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Are You My Mentor?

December 31, 2016 | Filed in: MM Forum

Welcome to the MM Forum, a new series in which we invite readers to share the challenges, triumphs, and paradoxes of their lives as professional women. Every week, we will choose a new theme, and ask people to send us stories and musings that stem from it (you may choose to be anonymous, if you like). We will then publish a selection of those submissions here on The M Dash. 

This week, three women from the MM community weigh in on the topic of mentorship in the workplace, and the different forms it can take. For last week’s inaugural MM Forum, three women discussed the challenges of letting friendships take a backseat as motherhood and work became all-consuming

For next week, we are exploring the complexities of scaling back when work becomes unmanageable. Have you ever needed to tell a superior that your workload is unsustainable, and was that conversation productive? Or did you keep quiet and reach a breaking point? Have you gone part-time because of demands outside of the office, or considered it? Please send your stories and thoughts (however brief or extensive) to by Wednesday, January 4.

The Value of ‘Mini-mentors’

I’ve never had a mentor in the way most people use the term—and that used to cause me a lot of anxiety. But over the past few years, I’ve realized that very few people have a Larry Summers the way Sheryl Sandberg did, the kind of all-powerful guiding hand who benevolently steers you in the right direction over 20 years. Instead, I’ve had different people serve as mentors at different points in my career. I’m still in touch with a former boss from my days as a reporter covering the Vatican, for example, and he’s given me invaluable advice at various stages. When I got into consulting, someone introduced me to a guy who showed me the ropes and gave me feedback on my first proposals, and I consider him a mini-mentor too. As you advance in your career, be sure to keep in touch with people you respect—inevitably you’ll want to call on them in the future (and of course, pay it forward by being willing to be called upon yourself). Also, don’t underestimate the mentorship of peers. I’ve always looked to friends I admire, both in similar fields and very different ones, for counsel, and they’ve often helped me get past some of my thorniest career impasses.

-Bene Cipolla, digital strategy and operations consultant, New York, NY

The Blurry Line Between Friend, Colleague, and Mentor

The woman I consider my mentor probably wouldn’t call me her mentee—our relationship isn’t that formal, even though she’s been a huge part of my career. The relationship developed very naturally. She’s actually a few months younger than me, but she’s been in my industry for a few years longer, and she moved up very quickly. We met in 2011 because she was my boss at my previous job. When she left for another company, she recruited me to join her. We were peers at first, and then she was promoted to become my boss, and then eventually she moved up into another role, at which point she recommended me as her replacement. Even though she encouraged me to go for it, I was concerned about the role because it had a high turnover rate. I asked her for help in creating a plan to make the position more manageable, which I then pitched successfully. She also recommended me for a leadership training program that the company offers, which you can only get if you’re nominated for it, and that was extremely helpful.

Now that we work in different groups within the company, we’re able to help each other’s businesses. I talk to her regularly because we work together, but we get together about once a quarter and have a bigger conversation about life and career. She moved to San Francisco, and I still live in New York, but we both travel frequently for work; if we happen to be in the same place, we’ll set aside time for lunch or drinks. We would definitely call each other friends, but we’re also allies.

One thing I’ve learned from taking on a leadership role is the importance of having a succession plan, and I was hers. You can move up in the company a lot faster if you groom people to take over your previous position, so in that sense, I was her “out.” I’m currently eyeing someone who I think could be the same for me.

-Nora, consulting manager, New York, NY

The Didn’t-Realize-She-Was-My-Mentor Mentor

The term “mentor” always made me uncomfortable. As an introvert, the idea of formally asking someone senior to commit to an open-ended relationship with me is seriously anxiety-inducing. I never sought out a mentor because I never wanted anyone to feel an obligation to me. I was too shy, and for many years, I felt too directionless to even know what kind of advice to ask for. But in retrospect, I ended up with a few invaluable “unofficial” mentors. They were co-workers who were just a step or two above me—so therefore, approachable. There was nothing formal or structured about those relationships. There was no asking, “Will you be my mentor?” We just worked together, and I learned from them. At the time, I didn’t even realize they were mentoring me (and maybe they didn’t either). But when I look back, I credit them for showing me the path forward, helping me build specific skills, steering me around potential pitfalls, and allowing me to envision where I could go next in my career. I’m incredibly grateful for these relationships, but also grateful that they played out organically, without having to be labeled or formalized.

-Olivia, editor, New York, NY

Want to weigh in? Send your comments to Feel free to suggest other themes you’d like us to explore in the future, and share your two cents on next week’s theme: scaling back when work becomes overwhelming.

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