Learning from Mentors in Uncertain Times


During these complicated times, we at WOMEN Unlimited, Inc. have accelerated our outreach to the business leaders who participate as mentors to our program participants. Together, we are ensuring WUI Mentors continue to excel at our unique and proven strategy for mentoring, a multi-faceted approach that focuses on activating real-world learning, not simply providing onetime answers.


In that vein, we recently reached out to a number of them to get a sense of how their mentoring strategies and those of their mentees are being / have been impacted by the new and fluid business realities we are all facing. We found, as one mentor put it, that “Despite all that is going on in the world, and for them personally and professionally, mentees show up to support each other; share with each other and learn. They are focused and resilient!”


Remote Platforms Have Changed the Mentoring Experience


Overall, our Mentors felt that remote mentoring was initially a challenging adjustment for both themselves and their mentees. However, they agreed that the changes mandated by working remotely have now become more “business as usual.” Typical of their perspectives:

  • Jean Larkin, Former Talent Officer of Johnson Controls points out “Formerly it was

100% of mentees reaching out to us. In this environment I reach out to them more.”

  • Dave DeSimone, an Executive Advisor sees that his mentees are “less reluctant to be in touch and don’t feel as intrusive.”
  • Bob Haws, Managing Director, Willis Towers Watson, suggests there are often “domestic distractions” but his mentees “seem to welcome the diverse social experience.” He adds that mentors “provide a voice that you are not alone. Others are going through the same thing.”


Examples of Resilience, Agility and Adaptability


The Mentors often highlighted specific examples of how their mentees were demonstrating three competencies that are especially essential in today’s uncertain environment: resilience, agility and adaptability. Here are just a few instances of mentees putting these competencies into action:

  • By using this time to figure out what they want. Two have already changed roles since the COVID pandemic took hold.
  • Immediately prior to COVID, one mentee had started a job in an “old school” company. In the current uncertain environment, she has become more willing to bring forth new and creative ideas to help the company cope and adapt.
  • After learning her boss was moving on to another position, one mentee is now up for a VP position because she understands the right way, the politically savvy way, to become visible, not just to her departing boss, but to three levels of management.
  • A middle manager previously prone to frequent, micro-managing visits to various locations that reported to her, has found things work even better now, as her reports handle things themselves and involve her only as needed.
  • By stepping up to drive her company’s worldwide corporate initiative to deliver products to customers amidst COVID. When brick and mortar stores started to reopen, civil unrest resulted in looting at a number of locations. With some adaptation, she was able to make the processes that worked during COVID work after the looting so her organization could resume serving its communities.


The Current Environment…Challenging, but an On-Going Opportunity for Growth and Development


The consensus among interviewed Mentors was that growth and development of female talent must continue in these uncertain times.  Even though the current environment can be disruptive, they found that the obstacles were not insurmountable. For example:

  • Julie Brown, Institutional Market Leader at Johnson Controls, finds that “Survival is the name of the game rather than thriving.” She advises mentees to: “Focus on how to enhance value. Career growth isn’t just about advancement.”
  • Susan Puglia, former Vice President at IBM points out that three out of four of her mentees initially were hesitant to focus on their “They are busier than ever. They are exhausted. They are on back-to-back video meetings.” Her two-fold advice: “Set boundaries” and “Stay visible.”
  • Derek Lott, Executive Director of Retail Initiatives at Catalina, points out that “working in small spaces can be overwhelming” and the need to compartmentalize is crucial. He reminds his mentees that “technology has eliminated excuses” and they need to find “the right opportunity” even if it’s hiding “in the crevices.”
  • Andrea Roma, Retired AT&T Vice President of Sales, sees it a bit differently. She says her mentees have found it “a bit easier to focus on development.” The current environment provides an opportunity for them “to be clear on what they can be clear about…and use the time to decide what they want.”


Strategies for Helping Mentees “Lead Through Ambiguity.”


The Mentors have offered a number of suggestions to their mentees to help them emerge as leaders in this environment of uncertainty and ambiguity:

  • Focus on the company’s core values. They will not change even in times of ambiguity.
  • Avoid both macro and micro negativity. Stay positive for yourself and others.
  • There has always been ambiguity. What is different now is that everyone is in the same “ambiguity boat.” As a result, it is easier to step up as a leader.
  • Make yourself available for cross-functional assignments. Ambiguity can help you and your team rise up. Take advantage of it.
  • Manage direction rather than day-to-day. Avoid micro-managing.
  • Find time to read articles in major publications about strategies for dealing with ambiguity. (One Mentor provides a short, on-point reading list to his mentees.)
  • One Mentor offered this 4-point strategy for handling ambiguity: (1) Plan and set goals

(2) Prioritize (3) Collaborate (4) Make Decisions.


Major Takeaways

  • Mentees are less reluctant (sometimes with an added push from their mentors) to reach out to those who can help with their advancement.
  • Mentees are becoming more strategic, and big picture because distancing is forcing it and because they are discovering it works.
  • Mentees are realizing that they can’t have complete clarity, something they used to rely on heavily. As a result, they are getting better at adapting to ambiguity and are developing a greater comfort level with risk.
  • These questions, posed to his mentee’s by Derek Lott, are more crucial than ever in this uncertain environment: “What are you doing in a shrinking economy? Are you planning? Are you increasing your personal power? Are you building your network? Are you owning your life?


A recent Harvard Business Review article cautions that “A post-pandemic world will have winners and losers when it comes to female talent and it’s not by chance which team you’ll find yourself on.” The results of this recent survey indicate that neither our Mentors nor their mentees are leaving anything to chance to be on the winning team.