“The world has changed pretty dramatically over the past 40 years.” I nod in response, staring into the 13-inch laptop screen that’s perched atop some stacked cookbooks on my kitchen counter. As her words sink in, I think about the change we’ve seen in the past year alone. Since the start of the pandemic, nothing about the working world feels the same. Except, as Barbara is quick to point out, the need for human connection and support.
Barbara Novick, a BlackRock founder and senior advisor, believes that having the right support system is the not-so-secret ingredient for a long, successful career. It’s a theory she’s cultivated over decades of personal experiences and the experiences of her mentees.
“When I started working, there were zero women in senior positions at any of the financial firms,” she tells me. “That was true of a lot of fields. Today, when you look across industries, women have broken through.” Images of Kamala Harris, Janet Yellen, Jane Fraser, Roz Brewer, Thasunda Brown Duckett, and others carousel through my mind.
At the same time, though, headlines swirl around the negative impact that working from home has had on women. In fact, McKinsey research found that 1 in 4 women plan to leave the workforce because of the pandemic.
These highs and lows are difficult to reconcile.
Barbara raises another nuance. “Gone are the glory days of being a pioneer,” she tells me, underscoring the importance of representation. “Anyone starting a career today, or changing jobs mid-career, is going to look at their prospective company and say, ‘Is there anyone here who looks and thinks and acts and feels like me?’ It’s about all dimensions of a person’s identity.”
“For companies, it’s both a challenge and an opportunity,” she continues. “Social distancing has made it harder to focus on career development and network building, while society demands more serious attention be paid to the advancement of diversity, equity and inclusion. Going forward, companies that get this right will attract and retain the best talent.” And that’s when we get to the meat of it: the importance of mentorship in a post-pandemic world.
“Investing in yourself is critical. At home, maybe that means getting support from a partner, family member, or friend. Or perhaps it looks like hiring outside help, if you have the means. At work, it’s no different. You need a support system. That’s what mentors are designed to be, and ideally, they turn into sponsors, given time and opportunity.”
By this point in the interview, Barbara’s in full coaching mode. She’s getting tactical, sharing stories and experiences on both sides of the mentorship coin – lessons learned (sometimes the hard way) and passed on to others. After the call, in parsing back through my notes, I realize I have a veritable treasure trove: a list of do’s and don’ts for successful mentorship:
- Do: Treat feedback as a gift
Feedback – can’t live with it, can’t live without it. Those with managerial experience know it can be as hard to deliver as it is to receive, but Barbara advises we shift our mindsets to see constructive criticism for what it really is: a gift.
“You’re not doing anyone any favors by letting them repeat the same mistake. It’s hard to do, but mentors should give more honest feedback. If you’re going to have an open relationship, you must be willing to give both the good and the bad. And, in my experience, mentees are appreciative in the end. I’ve had people send me notes years later in their career saying that, while they didn’t necessarily like it in the moment, the honest feedback made them better and ultimately advanced their career. As a mentor, that’s the optimal outcome.”
- Don’t: Waste time
When it comes to developing a relationship with a mentor, you don’t get points just for showing up. It’s not a social hour; it’s about self-improvement.
“You have to come to me with a business challenge you’re trying to solve, or an area of your career you’re trying to develop – something,” says Barbara. “I don’t want to have a frivolous coffee chat; but I do want to engage you in a substantive conversation. You can take my input or not, but the process leads somewhere. All that natural mentoring grows into having a relationship.”
- Do: Let people go as they grow
Relationships change, and that can be hard – especially when going from boss to mentor or sponsor.
“I once took a chance on a woman with a non-traditional background who, in short order, proved to everyone that she was a superstar. She worked for me for years. Then one day she came to me and said she was ready to try something different. Of course, I was sad to see her move – I enjoyed working with her. But I recognized she was right. She was at the point where she needed a new challenge. And that meant she needed me to take on a new role in our relationship. She needed me to go from being her boss and mentor, to being her sponsor, and I was happy to see her find that next opportunity. If you want to build long-lasting relationships, you have to let them evolve with time.”
- Don’t: Dump your problems
Mentors are not therapists, nor are they there to solve your problems for you. They’re there to work through solutions with you.
“I tell the people I work with that they can tell me anything they want. They can tell me when something is going wrong or an idea is bad. But they have to come to the table with alternatives. Saying ‘I have a problem,’ and then leaving doesn’t cut it. But coming in, having a discussion and then working through it together – that’s a collaborative process. That’s the kind of mentorship that people want to have in their work lives.”
- Do: Get back on the horse
Keeping in touch can be the trickiest part of maintaining a mentor-mentee relationship – especially when circumstances may cause you to move out of each other’s immediate orbit. What should you do if you’ve lost touch?
“It only gets harder with time. As your network expands and your list of mentors and mentees grows, those you interact with on a regular basis diminish. And then there’s the pandemic, which has made it harder to carve out time for regular catch ups, throwing a lot of relationships through a loop.
As the pandemic subsides in different parts of the world, though, we all need to find ways to reconnect. Now might be the perfect time to take a proactive approach to mentoring and networking more broadly.
Ultimately, it comes down to three things: time management, prioritization and keeping an open mind. If you can manage those things, your relationships will thrive in any environment.”