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“My mentor tried to turn me into her”

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Choosing a strong mentor can be a helpful source of support, guidance, knowledge, insight and encouragement throughout your career. But picking the right person for you is essential – in this month’s anonymous column, everywoman Incognito, a woman shares her experiences of how she realised her mentor wasn’t a good fit…

 

After graduation I had two careers in mind.

 

With a ‘wait and see’ mentality I applied for jobs in both fields. After six weeks of bussing it between job interviews in Paris and home in rural France, I received two offers – both great launch pad jobs for a career in either industry. I asked for the weekend to think things through and spent 48 hours frantically making pros and cons lists. I decided, changed my mind, decided again, and woke up Monday morning back at square one.

So I made a bold decision: I called the smaller of the two businesses and spoke to the owner, who I’ll call B – a high profile businesswoman who’d launched a one-woman agency and needed an assistant. I confessed I was struggling and she was amazing – we talked through my rationales (being honest about the cons I’d put against her job wasn’t easy but she took them on board). She asked probing questions about my goals, values and inspirations; we spoke for over an hour and as the call drew to a close she told me that she was reminded of herself when starting out. Keep thinking, she advised. Hanging up, I’d already decided I wanted to work with her and began hunting an apartment share in Paris.

 

I loved life in the city and being in the daily presence of this woman who seemed to command respect from everyone around her.

 

I soaked up everything, listening to what she said that resulted in new business, her detailed attention to our products, how she handled difficult clients. There was always useful feedback I could learn by; if one thing irked it was that around her family and long-running clients, she referred to me as her “mini me”. At a party at her home I overheard her husband tell someone I was “just another of B’s protégés”.

18 months in the most incredible thing happened. B returned from a month-long holiday during which I’d been running the fort and offered me the opportunity to run the business on a formal basis. She and her husband were adopting a baby and she wanted to devote herself to motherhood. She thought that with regular mentoring I was ready to keep things “ticking along”. She’d still be the face of the business and attend quarterly client meetings; nobody would even know she’d stepped away. I accepted on the spot.

 

I threw myself into my operations director role.

 

I didn’t want to “tick along”; I wanted to grow the business so that when B returned full time we’d be in a stronger place. I knew that at 23 I wasn’t going to singlehandedly bring in new clients, but I was confident I could evolve our product range, enhance relationships and improve processes.

I went to our first official mentoring session armed with mood boards and mind maps, desperate to share my ideas. B glossed over my plans and launched into her latest feedback for me – this time it was my voice. She’d previously told me to consciously ‘slow down’ on the phone and annunciate carefully – useful feedback, especially when talking to international clients. But now she wanted to deepen my tone to make me sound more authoritative. She quipped that if I kept up practice, people were going to think the “mini me’ transition was complete!

As time wore on I felt the gist of every ‘mentoring’ session was “be more like me”. Proposals for new clients came back with a red pen through anything that didn’t closely enough match her style, even though they’d be sent from my inbox. I was encouraged to attend a particular business school on the course B had completed years earlier. And the feedback was becoming increasingly personal; when I became engaged - though pleased I’d chosen a partner in the same field as her husband - she warned me not to mess up my career by starting a family – I’d be better off waiting like she had; at a client’s Christmas party she remarked that the jumpsuit I’d chosen wasn’t “very us” – as if we were one person with identical dress sense!

 

This pressure to channel B in my working life left me feeling like a fraud.

 

While I looked up to her, I didn’t feel we were all that similar in personality. She was an extrovert to my introvert; her business acumen was sharp as a tack while I identified strongest with the creative side of the product. I was rewarded for the work I did while ‘pretending’ to be her, but at my happiest when I could forge relationships and deliver out of her shadow. The real me wasn’t good enough.

After years singlehandedly running business operations I confided in B that I was getting itchy feet. I’d learned so much and wanted a new challenge. We had a great chat – it reminded me of that very first phone call. The conversation made me so nostalgic for earlier times I even questioned my exit plan, but deep down I knew it was approaching time to take a leap.

Pretty soon I found a great new role. I went into the resignation conversation with a full handover plan – the business had grown by now and though I was anything but leaving B in the lurch, I was prepared to offer double my contractual notice period.

B reacted with shock and anger. She wouldn’t have “wasted time” trying to find me an opportunity within her network had she known I was job hunting. She was lukewarm about the job I’d accepted – it clearly wasn’t one she’d have chosen for me, though it was in an area of the industry I was particularly interested in.

 

We had a way of getting back on track after cross words and this was no exception – my last few months on the job were fine, fun even.

 

She gave me a lovely send off, treating me to dinner at a floating restaurant where we swapped goodbye gifts and notes.

We maintained communication for a while, but inevitably the absence of daily contact meant things slipped; we fell into a routine of checking in every few months. Some time later a former client of B’s contacted me via LinkedIn, wanting to put me in touch with a connection he thought would benefit from my advice on a product launch. We ended up working together quite closely; my new role had taken me away from the event side of the industry and I missed it. I invited B to be my guest at the launch party; we met for dinner and, despite one caged remark from B about me having “changed”, had a lovely time catching up.

In his opening address, the founder thanked me by name for my contributions. B had been working the room and I found her when it was time to say goodnight. As I approached she fixed her gaze over my shoulder and said in the iciest tone: “A word of advice: if someone goes to the trouble of connecting you with a huge opportunity like this, have the courtesy to let them know something has come of it.”

The circle around us froze and my mind whirred. She hadn’t been the one to introduce me to the event founder; one of our past clients had. But in my mortification at being slapped down in company, I mumbled an apology and darted for the exit.

The following day I wrote what ended up being an angry email to B. Thankfully I didn’t send it. Over the coming weeks I mentally wrote dozens more emails – some confused, some defensive, some apologetic, but ultimately none felt right. As Christmas approached I did send an email, wishing her and her family a wonderful holiday, but I didn’t receive a response.

Remarkably, given how small this industry is, I haven’t bumped into B since. A million times I’ve run through how I’d react if I did see her. I am immensely grateful for the opportunities and knowledge she gave me, but I won’t be looking for another mentor like her in a hurry – I value my independence too much to be anyone’s “mini me”.

 

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