Melinda Weider, Director of the Reciprocal Mentoring Lab
There I was, one of just a few women in a large conference room filled with men. It was an experience I’ve had many times before in my life. Yet instead of the usual narrative that often plays itself out in this dynamic, this time it was different. This time it was better.
I was at the Better Man Conference.
The Better Man Conference is a one-day event with resources, support, and community to engage men as allies in creating an inclusive culture. I was there to speak about Reciprocal Mentoring at two of the break-out sessions. I was surprised to find out that as the conference began, these men weren’t joking around. The themes throughout the conference could be called “counter cultural,” yet they were just what this culture needs. There was honest dialogue about vulnerability and questioning the strict traditional constructs of what it means to be a man. There were challenging conversations about the privilege that comes with being a man that were specifically called out. Many of the presenters did not pull any punches.
I cannot speak to the experience of all the people (both men and women) in the room. But what struck me in particular was that men (presenters and audience members) were showing up and actually doing the hard, uncomfortable, fabulous, and challenging work of becoming better themselves so they could be better for their diverse colleagues.
I was watching the transformative power that is inherent in approaching a normative culture with grace, openness, honesty, and truth, in a challenging but safe space. In the time of #MeToo and #TimesUp, where (rightfully) we are bombarded with all the examples of what men are doing wrong, it was so incredibly wonderful to watch a group of men doing the work of what is right.
I watched a professional white man openly talk about vulnerability as a strength. And I watched the men in the room really listen.
I heard men openly admitting how hard it feels for them to “take the risk” of stepping into a more active role in inclusion at work. And I watched those same men stay and not bail on the discomfort of growth when it was called out to them (by other men) that the fact that they have a choice to take an active role in inclusion work at all is a direct sign of their privilege and why they must. Men discussed the honest truth that women and people of color (and anyone in a non-normative group) do not get to choose if they want to play a role in inclusion work, but instead must live within the confines of a society built for white men. It was fascinating to watch men engage with other men in a generative way!
I heard honest discussions on privilege (in all its forms) and what the ramifications of that privilege can be. I heard people owning their privilege in ways that were new and moved them past the fear that can keep people from starting the conversations at all.
I watched as the founder of the event, Ray Arata, acknowledged that much of the discussions of the day centered around gender as being ‘man’ and ‘woman,’ when in fact gender is non-binary and there are ramifications to that reality for how we lead inclusively.
During the two break-out sessions we led on Reciprocal Mentoring, I watched men lean in, eager to learn practical tools on how to develop their own personal skill set around inclusion. They wanted to make inclusion real for them. They were trying out what it meant to develop a point of view on gender, on what it means to be a man in the workplace (and in life), and how they could be better. It was inspiring.
Time and time again men were able to express thoughts and worries, that when received in a safe space free of judgement, allowed them to be guided out of misconceptions and pushed to better places. This is what can happen when men who want to be a part of the solution are given safe spaces to have conversations that are uncomfortable for them.
They were trying out what it meant to develop a point of view on gender, on what it means to be a man in the workplace (and in life), and how they could be better.
I had the privilege of speaking with a man in the morning who had never really thought about inclusion before but came because his wife told him she thought it was a good idea. When I saw him again at the end of the event, he spoke genuinely about issues of parental leave and what he could do better to mentor and sponsor women and people who work around him who may feel excluded. And he said these things while acknowledging that he didn’t know it all! He wasn’t thinking about diversity and inclusion as some box to be checked or viewing himself as some white knight to come help the women or “non-normative” people around him. He had a genuine desire to become better himself. And man (pun intended) that was awesome!
It made me wonder if, in our professional work of inclusion, we are missing a powerful opportunity to change the issues around inclusion and diversity when we fail to engage privileged men and to invite them to enter into the discussion in safe spaces. At Greatheart Consulting, we have seen the transformative power that can happen when executive men are given space to do their own work around inclusion. My experience at the Better Man Conference reinforced the importance of this.
I’m pretty well known for being an optimist. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the past few months (or years) have challenged my hope and belief in the good of the world, and of men in particular. I know that talking about how to engage men, especially white men, can sometimes cause a knee jerk reaction from people working so hard every day on diversity, equity and inclusion. In a professional setting, people are often working within tight budgets with seemingly impossible goals. Why should the men get the resources to do the work they should have already done and/or be doing on their own? These are valid questions.
However, I can tell you that after spending time watching men, and in particular white men, honestly and authentically start or continue their journeys on how they themselves can be part of the solution, I think there’s a pretty solid argument for expanding budgets aimed at diversity and inclusion to actually include everyone in ways that make sense for them! It shouldn’t be an either/or. Real change comes from both/and. Engaging men in a generative way is both practical — men continue to dominate the business leadership world — and an inherently powerful way to expand the bridge building nature of the inclusion work that we must continue to do.
As I was on the plane ride home, I was struck with a thought that hadn’t occurred to me before. I attended the conference to speak to men about the power of reciprocity, about the exchange of value to the benefit of us all. I showed up that morning thinking I would be imparting my small piece of wisdom, advice, and guidance to the men I would meet. But as is always the case with reciprocity, I find now that I benefited from their bravery to be honest and open, their courage to enter the discomfort of authentic growth and not let the it stop them from becoming better. It called out the work I know I need to continue to do regarding my own privilege within the context of the world.
Melinda Wieder, Director of the Reciprocal Mentoring Lab
All my professional life I’ve heard “find a mentor if you want to advance in your career”. Yet, there was little to no instruction on what that mentorship should look like. Was I supposed to try and connect with the most senior person in the office? Was I supposed to find someone who I thought was the most influential? And even if I did get a chance to talk with them, what would I say? I learned quickly that the mantra to ‘find a mentor’ was not that simple.
That was, until I met Judy Heit, JD.
I started as an intern at a local law office while still in law school. Unsure of how to act, unsure of what role office politics played, and unsure of my role in general—I started there confident in who I was as a person, but not sure how to navigate my position or excel in my role. The first time I saw Judy I remember thinking: now there is a kind and intelligent woman. I’d guessed she was in her early 50’s, she had short hair, an easy smile, and a really fashionable outfit. I learned quickly that she was known for compassion and leadership to a level on par with her fashion sense.
In the process we fostered a mentorship and friendship that would change the trajectory of my professional and personal life.
As an intern, I wasn’t sure what to expect during my time there, but during those first few weeks it was Judy who would swing by my cubicle to ask how I was. It was Judy who made me feel welcome and encouraged me to ask her any and all questions. I quickly took her up on this offer, going into her office many times a day for quick questions. In the process we fostered a mentorship and friendship that would change the trajectory of my professional and personal life. While she mentored me on various aspects of the law, she was also helping me feel confident in my own decision making and ethical compass as a lawyer and individual.
My First Lesson – Care About the Whole Person
I learned my first lesson in what a good mentor does – they care not only about the quality of the work, but also about the quality of their mentee’s life.
I continued to work alongside Judy and others at the office as I finished law school. When I graduated and passed the Bar, somehow fate (or as I see it, God) would have it, an opening for a lawyer position opened on Judy’s team. I applied and gladly accepted a role as a new attorney.
On my first day, walking into the office as a licensed attorney with a whole new set of responsibilities and tasks before me—it was again Judy who became my guide. Judy showed me how to make the tough phone calls so that I could make them in the future. She shared examples of her work so I could model those to my style and practice. I learned by paying attention to the questions she asked. She exemplified her faith in me by encouraging and welcoming my questions and then asking probing questions in return.
She continued to be a wonderful listener, providing ample suggestions without force, leaving the decisions up to me, and allowing me to find my own voice as a professional.
My Second Lesson – Empower the Mentee
This was my second lesson in what a good mentor does: with a faith in your ability and judgment, they listen well and provide just enough input to allow you to make a decision for yourself. In this way, I was able to grow my own abilities while also gaining confidence in my judgment. This has made me not only a better attorney, but a better person as well.
As the years passed, I began to truly appreciate the depth of gratitude I had for Judy and her guidance. In the midst of talking about strategy, civil law and problem solving, we also discussed our personal interests, faith, and the importance of asking ourselves the big questions in life. I also found that it wasn’t only I who was benefitting from this mentorship. Amidst my questions to her, I was able to be a part of her growth and learning as well. I provided insight into office dynamics she may have missed and shard perspectives that developed her own point of view. In this way, I know she benefited from the mentorship just as I did.
My Third Lesson – Mentorships Are Reciprocal
And so, I came to learn the most important lesson of a good mentorship – that they are not one-way streets; they are reciprocal. Both people bring experience, qualities and talents to the relationship that provide value to the other.
Years have passed, Judy has retired and I now hold the supervisor position she held when I first started. We get lunch now and then and I regularly hear her voice and guidance in my head. Now in the mentor role myself, I can see the tangible impact she has had on my life as I mentor those around me. She taught me that no one is perfect, in their careers or in life, but perfection is not the point. Succeeding in any profession, when done well, includes a certain level of self-awareness of what is most important. She helped inform my vision of what a healthy work-life balance could look like. When she was going through a tough time, I was able to reflect that lesson back to her. In reminding her of my faith in her, she regained the perspective needed that she was missing.
Ensure that they see mentorship as a reciprocal process where both parties will benefit and learn.
So wherever you are in your professional life, when looking for a great mentor, find the people who respect you as a person and really listen to you. The leaders that will share their professional toolkit while encouraging you to develop your own. Finally, ensure that they see mentorship as a reciprocal process where both parties will benefit and learn.
I am deeply grateful for the mentorship we’ve shared and for her innate knowledge that the best mentorships are reciprocal in nature. Now when I hear someone say “find a mentor,” I know that what they really mean is, “Find a Judy”.
W. Brad Johnson, Ph.D., RML Faculty Member
I was in awe of her expertise and, like any duckling in a new field, I took to waddling behind, using her as a professional exemplar, a template for the sort of psychologist I imagined becoming one day.
Not only did I survive internship, but just imagine my delight when learning that I would be assigned to the medical center at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii where one of my post-doctoral supervisors would be, you guessed it, Betsy. I think of those two years of preparation for licensure as the second phase of our mentoring relationship. As a newly minted psychologist, I felt like an imposter some days. My internal dialogue went something like this: Astoundingly, nobody around here seems to realize I’m not very competent and I’ll bet it’s just a matter of time before they figure it out and make me walk the plank. I now realize that many new professionals struggle with the imposter syndrome but at the time, I lacked that perspective. Remarkably, Betsy appeared to view my work as quite good. Sure, she offered constructive feedback, made suggestions about different paths I might pursue with challenging patients, and listened generously when I expressed any insecurities about my work. But she always made it clear she saw me as a competent young psychologist. She was patient, affirming, and interested in my perspective.
During our Pearl Harbor years together, I detected a palpable transition in the nature and quality of our relationship. At first, we picked up where we’d left off at Bethesda. Betsy was the senior officer and the singular expert. I was the apprentice tuned to receiving mode for the wisdom she’d accrued. Yet, as the months rolled by, I found our conversations becoming more collegial. Rather than merely offer advice and direction, Betsy more often asked Socratic questions which instigated wonderful clinical and theoretical discussions. At some point, I realized that she was deliberately interacting with me as a colleague, not merely a supervisee. She shared clinical quandaries from her own work and seemed to genuinely appreciate my perspective. She asked me questions about my areas of relative expertise and even invited me to co-teach a workshop with her. When I successfully passed the licensing exam, Betsy celebrated my achievement. At times, I marveled at how our relationship had clearly transitioned from something formal and hierarchical to something far more mutual.
At times, I marveled at how our relationship had clearly transitioned from something formal and hierarchical to something far more mutual.
Among the many gifts I have received from Betsy, perhaps the most important was delivered during my novice years at Pearl Harbor. It was during those years of full time clinical work that I began toying with the idea of an academic career. Seeing patients for eight hours every day just didn’t call to me. I realized I was happiest when I had time to read, write a journal article, and even teach an adjunct class or two at a local college. Because she’d earned my trust and because she listened without judgment, I shared my academic inclinations with Betsy. Instead of telling me I should try harder to enjoy clinical work or poke holes in my scholarly aspirations, Betsy listened, nodded, and immediately began thinking out loud with me about how to make the transition to an academic job. In social psychology, the Michelangelo phenomenon describes the tendency for partners in strong reciprocal relationships to draw out one another’s ideal selves and career/life dreams. In a real way, Betsy became my sculptor, freeing me from the burdens and inhibitions that kept me from pursuing my ideal career path. She took me seriously, expressed belief in my ability to succeed, cheered me on, and wrote a letter of recommendation that helped me secure my first teaching job at a civilian university.
Here is something else great mentors do: They look for opportunities to open doors and sponsor mentees. Four years after I was discharged from the Navy and become ensconced in my first university job, Betsy reached out once again and encouraged me to apply for a rare opening in psychology at the Naval Academy. On Betsy’s urging, I applied, got the job, and two decades later, I still can’t believe my good fortune. It was during this third phase of our mentorship, teaching together as colleagues at Annapolis, that Betsy and I refined a truly reciprocal mentorship. We shared teaching ideas, collaborated on several writing projects, and had regular confidential conversations about hidden politics, our career paths, families, and a few of our quirkier colleagues. It was during these Annapolis years that the scaffolding of our more formal work together fell away, leaving only an abiding collegiality and a caring friendship.
In social psychology, the Michelangelo phenomenon describes the tendency for partners in strong reciprocal relationships to draw out one another’s ideal selves and career/life dreams.In a real way, Betsy became my sculptor, freeing me from the burdens and inhibitions that kept me from pursuing my ideal career path.
Finally, it is worth noting that all the research and writing I have done around gender and mentorship—most notably the publication of Athena Rising with another close colleague, David Smith—can be traced to many formative conversations with Betsy nearly two decades ago. The finest mentors and colleagues make contributions to not only our self-confidence and career success, but also to our creative inspirations and big ideas. Thank you Betsy!
Brad Johnson is one of our faculty members and a main contributor to the RML curriculum. He is the author of several book chapters, 130 journal articles, and 12 books in the areas of mentoring, professional ethics, and counseling. His most recent book, which he co-wrote with David Smith, is Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women (2016). This groundbreaking work is the “springboard” of content for the RML and helped cumulate the creation of our program.
David Smith, Ph.D., RML Faculty Member
One of my mentoring relationships really had an impact on my perspective about the importance of reciprocal mentoring. After almost 20 years as a Navy pilot, I found myself taking a leap of faith and finally following my passion for higher education. Having just been selected into a small community of military professors teaching at the U.S. Naval Academy, I first had to finish my graduate work to earn my doctorate degree in sociology at the University of Maryland. As it happened, my dissertation advisor became not only influential in my dissertation research, but a mentor for me to this day. We were never paired in a formal mentorship although the PhD candidate-advisor relationship could be viewed that way, but Dr. Mady Segal fundamentally changed the way I thought about mentoring relationships.
In our 12 years working together, I have never heard her use the “M” word (mentor), but I have heard her refer to me as a colleague many times. My military experience with mentoring relationships was very different to say the least. The hierarchical nature of the military and rank structure created more formal and power-laden relationships where a junior person could feel unable or even intimidated to reach out to someone more senior. But this was far different from my experience with Dr. Segal.
In our 12 years working together, I have never heard her use the “M” word (mentor), but I have heard her refer to me as a colleague many times.
From the beginning, I always felt like I was treated as an equal despite me being a student and her being a foremost academic scholar with a list of publications, accolades and honors that we should all dream to achieve. She had a way of making me feel like she was guiding me along some path that she could see, but I did not. I always felt like she was preparing me to step into her shoes as this rising new professional, but without telling me what to do or assuming that I would follow exactly in her footsteps—collegial and the picture of what a good colleague looks like to me.
The path that she was guiding me along was the product of many hours of conversation. Really more like her asking a question and then listening to me fumble around trying to make sense of the jumble of ideas and thoughts I had. I’m still amazed she never dismissed me and said go find someone else to help you figure out your incoherence! Thoughtful, unassuming, and patient, she helped me hone my vision of where my research would go and who I would become as a scholar. I’d still be wandering around trying to figure it out if it wasn’t for her.
She had a way of making me feel like she was guiding me along some path that she could see, but I did not.
Throughout the last 12 years, she has unequivocally affirmed my abilities and talents as an academic. I can’t tell you how many times I questioned my ability to do the work required in the PhD program, publishing, presenting, and teaching. Not that I didn’t have years of experience doing similar things in the military, but this was not the military and I felt like I was often just one misstep away from someone figuring out that I didn’t belong. Dr. Segal has always provided that calm and reassuring voice of reason that gave me the confidence to perform in my new profession. This simple act of affirmation is so powerful and easy to take for granted. Truly something that we can do for each other as mentor and mentee as well.
Make no mistake, she had high expectations and standards. I often wonder how much I cost her in pens used to comment on my work. She challenged me in ways that I was not used to being challenged in the military, and especially as a senior officer. First, she challenged my thinking about diversity, privilege, the role of being an ally, and my language and behavior. There is no question that our conversations on these topics changed me in ways that ultimately defined my focus on research, scholarship, and teaching. She also challenged me to grow professionally outside my comfort zone in terms of academic skillsets. I can still remember the conversation we had about my frustration with not being able to fully answer my dissertation research questions through quantitative methods where I was comfortable. She told me that I would have to learn qualitative methods to accomplish what I was trying to do—so I learned qualitative methods that I have come to appreciate and made me a more versatile researcher. With Dr. Segal I can always count on direct feedback that is intended to help me grow and always delivered with an intent to make me a better researcher and scholar.
She challenged my thinking about diversity, privilege, the role of being an ally, and my language and behavior.
One of the hallmarks of an excellent reciprocal mentoring relationship is humility and sharing. I remember the first time as a student that Dr. Segal told me that a research finding of mine was interesting and novel. How could it be possible that she didn’t know everything and have all the answers? Later in our relationship after I was a more established researcher, I heard her tell countless academics how much she learned from me and many of her other mentees. And she often deflects questions to her mentees saying that we are the experts now who can better address their requests. Such humility and sharing of capital fundamentally characterizes the reciprocal nature of these mentoring relationships. She is an ally and advocate who never misses the opportunity to make introductions to connect me, highlight my work, and let influential people know how much she values my work. It’s always a bit awkward for me to hear that knowing that she has been the expert in these areas for decades.
As with all great mentoring relationships, they evolve—as has our relationship. I count myself fortunate to call her my friend and colleague. We don’t see each other as often anymore, but she checks in on me occasionally, as do I with her. We never outgrow the need for mentoring. And in case you’re wondering, I have never heard her call herself my mentor—I do that.
Dave Smith is one of our faculty members and a main contributor to the RML curriculum. He is the author of numerous journal articles and contributing author to many book chapters—many on the topic of gender and the workplace. His most recent book is Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women (2016).
There is a lot of conversation about the problems people face across differences.
Diversity and Inclusion is often pursued as the answer.
Reciprocity is the missing key.
“Diversity” focuses on the distinctive nature of individual identity, and how each one of us is shaped by the cultures of which we are part and by our particular life experiences.
“Inclusion” speaks to our human need to belong, to join with others in a family, a community, a team, a company.
The essential task for inclusive leaders: sort out how diversity is individually operating in themselves and in their people, in a way that builds team performance, retains talent, and serves customers.
For inclusive leaders, reciprocity is a powerful mindset and skillset. As such, reciprocity can be defined as “the equitable and generous exchange of value in a high-performing relationship”. We build reciprocal relationships with our colleagues by giving with the expectation of receiving, by growing mutual influence through turn-taking, and by developing trust through interdependence.
Reciprocity can be defined as “The equitable and generous exchange of value in a high-performing relationship”.
Reciprocity for social survival runs deep in us. Archaeologists Richard Leakey and Kurt Lewin said: “We are human because our ancestors learned to share their food and their skills in an honored network of obligation.”
A productive and healthy work environment may be viewed as “an honored network of obligation.” In such a workplace, reciprocity is a remarkable leadership asset, because it opens the door to understanding and managing diversity positively. Imagine what can happen when I, as a white male executive, commit to growing a relationship of mutual influence with a colleague of color. When I show up as a true learner and an authentic contributor, and they do the same, then the differences between us fuel intrigue and innovation rather than conflict.
In such a context, reciprocity invites the practice of appreciative inquiry, where both people in a relationship expect giftedness in the other, and also explore their deep similarities.
Reciprocity is a remarkable leadership asset, because it opens the door to understanding and managing diversity positively, in the context of rich similarity.
Reciprocity involves equitable exchange. This does not mean that the parties receive identical value, but rather they give to one another that which each individual may not be able to give to themselves. For example, in Greatheart’s Reciprocal Mentoring Lab, executive-level men mentor and sponsor director-level women, so these women rise and stay with the organization. These talented women help their mentor/sponsors to become more inclusive leaders. The Lab also enables reciprocity between executive women mentors and their gender-savvy male mentees. Every participating leader builds reciprocity muscles they will flex across their careers. In this program, reciprocity operates not only across gender but also across hierarchy, which is a potent context for expanding mutual influence.
Karen Firestone, the CEO of Aureus Asset Management, describes reciprocal mentoring as “the bilateral transfer of knowledge.” When an inclusive leader constructs reciprocal relationships, a couple of remarkable outcomes occur:
- The back and forth in reciprocity brings unintentional bias to light, and helps to mitigate its frequency and damage
- The gaps between Intent and Impact decrease, because the people in the relationship accept accountability for giving and receiving what each other value.
The power in reciprocity for inclusive leaders is clear: when we ground our work relationships in generous and equitable exchange, we engage each individual with honor, and we live into mutually-excellent expectations with one another.
Reciprocity is vital to inclusive leadership, because it accelerates two-way trust, by making and keeping promises across human differences. I heartily recommend reciprocation, as a powerful and practical opportunity to explore mutual self-interest and ignite collaboration.
Chuck Shelton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.