New Rules of Mentoring


It’s not just a career perk for fast-track employees in traditional corporations anymore.

Like most business practices, mentoring has continued to evolve with the changing workplace. The digital age has brought new efficiencies to virtually every aspect of work, while the new generation of workers – the Millennials – are forging their own path through the business world.

The mentoring field has exploded, and now encompasses life needs far beyond career advancement. Mentoring programs may include social issues such as assisting disadvantaged children and keeping them in school (, as well as multiple types of programs for professional interests, even reaching pre-career constituencies such as mentoring for high school and college students. Mentoring isn’t just a career perk for fast-track employees in traditional corporations. The Women’s Business Development Center, for example, utilizes MicroMentor, an online program where business professionals assist entrepreneurs.

Northern Trust has evolved its mentoring program beyond one-on-one career mentoring to situational and topical mentoring, enabled by technology. Senior executives like the efficiency of connecting with learners around the global company. Situational mentoring allows mentees with short-term needs to connect with advisors about specific on-the-job situations. In topical mentoring, one or more advisors have a series of interactive conversations with a group of learners, sharing information and facilitating knowledge transfer within Northern Trust. With more than 5,000 participants including the most senior-level executives involved in Mentoring Matters, Northern Trust has continued to build its culture of advancing women leaders.

So what’s the key to navigating today’s mentoring landscape?

While formal programs and online tools abound, leading Chicago women believe that successful modern mentoring is based on established principles – good chemistry, a two-way relationship and a commitment to pay the mentor’s help forward.

For Kate Bensen, executive director of The Chicago Network, mentoring takes the form of serving as a sounding board and giving advice when asked. “The chemistry has to be there,” she says. “Mentees need to know what they want and be able to articulate it.” Since the mentorship is not a formal program, she’s able to be helpful to several young women with varying issues at any given time.

Learn from everyone,” advises Ellen Carnahan, the angel investor and financial and technology pioneer who’s been a director of 25 public and private companies. Ms. Carnahan also says she’s been mentored by hundreds of talented individuals. “I’ve been lucky enough to work with so many excellent people. I watched and learned from them, but did I ask them to be my mentor? — No.”

Passionate about supporting women-led technology start-ups in Chicago, Ms. Carnahan coaches and mentors from her advisory board positions, bringing the perspective of a former co-manager and lead technology investor at William Blair Capital Partners for 20 years. “There are so many challenges in getting a company going – from how you scale sales to determining whether the partners should really be partners.” The payoff ? “It’s fun to be involved with a new generation, and helping these talented women develop their potential,” she shares.

Mentees have responsibilities, not to repay the mentor, but to contribute, live up to obligations in the mentoring relationship and pay it forward,” explains Bela Gandhi, founder of Smart Dating Academy, who also provides coaching and relationship advice on work/life issues. One executive states, “Mentees need to put a deposit in the karma bank.  What is it that you’re seeing that could be helpful to your mentor, the executive who is giving you her time and attention? Remember, the best mentoring relationships are two-way.”

Jennifer Scanlon, president, international and vice president of USG Corp., agrees. “Think about what’s in it for the mentor. That’s not being selfish. It’s an acknowledgment that business leaders are busy people and relationships are two-way. Tell me specifically what you want to learn from me. And what you have accomplished that makes your experience and passion interesting to me.”

Inspired by her aunt, an early and informal mentor, Ms. Scanlon joined IBM and was identified as a ‘high potential’ young executive. At IBM, the practice wasn’t called mentoring; it was a formal program to expose ‘high potentials’ to senior leaders. Yet, there was no spoon feeding. The program offered exposure to senior leaders and it was up to the high potentials to make the most of the opportunity.

“We were their chauffeurs when they came to town,” recalls Ms. Scanlon. “We had to be at O’Hare early…with a clean car. And we got 20 minutes with the top executives of the company and could ask them anything.” Not only did it help younger executives build the soft skills and confidence of interacting with senior leaders but gave them access, someone to call with an idea or question.

Chicago’s leading women agree that mentoring today isn’t about asking someone for a favor. Nor is anyone entitled to a mentor. In fact, Millennials have more opportunity to find mentors themselves by adopting an attitude of contribution. “Volunteer,” says Ms. Carnahan. “There are so many ways to express your passion, which will attract talented leaders who want to help you develop your potential.”

The takeaway for aspiring women leaders: Find shared commitment and chemistry, learn, say thank you and pay it forward.


About Karen Kane

Karen Kane, former senior vice president and board secretary of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, writes frequently on leadership and provides corporate communication services to organizations. She was Lifestyle Editor of the Houston Chronicle and a member of senior management for two Chicago firms. A NACD Governance Fellow, she is author of the book Voices of Governance: Why Oversight Is Important to All of Us.