Women’s Ways Of Mentoring

Call it “wo-mentoring”– a new approach that’s more about commitment and learning than about chemistry and power. And, by the way, it also works for men.

Lourdes Townsend is a career-focused businesswoman who knows exactly what she wants. At 35, Townsend is an international marketing manager for Stride Rite, based in Lexington, Massachusetts, where she has worked for the past six years. Born in the Philippines and raised in Michigan, Townsend describes herself as having “a midwestern work ethic” – but what comes across when she talks about herself is a kind of restless energy. “I’m the kind of person who likes to learn,” Townsend says. So when her most recent promotion interrupted her pursuit of an MBA at nearby Suffolk University, Townsend asked for advice from Denise Lockaby, 39, Stride Rite’s director of professional development.


Lockaby recommended a mentoring program run by WOMEN Unlimited Inc., a New York City-based, four-year-old career-development company for women only. The program paired Townsend with a senior executive outside of Stride Rite who would be her mentor for a year – but it also gave her something she never would have thought to ask for: 20 peers-as-mentors who taught her more than either her MBA courses or her formal mentor would.

“I never thought about learning from someone on my level,” Townsend says. “I always looked two to four levels above me and wondered what I had to do to get there. But the people who have the best solutions to the problems I face are often the people facing those problems themselves.”

By attending monthly workshops with smart, ambitious women from various companies in the Boston area, Townsend discovered a new style of learning. And she found out about the new world of mentoring – a world where the old rules, written and practiced largely by men mentoring men, have been redrafted by women mentoring women. Call it “wo-mentoring” – a natural reaction to a system that was so badly broken, it no longer worked for either sex.


Consider the problem. The way mentoring used to work, a senior male executive would annoint a younger version of himself as his protege. The operative assumption: Mentoring was all about chemistry between two people who had a lot in common. It was also about connections – the mentor, who was several rungs higher up the ladder, could steer the lower man toward career- enhancing projects or plum assignments.

Fast forward to the present. Women have poured into the new world of work, and they’ve found they aren’t welcome in the old boys’ club of mentoring. They can’t rely on men to pick female proteges. They can’t depend on being able to socialize in the old style – on the golf course or over a cigar – to form personal bonds. So women have changed the rules. They’ve invented formal practices where none existed before, making mentoring more organized and focused.

Women’s mentoring is also more about commitment than about chemistry. It’s about personal growth and development rather than about promotions and plums. And it’s more about learning than power. Says Jean Otte, 59, founder and CEO of WOMEN Unlimited, “It’s not about who you know. It’s about who knows what you know.”


You don’t have to be a woman to practice the new way of mentoring. But if you want to see it in action, look at how women do it.

Old Rule: Mentors and proteges should have a lot in common.

New Rule: The best matches are mismatches.


In the old style of mentoring, the best relationships between proteges and mentors were built on commonalities. Not so today, says Gayle Holmes, 51, founder, president, and CEO of Menttium Corp., a Minneapolis-based mentoring service. Menttium, founded in 1991, offers its Menttium 100 program – matching mentors and “mentees” from different companies – in six cities. “If you’re matched with someone like you,” she says, ” the potential for discovery is negated. You should pair with someone who, by her very nature, will challenge you.”

Take the example of Kathy Higgins Victor, 42, who was matched as a mentor to Ann Latendresse, 47, by Menttium in Minneapolis. After the two met for the first time, Higgins Victor had just one question: “What were they thinking?” The two could not have been more different. Higgins Victor has always put her career first. Latendresse, on the other hand, had begun her career almost by accident. And the two women couldn’t have been more different in style and personality. Higgins Victor has two small children at home. Latendresse has four grown children and recently became a grandmother. “We would never have found each other in a crowd,” Higgins Victor says.

Despite the lack of instant chemistry, the two stuck it out – and ultimately discovered that their differences were the best part of the match. “Kathy helped me see how I could be more objective and do what I needed to do to succeed,” says Latendresse. “I tend not to be open to others’ feedback,” Higgins Victor says. “Ann was so unconditionally open, she made me see that I could gain a lot from being more like her.”


Coordinates: Lourdes Townsend,; WOMEN Unlimited, 212-572-6211; Menttium Corp., 612-814-2600,; Kathy Higgins Victor,; Ann Latendresse,

Old Rule: Look for your mentor higher-up on the food chain.

New Rule: A good mentor is anyone you can learn from.


Everyone knows what an old-style mentor looked like: someone who had a little gray hair and an air of wisdom – a seasoned executive who was several promotions ahead of you. In the new world of mentoring, however, the ideal mentor is impossible to visualize – it could be anyone from anywhere inside or outside of the organization.

Peers can serve as handy mentors when you have no obvious senior role models to look to. Take Christine Comaford, 36, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur with five successful startups to her credit, including planet U (a Web-based marketing company) and her current business, Artemis Ventures, a venture-capital company that itself provides mentoring for startups.

As a woman running high-tech companies, Comaford found that mentors were scarce. So in 1996, she founded and organized Digital Dames, a peer-mentoring group for women who are top executives in technology companies.


So far, the group of about 30 women has kept its meetings informal and casual, gathering for occasional potlucks at Comaford’s house. The strength of the group: Its members have a wealth of experience in a wide range of entrepreneurial issues. “Our industry changes so fast, only someone inside it knows what’s going on,” Comaford says.

Coordinates: Christine Comaford,

Old Rule: Mentoring is one-on-one.


New Rule: Mentoring works best when you mix and match.

Sure, it would be great if you could find a mentor who would shower you with attention. But not many people have the time to be a one-on-one professional trainer. Don’t worry, says Tara Levine, 27, director of research and advisory services for New York-based Catalyst, a nonprofit group that works with companies to advance women within their organizations. In fact, you’re better off diversifying your mentor portfolio.

“Get creative about how you set up mentoring groups,” Levine says. “You can have a mentoring quad, with two mentors and two mentees, or a mentoring circle, with two mentors and from 6 to 10 mentees.”


One of the programs offered by Menttium is a service called Circles, an approach to mentoring that brings together mixed-gender groups within companies. At Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co. (BNSF), based in Fort Worth, Richard Dennison, 57, an assistant vice president in the mechanical division, has been participating as a mentor in a Circles group for six months.

Dennison meets monthly with six mentees. In the group’s first meeting, mentees outlined their career goals. Next, Dennison found speakers who could address topics that the mentees had expressed an interest in. The company also organized sessions on basic skills, such as budgeting and conflict management.

Coordinates: Tara Levine,; Richard Dennison,


Old Rule: Mentors pick their proteges.

New Rule: Proteges pick their mentors.

Everyone knows how old-style mentoring was supposed to work: It started when a mentor picked a protege or the company sanctioned a formal mentoring program. Not anymore. Women don’t ask permission, and they don’t wait for mentors to find them. They’ve started grassroots mentoring programs on their own.


At Apple, for example, the company’s women took the initiative in 1994, when Apple scaled back its mentoring program, its formal staff development, and its diversity activities. A few determined women, including Subhana Ansari, 47, decided that if Apple would not bring mentoring to them, they would bring mentoring to Apple. Ansari, an area administrator, approached other women at Apple with a proposal: With no funding, no support, and no materials, Ansari and other volunteers would build a formal mentoring program in a matter of weeks, starting in March 1996.

The classes, which ran for six weeks every Tuesday afternoon, attracted 20 people – 15 women and 5 men – and taught them how to recruit their own mentors. Two people dropped out, but the remaining 18 all had mentors by the fourth week of class. Within four months after the program was completed, six of the group’s members had been promoted.

The mentoring program helped its participants reach new career heights – and for Ansari, it opened up a new career. She left Apple to become a training project manager for Adecco Employment Services in Redwood City, California. “Creating the program redirected my career,” Ansari says. “It was the most fun I ever had at work.”


Coordinates: Subhana Ansari,

Old Rule: You’re a mentor or a mentee.

New Rule: Everyone needs mentors.

The old school taught that mentoring was for the young. The new style adamantly rejects such an antiquated notion. Procter & Gamble, for example, has created a breakthrough “reverse mentoring” program to tutor senior executives about issues facing women.

And it’s not just men who benefit from the mentoring-in-reverse program. Deb Henretta, 37, the leader of P&G’s advancement of women task force, learned from her younger “reverse mentor” about false assumptions that were affecting young female staff members. “At P&G, we used to discuss issues of ‘work-family balance,’ ” says Henretta. “By labeling it that way, we didn’t acknowledge that single people had life commitments outside the company.”

One measure of the program’s success: P&G has vastly improved its retention rate of talented women. In 1991, the advertising division was losing twice as many women as men. Since the launch of several mentoring initiatives in 1994, the rates have evened out.

Coordinates: Deb Henretta,

The most important lesson that the women’s approach to mentoring has to teach: It’s not about a mentoring relationship. It’s about a mentoring mentality. “You don’t need a single mentor who you keep throughout your career,” says Otte. “What happens when your company downsizes and your mentor leaves? What you need is a mind-set that allows you to learn from those around you, no matter who they are.”