Cultivating New Leaders / Outside perspectives

21st century technology is changing the structure, but not the benefits, of mentoring relationships


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Mary Alice Duncan could never call herself a billionaire or command the attention of millions on weekday afternoons. The Rev. Donald Jones isn't considered a trailblazer who's now a frontrunner in the 2016 presidential race. And Brown University classics professor John Rowe Workman was interested in ancient times, not the 24-hour news cycle.

The three didn't win fame or glory -- but the people they mentored did.

Mrs. Duncan taught Oprah Winfrey in the fourth grade. The Rev. Jones was a youth minister to Hillary Rodham Clinton when she was growing up in Illinois. And one of Mr. Workman's pupils, Ted Turner, would revolutionize the modern world with the advent of CNN.

No one gets to the top alone. But the importance of mentors in shaping a leader has never been more emphasized in the business community -- with career-specific groups, social media campaigns and entire outreach programs dedicated to helping every Luke Skywalker find an Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Around Pittsburgh, people seeking mentors can meet groups at a local library or, in at least one case, over a Web camera in a virtual mentoring program. Mentorships that at one time seemed serendipitous -- an attentive teacher, say, or well-placed cubicle mate -- are now being created through such programs, and the participants say the results can be as important to personal growth as they are to professional advancement.

One group, the Women Entrepreneurs of Pittsburgh, have met at the library in East Liberty at least once a month for the past two years. The meetings bring together women representing disparate sectors -- everything from hair care to health care, said founder and president Patricia Sallie.

The meetings start with the women sharing business cards and backgrounds. The experience of talking about themselves in front of a small group helps them realize they could do the same thing in a bigger arena, said Ms. Sallie.

Sometimes, in lieu of a formal meeting, the group will volunteer at a member's business -- for example, they recently helped one member with a breast cancer fundraiser she was organizing at her company.

The group has a couple dozen attendees who attend meetings from time to time, and Ms. Sallie spreads the word and shares information on Facebook and other social media sites.

Social media has helped other organizations match mentors with mentees outside their workplace.

One site, MeetUp.com, allows users to coordinate get-togethers with others who share similar interests or backgrounds. The site has gained a reputation as a social-calendar catch-all for microbrew drinkers and singles who love to dance, but has been tapped by business groups and entrepreneurs to help find like-minded colleagues and potential mentors.

"Nurses Nurturing Nurses" is a MeetUp group started by Renee Thompson, who worked as a nurse in Pittsburgh for more than 23 years before starting the RTConnections LLC nursing consultancy near the South Hills. The group congregates at a local cafe for conversation and socializing, with the hope that connections between the generations will create mentorships for younger attendees.

Mentoring in the nursing profession can be especially useful since the job puts new graduates and seasoned veterans in the same workspace. That can lead to back-biting and bullying, said Mrs. Thompson, who wrote a book on the topic called "Do No Harm Applies to Nurses, Too: Strategies to Protect and Bully-Proof Yourself at Work."

But the successful pairing of more experienced nurses with rookies can be a learning experience for both parties, she said. For example, the veteran knows how to navigate the tricky bureaucracy of the health care system -- "what they don't teach you in nursing school," said Mrs. Thompson -- while fresh graduates are entering care centers with new technology skills they can share.

The size of the gatherings has grown, starting with 10 male and female attendees and then quickly doubling in size.

Many hospitals have in-house mentoring programs that can be helpful, said Mrs. Thompson, but an outside mentorship can provide some fresh perspective that isn't weighed down by colleague-to-colleague baggage.

In fact, the importance of outside perspectives has become a recurring theme in many mentor matchmaking services.

At the Center for Women's Entrepreneurship at Chatham University, mentees are paired with four different mentors based on the expertise needed.

"We have a woman who's done great in the energy industry who is working with a food company," said director Rebecca Harris.

Mentors are chosen based on what the business owner might need -- financial assistance, or marketing help, or simply more connections in the business community.

The program is unique in its delivery. Ms. Harris and her colleagues thought effective mentoring could help more women entrepreneurs take their business to the next level, but a catch-22 emerged: Often, the business owners are too busy growing their business to have time for such things.

Their solution: a virtual program that allows business owners to meet over the computer with four mentors matched for their background experience.

The virtual sessions -- done over an interface that mimics Skype video conferencing -- allows business owners to get a 10,000-foot view of things from men and women who have been there themselves, said Ms. Harris.

Virtual sessions occur about five times per year and are supplemented by in-person workshops and training sessions. Between 10 and 20 mentees are expected to participate in the program's first year.

"It's confidence-building to validate concepts and ideas," she said. "And a number of studies have shown that if you have mentors, you tend to take your business further."

intheleadstories

-- Erich Schwartzel: eschwartzel@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455 First Published May 3, 2013 4:00 AM


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