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 


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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