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Chapter 5 Are You My Mentor?
  WHEN I WAS a child, one of my favorite books was Are You My Mother?, the story of a baby bird thatemerges from its shell to discover an empty nest. The hatchling heads off in search of its missingmother, asking a kitten, a hen, a dog, and a cow the burning question: “Are you my mother?” Eachanimal responds, “No.” The hatchling grows more desperate, eventually shouting, “Are you mymother?” at a car, a boat, a plane, and even a steam shovel, which can only respond with a loud“Snort!” Stuck in the shovel’s jaws, the hatchling appears doomed until, miraculously, the shovel liftsthe bird back to its nest. The mother returns and the hatchling announces, “You are a bird, and you aremy mother.”

This children’s book poignantly mirrors the professional question “Are you my mentor?” Ifsomeone has to ask the question, the answer is probably no. When someone finds the right mentor, itis obvious. The question becomes a statement. Chasing or forcing that connection rarely works, andyet I see women attempt this all the time. When I give speeches or attend meetings, a startling numberof women introduce themselves and, in the same breath, ask me to be their mentor. I cannot recall asingle man asking me to do the same (although men have asked me to mentor their wives orgirlfriends).

The question is a total mood killer—the equivalent of turning to a pensive date and asking, “Whatare you thinking?” Every senior woman I have talked to about this is deluged with the same request.

Their reaction is unanimous: “Oh, I never know what to say when people I don’t know ask me to betheir mentor.” The interaction is flattering, but awkward. Even media mogul Oprah Winfrey, who hastaught so much to an entire generation, admits that she feels uncomfortable when someone asks her tobe a mentor. She once explained, “I mentor when I see something and say, ‘I want to see that grow.’ ”

In part, we’ve brought this on ourselves. For the past decade, talk of mentorship and sponsorshiphas been topic number one at any women’s career seminar. It is the focus of blogs, newspaper articles,and research reports. Many of these young women are responding to the often repeated advice that ifthey want to scale the corporate ladder, they need to find mentors (people who will advise them) aswell as sponsors (people who will use their influence to advocate for them).

The emphasis on finding a mentor became especially clear to me when I went back to speak atHarvard Business School in the spring of 2011. I was invited by Dean Nitin Nohria, who joined meonstage and conducted the interview. His first questions centered on Facebook and what it was like towork for Mark. I told him that I loved it, except on days when coworkers said things like, “Sheryl, canyou look at this? We need to know what old people will think of this feature.” We discussed the ArabSpring and a slew of other timely topics. Dean Nohria then asked me a question about women in theworkforce. I’m not sure what possessed me, but I turned to look at the audience, paused, and answeredwith brutal honesty. “If current trends continue, fifteen years from today, about one-third of thewomen in this audience will be working full-time and almost all of you will be working for the guyyou are sitting next to.”

Dead silence in the large auditorium. I continued, “I’m sorry if this sounds harsh or surprisesanyone, but this is where we are. If you want the outcome to be different, you will have to dosomething about it.”

On that strained note, Dean Nohria ended the interview and turned to the audience for a Q&A. Anumber of men leapt to the microphone and posed thoughtful, big-picture questions like “What didyou learn at Google that you are applying at Facebook?” and “How do you run a platform companyand ensure stability for your developers?” Then two women rose to the microphone. The first asked,“Do you think it’s okay to work for a company that competes with the company you worked forbefore business school?” The second asked, “How can I get a mentor?” My heart sank.

The men were focusing on how to manage a business and the women were focusing on how tomanage a career. The men wanted answers and the women wanted permission and help. I realized thatsearching for a mentor has become the professional equivalent of waiting for Prince Charming. We allgrew up on the fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty,” which instructs young women that if they just wait fortheir prince to arrive, they will be kissed and whisked away on a white horse to live happily ever after.

Now young women are told that if they can just find the right mentor, they will be pushed up theladder and whisked away to the corner office to live happily ever after. Once again, we are teachingwomen to be too dependent on others.

To be clear, the issue is not whether mentorship is important. It is. Mentorship and sponsorship arecrucial for career progression. Both men and women with sponsors are more likely to ask for stretchassignments and pay raises than their peers of the same gender without sponsors.

Unfortunately forwomen, men often have an easier time acquiring and maintaining these relationships.

One recentstudy shows that men are significantly more likely than women to be sponsored and that those withsponsors are more satisfied with their rates of advancement.

Because it is harder for young women to find mentors and sponsors, they are taking a more activerole in seeking them out. And while normally I applaud assertive behavior, this energy is sometimesmisdirected. No matter how crucial these connections are, they probably won’t develop from asking avirtual stranger, “Will you be my mentor?” The strongest relationships spring out of a real and oftenearned connection felt by both sides.

I’ve been lucky to have strong mentors and sponsors over the course of my career. Theacknowledgments in this book include a long list of people who have been generous enough to guideand advise me. During my junior year of college, I took Larry Summers’s public sector economicsclass. He offered to supervise my senior thesis—something very few Harvard professors volunteer todo for undergraduates. Larry has been a major part of my life ever since. I met Don Graham, chairmanof the Washington Post Company, more than fifteen years ago when I was working in D.C., and hehas helped me navigate some of my most challenging professional situations. If it hadn’t been forPaley Center CEO Pat Mitchell’s encouragement and support, I might never have spoken publiclyabout women in the workplace. These three, among so many others, have encouraged me, madeintroductions, and taught me by example. Their wisdom helped me avoid mistakes—and clean up theones I wasn’t smart enough to avoid.

In turn, I have tried to mentor others, including friends of friends, and as I get older, children offriends. I get so much joy out of watching the career of Emily White, who started working with meright out of college and now runs mobile partnerships for Facebook. When I first met Bryan Schreier,he had never worked in a tech company or traveled abroad, but he displayed unusually strongleadership and analytical skills. I hired him to help build Google’s global operations, and he exceededevery expectation. Years later, when he wanted to pursue a new career as an investor, I introduced himto his current partners at Sequoia Capital. He is now a highly successful early stage venture capitalist,and I can see the impact he has on the companies he advises. I am fortunate to have Emily and Bryanand so many other talented people in my life.

Studies show that mentors select protégés based on performance and potential.

Intuitively, peopleinvest in those who stand out for their talent or who can really benefit from help. Mentors continue toinvest when mentees use their time well and are truly open to feedback. It may turn into a friendship,but the foundation is a professional relationship. Given this, I believe we have sent the wrong messageto young women. We need to stop telling them, “Get a mentor and you will excel.” Instead, we needto tell them, “Excel and you will get a mentor.”

Clara Shih is a superb example. I met Clara about five years ago at a conference and wasimmediately impressed by her ideas about social media. She went on to write a thoughtful book on thesubject and founded Hearsay Social, a software company that helps businesses manage their socialmedia presence. Every so often, Clara would contact me, always with an interesting point or athoughtful question. She never asked to get together to “catch up.” She never asked a question that shecould have found the answer to on her own. When I was leaving the Starbucks board of directors in2012, I gave them a few names of social media experts who might join in my place and includedClara. She was only twenty-nine years old at the time, but she was invited to join the board.

While asking a stranger to be a mentor rarely, if ever, works, approaching a stranger with a pointed,well-thought-out inquiry can yield results. Garrett Neiman stopped me after I gave a speech atStanford to explain that he had founded CollegeSpring, a nonprofit that provides SAT tutoring andcollege counseling to low-income students. He wanted to meet with me and made it clear that he onlyneeded a few minutes of my time to ask for introductions to some people who could help expand hisorganization. He had done his homework and knew that I care deeply about education. In our firstmeeting and in every interaction we’ve had since, Garrett has been respectful of my time. He is crisp,focused, and gracious. And he always follows up to let me know the results of our discussion.

Capturing someone’s attention or imagination in a minute can be done, but only when planned andtailored to that individual. Leading with a vague question such as, “What is Facebook’s culture like?”

shows more ignorance than interest in the company, since there are hundreds of articles that providethis answer. Preparation is especially important when looking for a job. When I left the TreasuryDepartment, former chief of staff Josh Steiner gave me great advice about asking for advice. He toldme to figure out what I wanted to do before I went to see the people who had the ability to hire me.

That way I would not waste my one shot seeking general guidance, but would be able to discussspecific opportunities that they could offer.

Mentorship is often a more reciprocal relationship than it may appear, especially in situations wherepeople are already working at the same company. The mentee may receive more direct assistance, butthe mentor receives benefits too, including useful information, greater commitment from colleagues,and a sense of fulfillment and pride. Sociologists and psychologists have long observed our deepdesire to participate in reciprocal behavior. The fact that humans feel obligated to return favors hasbeen documented in virtually all societies and underpins all kinds of social relationships.

Thementor/mentee relationship is no exception. When done right, everybody flourishes.

Erin Burnett, now a well-known CNN journalist, credits Willow Bay, a veteran TV correspondentand editor, for mentoring her when she first started out. Willow was a brand-new anchor of Moneylinebut did not have deep financial experience. Erin had worked at Goldman Sachs, which made her anideal person for Willow to hire as an assistant. Erin impressed Willow with her ambition, work ethic,and talent. Meanwhile, Erin got to watch a savvy, established journalist up close and personal. Eachbenefited from the other’s expertise.

Justin Osofsky caught my attention at Facebook years ago when we were getting ready for our firstsenior-level meeting with the Walt Disney Company. Each of our teams, including sales, businessdevelopment, and marketing, had submitted ideas for the partnership, but no one was coordinating,which left our presentation disjointed and unwieldy. Rather than just submitting his section, Justintook the initiative to pull the group together and integrate all the ideas. I have been “mentoring” himever since, which in his case means that I often turn to Justin to solve problems. This helps thecompany and creates ongoing opportunities for him.

Getting the attention of a senior person with a virtuoso performance works, but it’s not the only wayto get a mentor. I have seen lower-level employees nimbly grab a moment after a meeting or in thehall to ask advice from a respected and busy senior person. The exchange is casual and quick. Aftertaking that advice, the would-be mentee follows up to offer thanks and then uses that opportunity toask for more guidance. Without even realizing it, the senior person becomes involved and invested inthe junior person’s career. The word “mentor” never needs to be uttered. The relationship is moreimportant than the label.

The label itself is open to interpretation. For years, I kept an eye on an enormously talented youngwoman on my team at Google and advised her each time she had a major decision to make. I neverused the word “mentor,” but I invested a lot of time in her development. So I was surprised one daywhen she stated flatly that she had “never had a mentor or anyone really looking out” for her. I askedwhat a mentor meant to her. She explained that it would be someone she spoke to for at least an hourevery week. I smiled, thinking, That’s not a mentor—that’s a therapist.

Few mentors have time for excessive hand-holding. Most are dealing with their own high-stressjobs. A mentee who is positive and prepared can be a bright spot in a day. For this same reason,mentees should avoid complaining excessively to a mentor. Using a mentor’s time to validate feelingsmay help psychologically, but it’s better to focus on specific problems with real solutions. Mostpeople in the position to mentor are quite adept at problem solving. Give them a problem to solve.

Sometimes high-potential women have a difficult time asking for help because they don’t want toappear stumped. Being unsure about how to proceed is the most natural feeling in the world. I feel thatway all the time. Asking for input is not a sign of weakness but often the first step to finding a pathforward.

Mentoring and sponsoring relationships often form between individuals who have common interestsor when the junior members remind the more senior members of themselves.

This means that menwill often gravitate toward sponsoring younger men, with whom they connect more naturally. Sincethere are so many more men at the top of every industry, the proverbial old-boy network continues toflourish. And since there are already a reduced number of women in leadership roles, it is not possiblefor the junior women to get enough support unless senior men jump in too. We need to make maleleaders aware of this shortage and encourage them to widen their circle.

It’s wonderful when senior men mentor women. It’s even better when they champion and sponsorthem. Any male leader who is serious about moving toward a more equal world can make this apriority and be part of the solution. It should be a badge of honor for men to sponsor women. Andsince we know that different perspectives improve performance, companies should foster and rewardthis behavior.

Of course, there are some tricky issues to be solved here, including the perceived sexual context ofmale-female relationships. Once during my Treasury years, Larry Summers and I traveled together toSouth Africa, where we holed up in the living room of his hotel suite to work on his speech on fiscalpolicy for the next day. Jet-lagged and oblivious to the time change, we suddenly noticed it was 3:00a.m. We both knew it would look awful if anyone saw me leaving his hotel suite at that time. Wediscussed the options. Maybe he should check to see if anyone was in the hall? Then we realized wewere stuck because there is no difference between trying not to be seen leaving someone’s hotel roomlate at night and actually leaving someone’s hotel room late at night. I strode into the (luckily) emptyhall and made it to my room undetected.

Junior women and senior men often avoid engaging in mentoring or sponsoring relationships out offear of what others might think. A study published by the Center for Work-Life Policy and theHarvard Business Review reported that 64 percent of men at the level of vice president and above arehesitant to have a one-on-one meeting with a more junior woman. For their part, half of the juniorwomen avoided close contact with senior men.

This evasiveness must end. Personal connections leadto assignments and promotions, so it needs to be okay for men and women to spend informal timetogether the same way men can. A senior man and junior man at a bar is seen as mentoring. A seniorman and a junior woman at a bar can also be mentoring … but it looks like dating. This interpretationholds women back and creates a double bind. If women try to cultivate a close relationship with amale sponsor, they risk being the target of workplace gossip. If women try to get to the top without asponsor’s help, their careers will often stall. We cannot assume that interactions between men andwomen have a sexual component. And everyone involved has to make sure to behave professionallyso women—and men—feel safe in all settings.

At Goldman Sachs in the late 1990s, management committee partner Bob Steel recognized thisperception problem and came up with an admirable solution. The father of three daughters, Steel told atraining class that he had a “breakfast or lunch only policy” with employees because he feltuncomfortable going out to dinner with female employees and wanted to make access equal. SharonMeers worked at Goldman at the time and said Steel’s decision caused a bit of a stir, but she thoughthis candor was heroic. Anything that evens out the opportunities for men and women is the rightpractice. Some will get there by adopting a no-dinner policy; others may adopt a dinner-with-anyonepolicy. In either case, we need practices that can be applied evenly.

Many companies are starting to move from informal mentoring that relies on individual initiative tomore formal programs. When taken seriously, these formal mentorship/sponsorship programs can beremarkably successful. Structured programs also take the pressure off junior women from having toask the difficult “Are you my mentor?” question. One study showed that women who found mentorsthrough formal programs were 50 percent more likely to be promoted than women who found mentorson their own.

The most effective formal programs help educate men about the need to mentor womenand establish guidelines for appropriate behavior. These programs can be a great way to helpnormalize the senior man/junior woman model.

Official mentorship programs are not sufficient by themselves and work best when combined withother kinds of development and training. Deloitte’s Leading to WIN Women’s Initiative is a goodexample. Deloitte had already established a program to support female employees, who still remainedunderrepresented at the highest levels of the company. This prompted Chet Wood, CEO of DeloitteTax, to ask, “Where are all the women?” In response, Deloitte launched a leadership developmentprogram in 2008. The program targeted senior women in the tax division who were close topromotion. The women were assigned sponsors, received executive coaching, shadowed members ofthe executive committee, and took on global assignments. Of the twenty-one members of the inauguralgroup, eighteen have since been promoted.

As helpful as these formal programs can be, they are not always offered, and in some situations,senior people are not available to give guidance. The good news is that guidance can come from alllevels. When I first joined Facebook, one of my biggest challenges was setting up the necessarybusiness processes without harming the freewheeling culture. The company operated by movingquickly and tolerating mistakes, and lots of people were nervous that I would not just ruin the party,but squash innovation. Naomi Gleit had joined Facebook right out of college several years earlier. Asone of Facebook’s earliest employees, she had a deep understanding of how the company worked.

Naomi and I became close. I bet most people, including Naomi herself, probably assumed that I wasmentoring her. But the truth is she mentored me. She helped me implement the changes that needed tobe made and jumped in to stop me from getting things wrong. Naomi always told me the truth, even ifshe thought it would be hard for me to hear. She still does this for me today.

Peers can also mentor and sponsor one another. There is a saying that “all advice isautobiographical.” Friends at the same stage of their careers may actually provide more current anduseful counsel. Several of my older mentors advised me against taking a job at Google in 2001. Yetalmost all my peers understood the potential of Silicon Valley. Peers are also in the trenches and mayunderstand problems that superiors do not, especially when those problems are generated by superiorsin the first place.

As an associate at McKinsey & Company, my first assignment was on a team that consisted of amale senior engagement manager (SEM) and two other male associates, Abe Wu and Derek Holley.

When the SEM wanted to talk to Abe or Derek, he would walk over to their desks. When he wanted totalk to me, he would sit at his desk and shout, “Sandberg, get over here!” with the tone one might useto call a child or, even worse, a dog. It made me cringe every time. I never said anything, but one dayAbe and Derek started calling each other “Sandberg” in that same loud voice. The self-absorbed SEMnever seemed to notice. They kept it up. When having too many Sandbergs got confusing, theydecided we needed to differentiate. Abe started calling himself “Asian Sandberg,” Derek dubbedhimself “good-looking Sandberg,” and I became “Sandberg Sandberg.” My colleagues turned anawful situation into one where I felt protected. They stood up for me and made me laugh. They werethe best mentors I could have had.

Since when it rains, it pours, on that same project, the senior client leader wanted to fix me up withhis son. He declared this intention in front of his team over and over. I knew he meant it as acompliment, but it undermined my professional authority. How could I get my clients to take meseriously if their boss was constantly reminding everyone that I was his son’s age—oh, and that Ishould date him? One day, I gathered my courage and asked to speak to him in private. I told him(nicely) that I did not think it was appropriate for him to keep bringing up his son. He laughed it offand kept doing it.

Having tried to deal with the situation myself, I went to my manager—the same “Sandberg”-shouting SEM. He listened to my complaint and then told me that I should think about what I was“doing to send these signals.” Yup, it was my fault. I told the two other Sandbergs, who wereoutraged. They encouraged me to go over the SEM’s head and talk to the senior partner, RobertTaylor. Robert understood my discomfort immediately. He explained that sometimes those of us whoare different (he is African American) need to remind people to treat us appropriately. He said he wasglad I told the client no on my own and that the client should have listened. He then talked to the clientand explained that his behavior had to stop. He also spoke with my SEM about his insensitiveresponse. I could not have been more grateful for Robert’s protection. I knew exactly how that babybird felt when he finally found his mother.


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