Leading By Direction, Not Dictation

In 1993, Berthenia A. Harmon left a lucrative position she held for six years as an accounting specialist at a New Jersey insurance firm to pursue a career in education. While studying for a master’s degree in early childhood education at Kean University in Union, New Jersey, Harmon sought guidance from her graduate coordinator, who noted that her corporate experience would be a boon to her ascent up the public school bureaucratic ladder. After two years as a second grade teacher in New Jersey’s Elizabeth public school system and four years as a technology coordinator, she is now months shy of earning a second master’s degree in education administration and supervision from St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, New Jersey. Harmon anticipates landing a vice principle position this fall.

“She affirmed what I already knew: that I had the heart and mind for this,” remarks Harmon, 35, of her university advisor. For many, the mentor-protégé relationship, particularly in a corporate environment, is critical to confidence building as well as professional success.

It’s the reason why men succeed more than women and whites succeed more than blacks, especially at higher levels, says Sheila Wellington, president of Catalyst, a professional women’s research and advocacy organization, and author of Be Your Own Mentor: Strategies From Top Women on the Secrets of Success (Random House; $25.95). “Mentors are more important than hard work, talent, and intelligence,” she says. Why? They help their protégés understand how to function within the workplace. Mentors provide clarity. They provide a playbook for the rules of a company. A mentor can also make significant recommendations on behalf of their protégés. But as important as this relationship is, it is even more important to understand how mentor/protégé roles are changing.

The mentor-as-authoritarian model has evolved from “‘sage on the stage’ to the ‘guide on the side,'” says Lois Zachary, author of The Mentor’s Guide: Facilitating Effective Learning Relationships (Jossey-Bass; $28). The protégé “learns to share responsibility for [establishing] the learning setting [and] priorities and becomes increasingly self-directed.”

Self-determination has become an important factor in today’s mentor-mentée relationships, as the expectations of employees in the job market have changed.

“In today’s world, you need to think of your career as a series of related or even unrelated jobs,” says Wellington. “You should set your sights on mastering a succession of jobs that will allow you to grow, change, and succeed.” The only way to successfully realize such growth, says Wellington, is to develop a plan. “Detailed plans with specific time frames help the most,” she says. Wellington suggests taking the following steps:

Starting out. Here is where you ask the questions that pertain to your personal and professional goals. What do you enjoy? What are your motivations? What are your talents? What successes have you enjoyed thus far?

Are you qualified? At this level it is important to determine the requirements of your company and whether your qualifications meet its expectations.

Do you need an advanced degree? Is an advanced degree necessary for your career goals? Will it