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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Catalysts for Professional Growth

In our last official Talking About Talking exchange, Suzanne and I queried the word mentorship. Does it capture the reciprocal, open-ended network of relationships our project seeks to engage? An article in the Harvard Management newsletter–360 Degree Mentoring–explores this concept without proposing new terminology.

What does and does not work for you about mentorship, the word and the concept? What alternative terms, if any, might apply to relationships that have catalyzed your professional growth? We would like to hear your stories, of mentors, muses, peer teachers, protégés, social networks, et al. Please post comments or e-mail to cwichmann (at) phillipscollection (dot) org for consideration as a guest post.

Finale with Cafe Cubano, Ikat, and Lots of Talk

With Suzanne (and flowers) on D.C.’s Spanish Steps en route to The Textile Museum

On Friday, Suzanne and I begin our finale at the Washington Post‘s annual museums luncheon. We listen to presentations from advertising and editorial arms of the Style section and catch up with a handful of peers from D.C.’s museum community. The most interesting takeaway is a sense of openness and accessibility. Editors outline parallels between museums and the newsroom with sincerity and humor. The question and answer period launches a worthwhile discussion on interactive strategies and tools in museums.

Back at the Phillips, I share points of pride–our profound Antony Gormley exhibition, surprising installation of John Cage watercolors, recent Villareal acquisition (an infinite, digital Rothko?), The Migration Series. Touring offices, we stop to say hello to Ann (my boss and longtime mentor), who invites us in to chat. She poses a question: at the end of six months, what do you each take away from this exchange? Suzanne replies that benefits span the professional to the personal. She has increased familiarity with key platforms, received positive feedback from peers at AAM, made a friend. I’ve grown in confidence, gained insight into communications processes at a different type of institution, made a friend. Our impromptu answers, of course, only scratch the surface.

Next stop, recaffeination (some things don’t change). At the new Tryst at the Phillips cafe, Suzanne tries the cubano and I opt for iced americano. We have an extended conversation about our current work projects (press trips, strategic planning, art, artists). We also talk about Suzanne’s earlier life as a textile artist and conservator.

4:15 and time to squeeze one last adventure out of the day. Tentative itinerary involves a jaunt to H Street, NE, to introduce Suzanne to an evolving D.C. neighborhood and see Villareal’s show at Conner Contemporary, but when we realize she has never been to the Textile Museum we happily change course. A short walk up the Spanish Steps through Kalorama and we arrive with 30 minutes to spare. The Textile Museum represents a formative, museum experience for me (I visited regularly with my godmother as a child), and it’s a pleasure to be back with Suzanne. She brings a practitioner’s expertise and wonder (and enlightens me as to how the beautiful ikat piece we’re staring at was made).

Suzanne will soon sprint to catch a 5:50 train back to Richmond, but on our walk to the car we focus on what’s next. How do we extend the benefits of our experience? Does “mentorship” describe what’s valuable in our relationship? It has been so exciting because it’s reciprocal, catalytic, creative. We start brainstorming alternate terms with little success. After all, people understand “mentorship.” It has history and context. Would our exchange be useful under a different name? With that open question, and a hug, we say farewell.

This Event is Worth Your Weekend

photo of Habitat for Artists' work for the 5x5 public art project--a 6'x6' artist-in-residence space bearing the phrase "What is this?"--at THEARC

Habitat for Artists' 5x5 public art project--a 6'x6' artist-in-residence space at THEARC, host of the recent TEDxWDC conference.

A big part of mentorship happens in casual conversation, offhand remarks, about what your mentor is up to or interested in. The mentee must fine-tune her listening skills to benefit. She must be curious and open to checking out something new without immediate pay-off. The seasoned mentor knows to push as many potential experiences to her mentee as possible, without making all opportunities compulsory or expecting them to stick. When Suzanne got an e-blast from AAM about a storytelling workshop, she forwarded it to me. She didn’t “assign” it, or even suggest that I attend. She just asked if I had heard about it and said she was looking forward.

I recently had the great fortune of coaching sessions with Wendy Luke, an expert on mentorship (among other professional/organizational relationships and issues). Reaching out to a mentor outside of my organization was Wendy’s idea–hence this blog. She also talked with me about ArtTable and suggested pointedly that I get involved. So when the Phillips’s Center for the Study of Modern Art hosted an ArtTable-organized panel on the 5×5 public art project, I made sure to be there.

I would not normally have attended–the thrust of the discussion was curatorial and, while I’m fascinated personally, the immediate, communications-driven, tactical necessity to carve out the time was not there. I’m glad that I did anyway. Hearing about projects like Natalie Jeremijenko’s Butterfly Bridge and Wilmer Wilson IV’s  Henry “Box” Brown: FOREVER was inspiring and made me a more engaged participant in the DC arts community. I had a chance to ask questions about the logistical challenges of placing public art in DC, which is directly applicable to a strategic wayfinding project in my professional pipeline. I also got to say hi to Wendy, and ask her about her upcoming weekend plans, which happened to include TEDxWDC.

Notices for the upcoming TEDx talks had blipped on my radar, but I’d been ambivalent about committing a Saturday. It wasn’t until a day or two after my run-in with Wendy that I felt compelled to register. Again, I’m glad I did. In addition to hearing from 26 colleagues about DC’s creative economy, I made my first visit to THEARC, saw Habitat for Artists building their project for 5×5, and spent time in Anacostia for the second time in my life (an embarrassing admission for a nearly-DC-native).

Curiosity and open-minded participation has a ripple effect. Because of soft suggestions from mentors and colleagues, I hope to also attend:

What am I missing? I would love to hear what workshops, conferences, and events you’re excited about, and–if reasonably accessible from DC by car or train–I’ll attend.