The M Dash

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Professor Ellen Ensher on Mentorship, Protégés, and Courage Rituals

Filed in: Woman of the Week

Ellen Ensher is a professor of management at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, CA. You could also call her the mentorship guru, a title earned from her 20-plus years of research on the topic (see also: her 2013 TEDx talk, “How to Get a Mentor”). A few weeks ago, she stopped by the MM offices to talk about finding her academic niche, leaning on mentors to get through breast cancer, and learning to be a good protégé. 

I DIDN’T KNOW I wanted to be a professor when I was young. I didn’t even figure out I was interested in business until the end of college. I was a psychology major, and then senior year, I took a business class. I was like, “Oh! I should have been studying this all along.” But it was too late by then, so I graduated and started a career in human resources and training and development.

AFTER A COUPLE OF YEARS in the working world, I realized how much I missed writing and research and learning new things. I started doing a bunch of informational interviews, which eventually led me back to graduate school. I spent the rest of my twenties getting my master’s degree and finishing my Ph.D.

Ellen Ensher

Ellen wears the Fey top in French blue, the Greenpoint skirt in russet, the Venus earrings and the Fortuna bracelet.

WHEN I WAS 30, I got a job as a professor at my alma mater, LMU. It was this weird full circle, and now I’ve been here for over 20 years. When I started, I was one of the first women in the business faculty. There were three other women out of about 60 people. I was also one of the youngest. At the time, I didn’t realize how challenging that was, but now that we have more of a critical mass, I look back and go, “Wow, that was hard.” In that kind of situation, you’re put into an advocate role that you can either choose to ignore or embrace—and I did the latter.

BEING ONE OF THE ONLY WOMEN is both an advantage and a disadvantage. It’s an advantage because it brings a level of attention that may come with opportunity. On the other hand, when you make a misstep, or you’re not doing something quite as well, it’s not just reflected on you—it’s also reflected on your gender. I definitely felt this acute pressure, like I was representing womankind. And when it comes to students, it’s not just what you’re teaching; your mere presence teaches. I have this need to be a positive role model at all times, personally and professionally.

WHEN I WAS PREGNANT with my son, 13 years ago, the university didn’t have a maternity policy yet. I was coming up for tenure and promotion, and although no one had signaled to me that having a baby would be a problem, I’d never seen any of my colleagues go through it, so I didn’t know what would happen. I hid my pregnancy for about six months, and then, once I was tenured and promoted, I told everyone. They were happy and supportive, and their comments were funny—people said, “You’re so smart the way you handled your career and your family, because you waited until after you got promoted to have a baby.” And I thought to myself, “If you only knew.” Because I struggled with infertility during those five years before I got promoted. When I was working my ass off, I was also trying to get pregnant! My “perfect timing” just happened, but people assumed it had been strategic. Then, I was able to use my higher position to help advocate for a maternity leave policy, and encourage other faculty members to do the same.

Ellen Ensher

Ellen wears the Etsuko dress in elderberry.

I GOT INTERESTED IN MENTORING because I was studying how diversity helps people in organizations. This was right after the L.A. riots in the ‘90s, and I had a client that was trying to set up a mentoring program for inner-city kids. They wanted to know if race mattered in terms of mentor pairing. There was very little research in that area, so I did a study around it. What we found was that race did matter at the very beginning, in terms of creating mentor relationships, but once people got to know each other better, deep-level similarity became more important than surface-level similarity. It was such an exciting finding, because it meant that if we can put people in situations where they get to know each other deeply, these racial distortions can go away. I got the research published, and that set me on my trajectory of mentoring. To me, it’s a way to level the playing field—not just for women and people of color, but really for everything.

IN 2014, I WAS STARTING TO FEEL BURNED OUT on talking about mentoring, and then I was diagnosed with breast cancer. When you become a breast cancer patient, you have to take on a whole new role and learn a different set of skills. I was like, “How do I do this?” Then I realized that all the stuff I’d been teaching for years was applicable. Through contacts and friends, I assembled this team of mentors to help me navigate through the process. It gave me a renewed passion for mentoring because it’s not just about your professional life—it can save your personal life, too. 

I’VE DONE A BUNCH OF RESEARCH on what mentors can gain from having a protégé, and I think it’s important for people to remember that it’s a two-way street. Write down five things that you can offer to a mentor, and when you walk out the door to make an ask, visualize that list. Know that you are worthy of mentorship, and that you have a lot to give. My other big thing is to have a courage ritual. Whether it’s power poses or a fight song, cheesy or not, have a thing that you do to pump yourself up before you reach out to someone.

WHEN YOU’RE MAKING AN ASK, try to integrate yourself into the mentor’s life. People always go, “What about lunch?” And I don’t know about you, but I hate it when people ask me out to lunch—it cuts into my whole work day. If you really want to spend time with me, I’m driving in L.A. for an hour every day—set up a phone call with me. Or just reach out and say, “I’d love 15 or 20 minutes, what works for you?” 

Ellen Ensher

Ellen wears the Stanton cardigan in umber melange with the de Beauvoir blouse and the Foster pant in midnight blue.

I LOVE CLOTHES, and I look at them as a way to get my head in the game. Early on in my career, I dressed frumpier because I was younger and trying to look older—I wanted to de-emphasize my body. Now I use style as a way to express my best self. I get a lot of joy out of planning what I’m going to wear, and I am known for not repeating outfits during the semester. Out of my MM.LaFleur pieces, my favorite is the Emily dress, and I also love the Etsuko. I like to put some thought into how I present myself, even if it’s just a “pants day”—like, if I’m going to be sitting at my desk most of the time. 

I ONCE READ an article that said, “Instead of making a to-do list, make an ‘absolutely-must-do’ list.” So every day I try to write down what I absolutely have to do. And then, what are the things I’d like to do? Some of those additional things get done and some of them don’t, but I call it a victory if I do the “absolute” things.

Photographs by Lindsay Brown.


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