Mentoring … Because If We Don’t, Who Will?

Supporting other women as they advance is important.

A year ago September, after Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, I wrote an article for Advancing Women called The Thin, Strong String that Ties Women Together about how successful women have long helped the next generation find their footing and be better able to succeed. I thought of the thin, strong string piece when I heard that—quietly, with no fuss or fanfare—one of my newest colleagues had set about checking in weekly with one of our more junior female staff members. I’m proud to say that Lynette Smith, the recently retired CEO of $131 million TruEnergy Federal Credit Union in Springfield, Virginia, has joined the ranks here at Quantum Governance as a lead consultant, and we are the better for it. Even though the junior staff member in question reports directly to me, I heard about Lynette’s calls to her through the Quantum grapevine. There are times when the grapevine at small organizations can be … well, you know. But this time, I was happy to have heard about Lynette’s kindness in this way. My father used to say that the truest kindnesses are those that you extend when no one is looking. And certainly, Lynette’s regular check-in calls were never intended to be known by anyone else—let alone did she expect that they would surface in this article. But they have. Like most organizations, we’re not perfect. We have our foibles. (Yes, even consultants have foibles too.) But I felt lifted when the grapevine brought me news of Lynette’s calls to our staff member. The thin, strong string that ties women together went from Lynette to our staff member and then to me too. And then I started to think more about that thin, strong string and all the women that I’ve known throughout my career—the women that lifted me up and the women that didn’t. I wondered, what does being a mentor really mean, anyway? The word comes from ancient Greek mythology—a class I skipped more than I attended when I was studying literature at the University of California at Berkeley. When Odysseus left his wife and son to fight in the Trojan War, he placed his son under the care of a man named Mentor, with directions to protect and guide his son. The war was a long one, and Odysseus was gone for 10 years. During his absence, Mentor failed miserably at his one and only job. It was a woman, of course, the Greek goddess Athena, who finally came to the rescue. Impersonating Mentor, she helped to save Odysseus’ son. Athena, the goddess of wisdom and practical reason. The city protectress. The goddess of handicraft and warfare, too. In the Middle Ages, I found in a resource by Roche for this course, the notion of mentoring “’became common practice in the time of the guilds and trade apprenticeships when young people, having acquired technical skills, often benefited from the patronage of more experienced and established professionals.’ In the 1970s, business people and researchers started to recognise ‘the vital role that mentors play in the development of corporation executives’ (Roche, 1979).” How many mentors have you had? I mean really, truly good mentors? People who had your best interests at heart, even when you might not have known what your best interests were? And how many of them were women? How many authentic, open relationships with women at work have you had? Was there a woman who was your “protectress?” Or, like another colleague recently shared with me, did the goddess of warfare show up when it was time to present your good idea to the boss? Earlier this year, CUNA published a study that found that 51% of all credit union CEOs and 33% of all board members are women. This is good news, given that only 3% of CEOs and 16% of board members at our nation’s banks are women. But is it good enough? Women make up 51% of our nation’s population, and the 2021 State of Credit Union Governance report, COVID-19 and DEI: Revolution & Evolution in the Credit Union Community, finds that 47% of credit union board members report that gender is a low priority when recruiting new directors. There is so much more work to be done. More mentoring to offer and to receive. More quiet, under-the-radar phone calls to make. And we must all do our part. For the ones that come after us and alongside of us, and even for those who are above us. Because after all, if we don’t, who will?

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