently next time. However, looking backwards rarely moves us forward. What if instead of just situational coaching, mentors and mentees focused on outcomes and used mentoring sessions to talk about obstacles, relationships, and skills needed to get to that outcome? When you enter an escape room you begin an odyssey — there is a mission, there will be challenges, and there is a timeline in which the outcome must be reached. Some of my best mentoring meetings helped me shift my focus from my frustration with a particular incident to identifying my goal around a bigger outcome. My mentors and I identified landmines, fiefdoms, and holy grails and these could impact my desired outcome. They respected that this was my quest and didn’t offer answers but instead prompted my thinking.

Challenging Assumptions. You see a clock in the escape room and it says it’s 12:00. Is that a fact, a falsehood, or a clue? You will need to take it down, turn it over, and evaluate it to find out. Successful mentors spend a lot of time challenging assumptions. Just because I took this career path, does that mean it is the only way? Or the right way for you? I have been successful because I am a confident extrovert. Does that mean I believe collaborative introverts don’t make good leaders? We have never had flexible scheduling here, so you will need to accept that. Or maybe I could help you bring your case for why that change is needed to the right people. Mentees also need to challenge their assumptions. I have to take that job to get ahead even though I hate it. I can’t take that assignment – I have two young kids and can’t take on anything else. I have to take that assignment even though I have two young kids and I am ready to quit. Good mentoring discussions take down the clock and look at it from all angles. What am I missing? What else could be? What if would happen if… Sparking that kind of critical thinking is a good for building relationships and for building business possibilities.

Solving problems. My biggest frustration with mentoring programs is when we build a plank over shark filled waters, then pat ourselves on the back that we have created a path to success. The sharks are still there. What if instead of teaching people how to precariously balance their way through a broken system, we instead focused on the system? HR analytics can be a good place to start- in addition to perceptions we hear or feel, what does the data tell us is holding women back? What roles have the fastest promotion rates for women? The slowest? Is this different for men? What functions have the most women in individual contributor roles and the fewest in leadership? Do high potential women advance at the same rate as similarly situated male counterparts? These questions allow us to look at root causes and discuss potential solutions. In an escape room the whole team needs to get past the challenge to succeed. We all need to put our pieces of the code together in order to open the door. Helping one individual can be a start but can’t be the end to a successful quest.

Homer said, “There is no greater fame for a man than that which he wins with his footwork or the skill of his hands.” Mentees can and want to succeed on their own path, using their own ideas and approaches. Mentors can play an important role in organizations by helping mentees focus on outcomes, challenge assumptions, and solve problems. If we all go all in, we can escape the fallacy of traditional mentoring and succeed in advancing women and advancing our business goals.

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