Benefit From a Mentor You Know Very Well

by | March 31, 2009

My mother once offered me career advice during my first pregnancy 24years ago. She urged me to abandon journalism and become a schoolteacherlike her so I could enjoy summers off with my child. I rejected her ideabecause I loved my profession. In hindsight, I realize I refused to evenconsider her counsel because I resented her trying to tell me how to run mylife.

Young working women rarely view their mothers as valuable careercounselors. Many older women regard their adult daughters the same way. Inow know that's a shameful waste of expertise. For the first time in U.S.history, two generations of women hold powerful positions in theworkplace.

"We're not taking advantage of the strengths of a remarkable peergroup," because we're too busy looking at our age differences, says CaroleHyatt, a New York leadership trainer, author and speaker.

Highly committed mothers and daughters can help each other achievegreater career success. Consider one such remarkable pair: Anne L. Janas, avice president of magazine publisher Hachette Filipacchi Media U.S., andSterling Fennell Eason, a creative director at Jack Morton Worldwide, aglobal event-marketing agency.

The New Yorkers are best friends, sharing hazel eyes, brunette hair,weekly dinners, an artistic flair -- and career tips. "We have vestedinterests in each other's success," explains Ms. Janas, 56 years old. "Sheis my first and best coach," her 35-year-old daughter concurs.

Among other things, Ms. Janas has been inspired by Ms. Eason to acceptmore assistance from younger female colleagues. And her daughter, wholanded her latest post partly by citing childhood experiences watching hermother direct TV commercials, has become less intimidated about workingwith women her mom's age.

Ms. Janas, a single parent for four years, exposed Ms. Eason early tothe world of work. She often brought the youngster along on business tripsand to the Atlanta TV station where she was the news-promotiondirector.

Ms. Eason was particularly impressed by how her mother treated everyonefrom the janitor to the station manager with respect. "She showed me thatit is important to look people in the eye and to listen to what they aresaying. Everyone counts," the young woman recalls.

The Georgia-born duo's bonds have strengthened during the six years bothhave worked in Manhattan. They find impressive job candidates and suppliersfor each other on scant notice. They regularly place "love calls," leavinga brief voicemail of support just before the other makes a crucial workpresentation. (Example: "I just want you to know that you're a wonderful,smart person.")

While she was a Citigroup marketing manager, Ms. Eason assisted in thelaunch of a financial-services division targeting affluent women like Ms.Janas -- and informally tested possible pitches on her. In turn, she taughther mother to use specialized Internet search engines that could help inher corporate-communications job. Ms. Janas also frequently accepts herdaughter's proposed word changes on Hachette documents.

Their ties intensified further after Ms. Janas went to a LeadershipForum run by Ms. Hyatt in fall 2001. Ms. Eason followed suit in March 2002.The trainer inaugurated her weekend workshops in 1996 to give older women afresh career perspective. About a half-dozen of the more than 700participants later persuaded their 30-something daughters to attend,too.

During her session, Ms. Eason discovered she was able to give solace andencouragement to the older women struggling with layoffs and other careertransitions. "I was put on the same plane as these women," she says. Theirstories "were no different from what I was going through."

The workshop enabled her to better grasp "what my mom has been through,"she adds.

Back at work, Ms. Eason felt more kinship with older female associatesand less reticent about dealing with them. In a sign of her deepenedrespect for her mother, she mentioned watching her direct commercials in anunusual PowerPoint presentation she devised to apply to Jack Morton lastJanuary.

Ms. Janas says that older workshop participants' acceptance of herdaughter as a peer enhanced her respect for her and for three Hachettelieutenants aged 35 or younger. Those younger women "are the ones on theline" with key projects and customers, she observes.

"I have an enlarged appreciation for how they make me smarter," shesays, noting, for example, that she increasingly taps their knowledge of"guerrilla" marketing tactics. "I fully expect that I may at some pointwork for someone 20 years younger -- either as an employer or as aclient,'' predicts Ms. Janas.

The publishing executive thinks other older women should break emotionalbarriers that impede their willingness to report to younger ones. "Whoknows?" she asks. "Their daughters may end up being their mentors, theirpartners and their leaders in the next stage of their careers andlives."

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