Sheryl Sandberg’s Message on Mentoring Is Wrong—and Dangerous

Sheryl Sandberg’s "Lean In" says senior women perceive mentoring requests as “total mood killers” and urges younger women to excel before they try to find mentors. Here’s why she’s totally wrong.

By Barbara Frankel 

The Wrong Message: "Lean In" by Sheryl Sandberg Sheryl Sandberg thinks the concept of mentorship for women is highly overrated. Sandberg’s wrong—and here’s why.

Before I take apart the argument about mentoring made by Sandberg, the Facebook COO who is on every media channel pushing her book Lean In, I have a confession: I never had a formal mentor and if I’d had one, it could have changed my life for the better.

When I started my career—30 years ago, in a very male-dominated industry—it was sink or swim. Produce results or find another job. I was smart, ambitious and willing to work harder than my peers, almost all of whom were men. I always managed well but relating to peers wasn’t so easy.

Case in point, I was a newspaper reporter in a unionized shop and we weren’t supposed to work overtime, even if we were covering breaking news, like fires and murders. I ignored the union and put in as many free hours as needed to do a great job—and I never asked for overtime even though I was grossly underpaid. So my bosses loved me, and I didn’t have a whole lot of friends in the newsroom. And within a couple of years, I became their boss, which didn’t endear me to the rank and file either.

If I’d had a mentor, I might have been able to find a more collaborative and less competitive way to succeed, which would have made me a much more effective manager when I was promoted over everyone else. A mentor also could have shown me how to better balance personal time and work time so I didn’t exist in a constant state of anxiety. Most importantly, a mentor could have helped me learn how to talk to my male bosses about what wasn’t working in the organization and for me, instead of being afraid of pissing them off.

What would have been effective for me would have been both a female mentor and a male mentor. There weren’t any female role models where I worked, so that wasn’t an option. And the men who were interested in mentoring picked people who looked and sounded like them—and that sure wasn’t me.

Sandberg: Women Rely Too Much on Mentors 

Sandberg argues that the current emphasis in corporate America on women finding mentors (who coach you) and sponsors (who advocate for you politically) wastes everyone’s time. For senior women like herself, she says being asked to be a mentor “is a total mood killer” that she seems to find annoying, like a celebrity being approached for an autograph.

For the mentees, she projects her “do it yourself” mantra, saying: “We need to stop telling them, ‘Get a mentor and you will excel.’ Instead, we need to tell them, ‘Excel and you will get a mentor.’”

If Sandberg’s logic follows, there will be no change in the very status quo she wants to “revolutionize”: men (and I’ll add white men) holding on for dear life to their vastly disproportionate share of leadership positions. She admits, and I agree, that people mentor and sponsor those who have common interests and who remind them of themselves. That leaves women—and Blacks, Latinos, Asians, American Indians, LGBT people and people with disabilities—out in the cold.

If women have to “lean in” and excel before they solicit mentors and sponsors—and if women should be careful not to annoy powerful women by “bothering them” for advice—only white men are going to use mentoring and sponsoring to their advantage.

Corporate Involvement 

This is the essential reason why companies that understand they have a lot of ground to make up with women and other underrepresented groups have been jumping into cross-cultural, formalized mentoring. The formalization is critical because informal mentoring leads to propagating the status quo. If the company doesn’t emphasize the cross-cultural aspect of mentoring—and include cultural awareness training for both parties before they start the relationship—again, the reach out to women and others doesn’t happen.

Sandberg says that mentoring works best when it’s combined with other kinds of leadership development and training, and cites Deloitte’s excellent Leading to WIN Women’s Initiative. The most successful talent-development efforts (such as Deloitte’s) are indeed multipronged, but they only succeed when strong one-to-one relationships are a major part of the deal.

If you look at mentoring programs that show dramatic increases in female retention and promotions, such as Deloitte’s, Sodexo’s IMPACT program, and Target’s mentoring initiatives for managers, you will see that they are very structured, very metrics-driven, and yet enable those personal relationships to grow on an individual basis.

The Other Side 

So while I’ve never had a real mentor, I have mentored several people, most of them younger women. My first mentee was Tammy, who was assigned to me when I was a senior editor at a newspaper that had just initiated formal mentoring. Tammy and I met every week and developed a strong friendship that continued for many years. I taught her how to improve her writing and what she needed to do for her next career moves. She taught me how to slow down (a little) and listen to what people are saying (a lesson I’m still working on).

Since then, I’ve informally mentored several people (because our company is too small to have a formal mentoring program), most of them women. And what continues to surprise me is how much I learn from them.

If those who have become successful choose, like Sandberg, to ignore the requests of others to be their mentors, we do ourselves a great disservice. We aren’t holding on to power by denying them our collective wisdom—we are allowing an inequitable status quo to be perpetuated (with a few  “token” women and others at the top)—and we are denying ourselves the opportunity to grow in different ways by learning from those we teach.



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  • Michael J. Lowrey

    So, you admit you worked for free off the clock, ignoring the union contract (and labor law); management liked you and elevated you to a management position, over people who had lives and thought they shouldn’t hand their hours for free to the company.

    And we should be listening to you why?

    • Barbara Frankel

      You missed the entire point of the column. If I had had a mentor, I would not have behaved in that way and would have found a better method of demonstrating my value without alienating my peers. Mentors, with the wisdom of experience and maturity, often can show a young person ways to work more collaboratively. Sheryl Sandberg isn’t recognizing how important they are. Barbara Frankel, Senior Vice President and Executive Editor, DiversityInc

  • Actually, I agree with Sandberg’s philosophy. It’s important to prove your dedication and ability to produce positive results in order to attract someone who will be willing to help you stretch to greater heights. That’s because you’ve shown that you truly WANT that growth.

    As I read your column, it was surprising to realize that I’ve had the benefit of several White men who were a few decades older than me and several women. Even in my current industry (with which I’m not happy), I was able to gain a mentor until we both realized we were essentially standing shoulder to shoulder and had turned into competitors. I regret the loss of the teacher but relish the many times when I would read an article and thought I was reading my own words (or vice versa).

    In none of these cases was there a formal request to be mentored. Instead, the relationships evolved because my dedication showed, my work product spoke for itself, and I was bold enough to ask for their guidance (I showed my trust in them).

    Women need to realize that they need to do the work to prove they’re worth the effort. No one is going to hand them an E-ride Ticket when they’re only doing A- or B-Ride work.

    You raise several points with which I agree. Most significantly is the fact that mentoring is definitely a mutual growth and learning experience.

    Thanks for a great read!

  • I can understand why Sandberg would have this feeling because the truth is there are a lot of wrong ways to do mentoring. Is mentoring just advice over lunch once a month? If so, it may not be terribly effective. Is it forcing unnatural fits? If so, it may not work well. Is it something new that corporate rolled out because it was just recently sued and they don’t seem like they really believe in the concept? If so, it may be hard to get buy in.

    Informal mentoring situations that arise organically have advantages. They is not forced, which helps to ensure that the fit is right and that the mentor and mentee both want this to happen. That dramatically increases the chances of a successful mentorship.

    If Sandberg’s larger message is that you should rely more on hard work and self-learning than on mentors to get ahead, then I agree. And by the way, your counterargument is based on speculation – it largely relies on what “might have happened” had you had a mentor 30 years ago.

    • Barbara Frankel

      My counterargument to Sandberg’s view on mentoring was not just based on personal experience. The DiversityInc Top 50 has correlated mentoring best practices to human-capital results for more than a decade. We have significant data evidence that shows when companies have formal, cross-cultural mentoring using best practices and metrics to assess results, they have a significant increase in retention, engagement and promotion of women (and other underrepresented groups). By dismissing corporate mentoring efforts, Sandberg negates the established value of these initiatives. Barbara Frankel, Senior Vice President and Executive Editor, DiversityInc

  • Your perspective is interesting food for thought, but I think misses the point that both you and Sandberg believe in the importance and value of mentoring relationships. Both of you highlight the huge benefits you personally did or could have gained from having a senior leader guiding your path.

    I think the only real difference in your argument is in the best way to secure a mentor… not in the validity of mentorship. And there is value in both of your perspectives on how to make that happen. Securing a mentor organically… where relationships that are reciprocal in nature and you never actually say the words “will you be my mentor” likely lead to trusted lifelong connections and a different level of influence. Corporate programs are fantastic for overtly connecting people at different stages of career progression – and I think Sandberg comments that these can work too (and do so best when combined with other opportunities).

    Another interesting way to think about this may be to look at (and I don’t know if this is true… but I have a guess it might be) whether or not women at the highest levels of corporations were able to organically develop mentoring relationships. If so, maybe our focus needs to be in the area of helping people build relationship skills that lead to this level of trusted interaction. Just food for thought.

  • Did we read the same book? Yes, she did note that getting approached by women at a conference and getting asked about mentoring is hard to hear. But, I didn’t read it as a burden, but rather a reality that so many workplaces aren’t cultivating mentoring or sponsoring.

    I am getting so many take aways from this book and I can’t help but feel like many reviews or reviewers have not read the book. And, I’m also add that I’m tired of white women telling me that I cannot get anything from this book. Yes, many of us women of color have been Leaning In and trying to Lean In for a long, damn time.

    But, I’m where I am today thanks to many mentors (women and men alike). I continue to mentor. Simply put, it is my mandate. I am suggesting this book to my students and others. It’s not perfect, but it is useful.

  • Did we read the same book #2

    Sandberg never suggested anyone NOT respond to mentor requests. She, in a very mentor- like fashion, shared the hard truth that asking someone you don’t know to be your mentor may not be the best strategy for finding one. This is good solid advice. What I am enjoying about Sandberg’s book is that she paints a picture of some very harsh realities and then suggests strategies for adapting and thriving.

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