What’s in a name?

Erin Wilhelm, friend and project director at the Collaborating Center of Excellence in Regulatory Science and Innovation (CERSI) at Georgetown University, recently reached out to a mentor. Today she guest posts about her bicoastal experience with Carol and wonders if “mentorship” is the best term for their ongoing, mutual support system.

Inspired by the creativity of this blog and its authors, I sought my own professional mentor early this year. I even borrowed some of the language Cecilia wrote in her invitation e-mail (seriously . . . inspired!)

In previous jobs, I’ve had assigned mentors and found these forced relationships dissatisfying for various reasons, and mostly because the interactions felt as compulsory as the relationship. There was no motivation to talk other than a company policy that said we should.

Recently, I began a new job at a new organization in a new field. I welcomed the challenge and opportunity to learn from all the newness. After the first months’ intense learning curve, I gained a working stride but realized there was still a lot I didn’t know. So I had motivation. Finding a mentor could help me structure the next phase of my learning. But I was skeptical . . . there were those prior bad experiences, and my new organization didn’t have a formal structure. It never occurred to me, until I read Cecilia and Suzanne’s blog, that I could just pick someone who I admired and ask!

So I did. I asked Carol, a woman I worked with only a little, but with whom I exchanged many an e-mail and “met” on occasion via Skype. (She lives and works in San Francisco, and I live and work in D.C.) Carol has great energy, humor, and brains. And we both love yoga and our dogs, so I knew there would always be something to talk about. Plus, she has worked in my new industry, for nearly 30 years, loves her career, and is successful. When I reached out to her, I was neither so in love with my work nor feeling successful, and I thought it could help to talk and work with her. Hoping her passion would rub off . . .

We structured our talks formally at first – with e-mailed agendas and “assigned” reading material. But over the weeks and months, we gradually found a rhythm of hour-long chats every week or so, discussing process and people skills, new or difficult concepts in our field, and how to maintain sanity – and a life – in the midst of a 21st century career. These talks gave me reassurance, direction, and new tricks to try.

In all, this relationship has been satisfying, and we’ve achieved many of the goals we set for ourselves. But I’m not sure that ours were typical of mentor-mentee conversations and so, when I refer to Carol, I usually say “colleague,” “coworker,” “coach,” or even “friend.”

I wasn’t the student diligently taking notes from the teacher. We’ve had the opportunity to exchange ideas in deep and meaningful dialogue. As a result, we both feel the time invested has been worth it.Of course, if I were to formally describe this relationship, I would still call Carol my mentor – because it describes our interaction with a term other people readily understand (and isn’t that what a word is for?). But to both of us, the relationship has been more. The word that best captures Carol’s role in my life is “collaborator,” but that word has been overused in popular professional literature to the point of meaninglessness and this mentor-coach-colleague-friend of mine definitely has meaning to me.

Erin Wilhelm, Georgetown University

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