Adversity teaches some tough lessons. Fortunately, they are often among the best. A setback taught me the power of mentoring. When a past employer approached me one distant day in 1985, I had no idea he was about to ring the bell at the "School of Hard Knocks"…
"We don't have enough money to pay you," he said. As a single mom just trying to make ends meet, his words sent a chill down my spine. One week became three, and my employer declared bankruptcy.
I desperately looked for other work as my car payments lapsed and I could no longer make my rent. On the very day I was to move to Seattle for a new job - and the promise of a new life - the offer fell through. Eviction came quickly and predictably. My daughter and I might have lived in my car, but it was repossessed. She was sent to live with relatives until I got back on my feet. During this difficult time, I found it hard to look people in the eye. My self-esteem hit an all-time low.
Then, a favorite relative spent a long time visiting with me one weekend. He offered a gift more precious than the paycheck I so coveted – time and soothing advice. He showered me with verbal affirmations and practical advice, the most important being "Avoid taking short-cuts and do it the right way." With my wounded self-esteem anointed, and infused with a "can-do" attitude, color returned to my cheeks… and to my horizons.
Follow-up calls reinforced this life-changing meeting. I received notes every few weeks which offered ideas for rebuilding my life and re-launching my career. This elixir of positive support and practical suggestions renewed my belief in myself.
Advice soon replaced affirmations. He offered ideas for rebuilding my life and re-launching my career. This elixir of positive support and practical suggestions healed my belief in myself.
I gradually came to believe that I could turn my life around. I began to look people in the eye again. In reflecting on this time, I realize I learned an invaluable lesson: By receiving support from this wonderful relative, I experienced first-hand the power of mentoring. Thus began the most dramatic transformation of my life, for I returned to college, secured both my undergraduate and law degree in just under six years, and went on to become a well recognized member of the Kansas City legal and professional community.
This leads to my first mentoring principle:
Find a mentor. It's one of the best-kept secrets of successful people, wherever you are along your journey. Do you need encouragement and motivation, or brass tacks advice? Select someone who can give you what you need at that moment. Don't hesitate to ask someone to mentor you. Even successful people, who appear to be too busy to help you, might make time for you. Even if they decline, there's no better compliment than to be asked to be a mentor.
The Long, Hard Climb
As my relative suggested, my turn-around was not immediate but took nearly six years because I followed his advice – I did it right. That meant taking incremental steps to accomplish my long-term vision. Career challenges for women, though still present today, were much greater back then. Twenty years ago, I couldn't get business from another woman! What few women executives there were seemed to have the same gender bias as their male counterparts. This reinforced the unspoken message that women could not "cut it" in a man's world of business. Women were making inroads in the 1980s, but it was still an uphill climb.
Receiving my degree to practice law in 1991, I worked with several women mentors in building my business reputation incrementally. Through their advice and unerring support, these wise women helped me not only to stage my comeback; but also to catapult myself beyond where I would have been without their sound guidance.
This leads to my second mentoring principle:
Talk with your mentor regularly about what is important to you, and where you are versus where you desire to go. What are your professional dreams? What obstacles block the way? How do you break through them? What are the incremental steps needed to get there? When you share vision and desire with your mentor, passion meets wisdom. It's a transformational energy unlike any you could generate alone.
Paying It Forward
With my new career in full swing, I felt the need to give back. I was already involved with a few civic organizations, but I wanted something more personal through which I could share the strength I gained from my own mentors.
So, I began mentoring other women. Each was at a different point along her path and needed her own balance of affirmation and advice. During these sessions of helping other women help themselves, I was uplifted and empowered. I thought, "Wait a minute. Who's helping whom?!"
And there it was, the best-kept secret of all – the completed cycle of giving – and getting – during the mentoring process. My mentors knew it all along. It's impossible to help someone make the climb without being at their side to pull them up or push them along. Whether you realize it or not, you continually travel with them on their ascent. I always knew my mentors were wise, only now I could appreciate just how wise, indeed.
This leads to my third mentoring principle:
Begin mentoring others immediately. No matter how much help you think you need, someone else needs more. Just meet them where they are along their journey. Affirm, advise, or just listen. Only say what they are able to hear in that moment, and always stay within reach to help them to the next level. In so doing, you too will climb to a higher altitude.
The Final Ascent
The great strides women have made in the workplace were not taken alone. Women united. We formed business groups, we listened, we encouraged, we supported, and we counseled. It was mentoring under myriad different names. Along the way, both mentor and mentored alike empowered one another with that can-do attitude, esprit de corps, and the wisdom of our collective experience.
Looking back on my own journey, I clearly see my place in the much larger struggle by millions of women earning passage into the executive ranks. Bringing their cooperative management styles into the corporate world, women are changing the way business is done. Through their independence and confidence, women-owned businesses now represent one of the fastest growing segments of the economy. Among start-up entrepreneurs, women are statistically the most successful. So today, all things being equal, I truly enjoy doing business with other women!
As more women succeed, our communal wisdom grows. This wellspring of experience, shared with other women through mentoring, will continue the movement begun decades earlier. Securing my own passage to a better life and career with the help of other women was the best lesson I've passed on to my daughter. And this is the next frontier. Women mentors must now reach the next generation. By developing can-do attitudes, self-reliance, and leadership skills in our girls – the women of tomorrow – we will have, indeed, come a long way, baby.
Denise Farris Farris Law Firm, LLC