Why mentoring is so worth it

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I went to a fancy breakfast today. It was a ceremony honoring the finalists of something called the Magazine Mentor of the Year award, given by the Magazine Publishers Association. There were cut peonies and a fabulous buffet and lots of good-looking magaziney people in suits. Among the finalists were serious luminaries in my industry: Lucy Kaylin, executive editor of Marie Claire; Deborah Burns, publisher of Metropolitan Home; Mimi Valdés Ryan, editor in chief of Latina; Jeannie Park, the longtime executive editor of People.

Oh, and me. Yeah. One of these things is not like the others.

When I first heard about the brand new award, I tried to nominate my own mentor, but she didn’t qualify for technical reasons. Then I forgot about it. Until I got a letter congratulating me for my selection as a finalist. It turned out my friend and mentee Susan Kim, the West Coast editor of Coastal Living, a sister Time Inc. magazine, had slogged through the considerable application process on my behalf.

So there I was at the head table with the big kahunas of my business, utterly mortified but—okay, okay—deeply proud.

As the other finalists and I agreed, we were all baffled to be recognized for doing something that seemed so unremarkable. As long as I have worked, I’ve befriended younger colleagues and listened to their frustrations and problems. I also take part in the formal mentorship programs offered through my employer’s minority affinity group as well as an industry-wide group. Over the years I guess I’ve mentored maybe two dozen young folks, both officially and over beers and tears.

The thing is, I always figured I get a lot more out of these relationships than my supposed mentee, whom I usually just think of as work friends. Take Susan. She’s a former attorney and an accomplished writer in no need of any quote-unquote guidance from the likes of me. But my many years at company headquarters turned out to be a useful resource when she was dealing with some management issues. I think maybe it helped her to talk through some of her hurdles, which, I might add, she ably scaled on her own. But it gave me a lot of satisfaction to feel like I played a small part in her soaring career.

I got a nice plaque, but I didn’t win the mentor of the year award; that honor went to Kevin Martinez, associate publisher at Hearst. He gave a rousing speech about how mentoring is in fact not at all selfless; it’s about “controlling our environment.” He wakes up happy to go to work every day because he’s stocked his workplace with people he really likes (cousins, friends of friends, you get the picture). He has a stack of 50 resumés on his desk, as do many of his mentees. Incidentally, they all love their jobs.

See how that carries across? Mentoring is its own reward. If ever I forget that, I’ve got this here plaque to remind me. Thanks, Susan.

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