I’m shortly to commence volunteering at a local charity (non-profit) in London called The Girls’ Network. It’s an organization that pairs professional female mentors with teenage girls from disadvantaged communities in order to inspire and empower young women to pursue education and work. As someone who has both mentored and been mentored in the past, I’m a huge fan of the concept.
As part of the training to become a mentor, the charity asked us to draw our “dining room table,” i.e., those people sitting around a metaphorical dining room table to whom we turn for support and advice in work and in life. And then they asked this question: are there any people at your table who weren’t there a year ago?
To my surprise and delight, I realised that there were. In the past year, I have come to both give and take professional advice from two people I didn’t know before. One is an ex-business school professor whom I met at a creative practice workshop last autumn. In a room rife with artists and teachers clad in rainbow-colored leggings, he and I happened to sit next to one another. We quickly discovered that we had a lot in common: we had both spent a lot of time in universities, we were both in career transitions, and we were both interested in applying creativity training to the corporate world.
The second person is a woman I met through Ellevate, a global network for professional women. Ellevate operates chiefly through “squads” – groups of women of different ages, sectors and stages of their careers who meet virtually over 12 weeks to provide advice and support to one another. At the end of the three months, one of the women in my squad wrote to me privately. She’d observed that we came from very different backgrounds and approached things very differently. She felt that it might be useful if we carried on our discussion together. So we have.
In her fantastic book Reinventing You, Dorie Clark talks about the importance of having what she calls a personal “Board of Directors.” The basic idea is that rather than seeking out one mentor as you change careers, you want to set up a group of people who can offer advice. This diversity enables you to draw on a range of viewpoints – and skill sets – that complement your own. It also gets you away from conceptualizing mentoring as something an older person “does” to someone younger. (My Ellevate colleague is at least ten years younger than me, as were several people in my group.)
There are a few morals to this story. The first is that it’s always good to try new things. Much like joining a new club as a grown-up, getting professional training and participating in networking groups forces you to meet new people. In so doing, you may benefit in ways that are entirely unforeseen.
My second takeaway is that – pace Clark – there really is strength in numbers. As I go about setting up my new business, I find myself drawing on all manner of friends, family members and colleagues – new and old – for input. Thank goodness I have such a deep and diverse network. It’s a great example of what – in their landmark book about the future of work, The 100 Year Life – Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott call “intangible assets” .
Finally, I have learned once again about the power of reciprocity. When I met up with my Ellevate colleague this week on Skype, she advised me on how to approach an upcoming business development meeting. I, in turn, gave her some advice on her website. Win/Win!
Have you ever been pleasantly surprised by a new mentor/friend? How did you meet them? Use the comments section to share. (And, yes, I really would love it if that *were* my dining room table…)