APRIL 6, 2018

Episode 12 – Radically Better Mentorship

Anna Robinson from Ceresa

Anna Robinson joins us in a conversation about her organization CERESA, a platform that connects women leaders for radically better mentorship. The organization’s goal is to foster genuinely beneficial relationships between mentor and mentee that help bridge the gap in women’s leadership across the world. In this episode, we speak with Anna about the global women’s leadership gap, why women often find it difficult to be mentored by men, and how more women than ever today are actively seeking out mentors. Listen to how this Austin organization is changing the rules of women’s mentorship.

Lisa Graham (00:00):
Hey, everybody. Welcome to the Change The Rules podcast. I’m your host, Lisa Graham. And today we have Anna Robinson in the studio. Anna is the Founder and CEO of CERESA, an organization that’s growing women leaders through radically better mentorship. We’re also joined by Matt McDonnell, managing director of Notley, and Dan Graham, co-founder of Notley. Notley’s mission is to fund and support businesses, nonprofits, and programs making positive change in the world while serving as a catalyst for social innovation. Thanks everyone for being here. Well, so let’s get started. Tell us about your background and then tell us about what CERESA does.
Anna Robinson (00:35):
So my background, so as you’ll start to hear, I was born in the UK and lived there, worked there, and went on a pretty traditional corporate route working for McKinsey in consulting for over a decade. And I was a Partner in the healthcare practice there and loved the firm, love the institution, but just decided that wasn’t where I wanted to be when I was 60 and woke up and realized I’d been there for 40 years or something. And left quite unusually, not knowing what I wanted to do, and spent some time, and actually even talked to you Lisa, about, okay, what do I do next with my life wanting to be a little bit more meaningful. And didn’t have the epiphany I was hoping for and joined a tech startup as COO for a couple of years and loved learning about a new field, but still had that itch to do something more important and meaningful.
Anna Robinson (01:21):
And last year, while I was still in that role, had an odd health scare where for 24 hours I went from being on a run, had a migraine to nothing, not a big deal, but by lunchtime, I was in the ER, and couldn’t talk, couldn’t move, didn’t know my name, didn’t know what year it was, and was in and out of consciousness. And I would come to, and my husband was there, and they were basically telling him, you need to get her paperwork in order. And we thought that was it. I was every now and again coming to and thinking that that’s what was going to happen. And then literally 24 hours later, I walked out of the hospital. Totally fine. So it was a bit of a weird thing to go through where now it wasn’t anything serious it turns out. But at the time, it was just this crazy 24 hours, and it just left me really asking, okay, what’s important.
Anna Robinson (02:06):
And what am I going to do with this time that I have whatever that is? And for me, that was never going to be more time at home with my kids. It was figuring out what’s most important to me. And that’s put me on the journey to looking at what issues I cared the most about. And women’s leadership has always been one of them. And looking at my three young daughters, probably you guys think the same, looking at yours, just realizing we hadn’t made any progress on women in leadership since I graduated from college 20 years ago. And how has it, it’s like unfathomable to me that we haven’t made it any easier for that generation coming up. So that’s sort of why women’s leadership and how I ended up starting this. So what your other question was, what does CERESA do? CERESA is a platform, as you mentioned at the beginning, that connects women for radically better mentorship. And the whole mission of it is to work on closing the global leadership gap for women.
Anna Robinson (02:53):
You know, right now it’s something like 5% of CEOs are women. And when you look up senior leadership, it’s less than 20% and it’s true, whether it’s in business or politics or wherever you look, it’s a pretty similar characteristics. So that’s the mission. And we came to mentorship, but approaching it a little bit differently where it’s, it is mentorship, and mentorship is kind of a dirty word where it often doesn’t happen very well. A lot of women in particular have a hard time thinking of themselves as mentors or asking for mentors, even though we know when done well has a really high impact on creating leaders. So we looked at mentorship and it just structured it in a very different way, but that’s essentially what it is.
Lisa Graham (03:38):
Do you think it’s important to provide a structure for mentorship? Because I feel like I agree with what you said. And I think a lot of us, we feel like we have to, a lot of us need the structure to get a mentor or to think in that frame of mind, as opposed to just saying, “Oh, this person on my own, I’m just going to invite them to coffee regularly or ask them for some of their time.” A lot of us do need help doing that. And so have you found with your company that that is just kind of the kickstart, some people need to really start talking to other people about the possibilities for their career?
Anna Robinson (04:11):
Yes. And there are, you know, mentoring could cover all sorts of different topics, right? From coaching and informal mentoring through very structured programs. And then some people talk about sponsoring where it’s really a senior person who’s going proactively out of their way to structure opportunities for you. But I think for mentoring in particular, the idea of having a formal mentor. So it’s not just, one-off random coffee dates where there’s no follow through, you’re not thoughtful on what you’re trying to achieve together. There’s a, there’s a real need for that. And people have shown the impact of formal mentoring programs through research on well-managed programs which show the impact on retention, on professional development, on promotions, and salary increases. But what we’ve seen in the research is that women in particular have a harder time finding formal mentors, not least because there aren’t that many women in senior positions.
Anna Robinson (05:00):
So often they’re finding there’s only men available as mentors. And that’s great, but there’s also a need for women. And, you know, through talking to over a hundred people who have both been mentees and mentors, a lot of the frustration is around doing it in a structured way. Not wasting time driving back and forth to coffees when you don’t even know what the goal is upfront. So, you know, you go and literally spend as much time getting to a meeting as having the meeting and you don’t even know what the person wants to talk about, and then there’s no followup or follow through afterwards. So just seems like there’s, there was a real need to do it in a more efficient way that’s also focused on having high impact.
Dan Graham (05:38):
You touched on something that I think is really interesting and, you know, you’ve made a conscious decision to focus on women mentors as opposed to men and women mentors. And I know, I’ve gotten several questions about that, that choice. Can you talk about that a little bit? And, why you at least at this time are not having men as part of the mentor platform?
Anna Robinson (05:59):
Yeah. Happy to, and it’s something that’s come up a lot, right. As I’ve been talking to people around it as well, a lot of people ask why, or what’s the thought process behind it. And there’s a, there’s a few different reasons. And I think the most important thing to say is it’s not that women alone are going to solve this problem and that we want to exclude men from the conversation. In fact, we have advisors and we have people helping us that are men and I can see multiple roles that men will hopefully play in the evolution of CERESA as we grow and continue to have impact, but in terms of who our mentors are. So going back to the research, the research shows that there are some things that women are uniquely well-placed on to help other women in terms of mentoring. So issues like double bind, issues like balancing periods of having children or other roles as caregivers, which typically fall more heavily on women.
Anna Robinson (06:49):
Even though there may be many significant others who want to do an equal share of housework, the research still shows that is massively not true in how it plays out. So I think there was some things which are still, there’s a real reason why senior women are needed to be mentors. And, you know, also there’s something just about the magic of having it, being women, helping women. I think we just create a sort of special environment. You know, we’re trying to create opportunities for the mentors to get together and have that peer community as well. It’s something that’s continually needed, because when you just look at leadership ranks, the women just aren’t there naturally. And there’s plenty of organizations — I think something like a third of companies around the world don’t have any women in leadership positions.
Lisa Graham (07:31):
What is double bind?
Anna Robinson (07:33):
Oh, double bind. It’s the classic. If you come out, if you’re a strong leader as a woman, you get called a bitch. I mean to put words on it. And if you are more soft, people will think you’re weak. How to navigate that. And when we look at what women typically get mentoring on or feedback on, they typically get much more feedback on psychosocial issues and their personal style issues. Whereas men get much more feedback on career development, how to be successful in the next promotion, and so a lot of those issues come up a lot for women.
Lisa Graham (08:05):
And when you look at mentoring, is it, and I know a lot of companies want to have mentoring programs within their own structure. Is there a benefit to having a mentor within your own organization versus somebody outside of your organization? Are they both beneficial? What do you look at to make sure you get the right match for younger people in their career?
Anna Robinson (08:27):
Yeah, I mean, what we’re doing is matching people very deliberately with women external from their current organization. And we do that for a couple of reasons. Number one, to make sure that you’re getting objective feedback where there’s not a risk that it’s actually self-serving or somehow evaluative or you’re concerned about whether it’s confidential, that’s one reason. And then also our mission is to get more women into leadership positions. And the theory is if women are not in the right job or industry or function for them, they’re less likely to get there over time. So having people be able to actually ask the question of, am I even in the right place? Am I working on the right things for me? It’s helpful to have that objective conversation about your path in life. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t need mentors inside your organization. I mean, we know that the impact of sponsors is huge on women getting to senior leadership positions and that really has to be in your organization. So we’re not trying to replace the need for that. I think it’s different and it supplements what should be happening inside of organizations.
Lisa Graham (09:24):
Can you define the difference between a sponsor and a mentor?
Anna Robinson (09:27):
I can try. I think typically the difference is a mentor is someone who shares their experience with you, for you to take lessons on what choices or paths you want, how you want to act based on their experience. A sponsor is someone who more proactively goes out of their way to create opportunities for you.
Matt McDonnell (09:47):
And you mentioned that the structure of CERESA is a little bit different, right? That you provide some structure around it. Can you tell us a little bit about some of those innovations in terms of the platform and product itself?
Anna Robinson (10:00):
Yeah. And we spent, you know, we spent six months diving into research and thinking about it, working with executive coaches and facilitator experts on really thinking through the best way to structure it. And there’s a couple of things that I think are different than most programs. One thing that you’ll see in some formal programs is that we do have a structured set of meetings. So the most basic thing is we don’t just pay you and say, okay, go for it, hope the relationship goes well. There’s structured agendas and a set of certain number of meetings that you have over a 12 month relationship. And there’s sort of tools you use that are helpful, probably not that different from how really well run mentoring programs work in other places such as, you know, the mentee has to prepare a sort of reflection each month and set what the agenda is for the coming meeting.
Anna Robinson (10:48):
So I think that’s just sort of best practices of what happens in mentoring that we’re implementing as well. I think a couple of things that we’re doing pretty differently. So one is upfront, we actually have the mentees go through a two month assessment and suite and sort of exploration phase. So they have time with an executive coach. They have two hours with an executive coach. They do a couple of different self-assessments. They get a full 360 feedback from a variety of people across their professional and personal lives. And the culmination of that is them really writing their life aspiration. And, you know, obviously over time that’s going to evolve for people, but they use that to really set, okay, what am I aspiring to in my life and use that to frame what are my goals for mentoring? And so they go through that two months before we even match them with a mentor.
Anna Robinson (11:31):
And we take that to really think about, okay, here’s what you want to work on personally. Therefore, we’re going to think about the right match for you. So we don’t pre-match you just because you’re working at a tech company, we don’t pair you with a tech executive, because you may actually want to transition to something else or you may want to go to a different function. And so, we’re hoping to help people be way more intentional. And actually in this first cohort that we have going right now, some of the women are already saying, one of the things that are appreciating already is that it’s making them carve out the time to think about those things, because their lives get so busy. These are high-performing women in the sort of early to mid stages of their career. And they don’t force themselves to think about those questions.
Lisa Graham (12:06):
Yeah. In listening to what you’re saying, that was going to be my biggest, I mean, I already have a takeaway from that, which is, I think most people need to carve out that time and if we’re not asked to do it and we’re not allowed the time. Is this something too that, who do they work with on that? Do they work with when you go to a company and you’re kind of talking to them about what employees maybe would be a good fit for this program? Do you engage the company on that or is it more something that they do on their own?
Anna Robinson (12:07):
We have talked to all of the people who are currently underway. We have talked with a company pretty extensively about how they’re thinking about the women that should participate, but they’ve taken different approaches. So I think over time, we’ll learn what is working well in terms of leading to women that are really highly engaged and having a great experience so that we can have a stronger perspective on recommending these approaches.
Anna Robinson (12:54):
So we’ve got people right now who picked their highest performers throughout the company to start with. We have another one that actually invited all the women to participate, and it was whoever sort of put their hand up got to participate. Another company, it was one of their senior leaders who was wrestling with questions about, okay, how do I balance my professional life with my home life? She’s recently had a baby. So she was going through that challenge and they just thought they wanted to provide her with an additional resource to support her. So it just depends on the situation, but their different reasons and different approaches right now.
Lisa Graham (13:29):
Have you found, you know, with everything going on right now, just in our, the climate here in America with the me too movement and the women’s March that there are, do you feel there’s more people looking for this type of mentorship and people wanting to be mentors? And are you able to kind of capitalize on that in a way? Do you see a lot of that coming out when you’re talking to organizations that they’re like, yes, we really need this type of thing right now?
Matt McDonnell (13:55):
You know, Lisa, I was actually gonna ask the same question because it feels like mentorship is really having this moment, right. Like everywhere we look, there’s a new mentorship platform, a new company’s rolling it out. And so, yeah, I’d be super curious to understand how you think CERESA fits into that and why we’re having that moment.
Anna Robinson (14:10):
Yeah. I mean, there’s a few different factors going on. So there’s mentoring quite broadly and even sponsoring is having a movement and an upsurge perhaps partly driven by millennials demanding it, right. When you look at the research from millennials and what they look for in an employer, mentoring program is one of the highest things they actually look for when they’re choosing an employer. So that’s one sort of push that’s happening. And then the me too broader this, I don’t know what it is probably fifth awakening of women’s movement that’s happening right now, it’s definitely a sort of a force that for us is going along the side of it. And when I first started this back in the summer last year, that hadn’t quite taken off in the same way. And so it’s, you know, it’s definitely resonating for people as we’re about mentoring and a women’s development and women’s leadership issue.
Anna Robinson (14:56):
It’s resonating with people for a few different reasons. One, top of mind, again for everyone, and all the research is showing the importance of having women in leadership positions from a business perspective. Even if you leave aside that it’s the right thing to do from an equity perspective, we know now for business reasons it’s happening. And I think that’s gotten highlighted by some of the venture capital me too moments that came up and that really put this laser focus on the importance of having women in leadership positions. But I think also a lot of people just don’t know what to do, right. They know it’s an issue. They know they don’t have enough women in the company in leadership positions. And they just don’t know how to address it. So a lot of people I’m talking to, whether the business leaders, as opposed to the HR people, are sort of latching on to the idea of something they can actually do that is going to make a difference, but also sends a strong signal to their employees that they really care about them. And that it’s something they want to invest in and offer them.
Dan Graham (15:49):
As you’ve now kind of launched a couple of these cohorts and you’re seeing some of the early perspectives and results coming in. What are some of the takeaways or observations that you’re making that are interesting to you?
Anna Robinson (16:01):
I think that we mentioned before the desire to spend time reflecting. You know, when we started this, the initial idea was long-term to create a platform that supports women in their professional ambitions. And we started with mentoring and that was the first kernel of the idea was around an external mentoring platform. And when we looked into what really makes for high impact mentoring, having the mentees be intentional, that’s sort of how we added that idea, but that the extent to which people are really appreciating the space and time. And like you said, Lisa, that it’s actually, to some extent, now mandated and their employer accepts that it’s important that they spend that time reflecting.
Matt McDonnell (16:40):
A lot of this conversation has been about the mentees, but at least in my experience sitting on the mentor side of a relationship that you often feel like you maybe even learn more from being a mentor. And so I’m just curious if you have any information or data about the benefits that the mentors perceive as being part of the program?
Anna Robinson (16:58):
Yeah. I mean, we’re getting a lot of traction with women that are excited to commit their time to mentoring and, you know, for us, you know, we were talking earlier about why we don’t have men and that has been a big question that’s been asked to me a lot as mentors. Another question that’s been asked is, do you pay your mentors? And we don’t. And I think, you know, that changes the equation of why they’re doing it if we did. But also the bar I have is that I want to create such a great experience for the mentors that they would pay us to do it. We’re not going to ask them to. But that they’re having such an amazing experience, both with the relationship they have with their mentees, that they are learning from these younger people as well and the dialogue, but also that we’re providing programming. So we’ve make the mentors go through orientation and training around how to be a really high impact mentor and provide them with a network as well. So that they’re getting a really rich experience as they’re on their own leadership journeys as well.
Matt McDonnell (17:37):
So what’s the secret to being a high impact mentor?
Anna Robinson (17:53):
I mean, I don’t know that it’s very secretive, but the couple of six or seven core competencies that we lay out. But the couple that we’re really focusing on for mentors that I think is perhaps some people know it, but they forget it very quickly. The first one is within active listening, how important empathy and asking powerful questions are. You know, there’s a bunch of YouTube videos now on the importance of listening and the leader speaking at the end. So we do a reminder on that and particularly giving them tools for what do powerful questions look like? What kind of words do powerful questions start with? So that’s one thing.
Anna Robinson (18:24):
The other thing is, and this, I think it’s harder for people, how much more powerful it is to share your experience rather than to give advice and not to step into the person’s shoes. And so we’re adding a module around storytelling. So the experience sharing, it’s not just sharing your experience, but it’s the way you do it. And putting yourself into that equation, which I think women in particular have a harder time putting themselves in the story, and that being the benefit and sort of making themselves the hero of the story a little bit. But there’s research which shows that people take a lot more out of hearing people’s experiences rather than being told what to do when they can internalize it and make their own decisions for their paths. Kind of similar to some of the YPO and EO principles that are used in their forums as well.
Matt McDonnell (19:09):
Makes sense.
Lisa Graham (19:14):
What’s an example of a question that you should ask when you’re active listening? Like you said, there’s like keywords that you should start questions with. Can you give us an example? Just so we can have like a little takeaway there.
Anna Robinson (19:22):
I think it’s words like how, right. Rather than closed words. Like how do you feel about it? Is it, you know, asking about people’s emotions rather than necessarily asking, “Oh, what happened or what do you think you’re going to do about it” just surfacing down to the next level. You’ve probably all seen the iceberg thing, right? Where whatever happens on the surface, there’s three different layers of what’s going on underneath the surface. So I think a lot of the questions get to those sort of emotions. And the other thing, some faculty who are the real experts on this, which isn’t, I’m not claiming to be an expert on powerful questions for the record, but they’re short questions. You know, it’s not some three sentence that ends with a question mark. It’s “how do you feel about it?” And then giving space for the person to actually think about that and answer. And if they don’t say anything for 10 seconds, that’s okay. Let them.
Lisa Graham (20:14):
Do you find a lot of people are looking more for that emotional connection? As opposed to, you know, “in my sales job today, I’ve been trying to create these funnels. I really don’t know how to get out there.” Like, you know, XYZ. How can you help me from your experience do this? Or is it more the emotional connection and that is how you get to a better place of trusting each other to have a better mentor, like mentor relationship, or how do you find you’re able to connect to the people once they finally get together?
Anna Robinson (20:43):
I guess there’s a couple of different questions there, right. What do they want to focus on in mentoring? And then what does it take for them to build a trust-based relationship? And what people want to get out of mentoring, I think it varies a lot on the person. I think some people want the more practical advice of actually “I really want to go for this promotion. How do I think about the steps that I need to go through to get there?” And that’s fine. That’s great. That’s a part of your leadership journey and other people that are more open or at a time in their lives, when they’re asking bigger, you might say more spiritual questions about what they’re doing with their lives and they want to work through those issues. And I think both are suited to mentoring, perhaps being thoughtful about how you’re going to explore the questions with your mentor is important. That’s one of the reasons we’re using a coach. The executive coach upfront helps to shape with a mentee what do they really want to focus on in mentoring. So if this is your broader goal that you’re working on, what’s an appropriate question within that that you could work through with your mentor.
Lisa Graham (21:35):
And do the studies show that multi-year mentorships with the same person are more beneficial or do people get more out of mentorship relationships when they’ve got, they work with someone for a year, maybe at one job, then they switch, and then they’re working with somebody else. And how are you guys approaching that? Is it, are you looking for multi-year relationships, or?
Anna Robinson (21:53):
That’s a great question. I actually, I don’t think I have seen, I haven’t seen specific research on it, but I’m going to go look, it’s a great question. Sponsoring, which typically does involve longer-term relationships because it’s really someone who sort of picks you out as the person they’re going to shepherd through their career, that has to be a multi-year relationship to be effective. And often the way you get picked out is by having worked with a person for awhile and they become your sponsor over time. I think mentoring can be a little bit different where it doesn’t have, you know, as I’ve talked to people about their experience with mentoring, some people will point to someone when they were 23 years old, who they had a series of three or four conversations with who made a massive impact on their life. So I don’t think high-impact mentoring has to be a five-year journey. For now, the way we’re approaching it is it’s a 12 month commitment.
Anna Robinson (22:41):
We have a check-in in the middle, so if it’s just a terrible relationship, we don’t force it to go for 12 months. But, we will ask people if they would really like to continue. But our default is that you would switch partly based on you may have a different goal you want to work on the second year. Also just to get you as much exposure to different people and different leaders and you know, within 12 months you can probably get a lot out of the relationship with the person.
Lisa Graham (23:04):
Do you have any mentor relationships that you regularly reflect back on?
Anna Robinson (23:07):
You know, I feel like I’ve had great advisors and sponsors. And particularly when I was at McKinsey, I could point to a handful of people who really took me under their wing and taught me a ton about being successful at McKinsey and was one of the reasons why I stayed there for so long and was able to be elected Partner at McKinsey. What I felt like I was missing were people who more holistically would help guide me in conversations about what do you want to do with your life? And I’ve always craved those more existential questions, but never found people who were going to sort of go through those kinds of questions with me and processes. And it’s a journey, right? Like I was hoping after I decided to leave McKinsey to have a big epiphany about what it was. And, and I think that’s just not realistic, but having those people around me who would guide me around, okay, what do you, what are your values? How are you going to work on that? What’s your path to figuring it out? That’s what I’ve missed. And actually a lot of women I’ve talked to have said that they succeeded despite the fact that they didn’t have mentors, not because of mentors. A lot of women have said that they wished they’d had that more throughout their lives.
Lisa Graham (24:12):
Yeah, absolutely. Well, thank you for joining us today. This has been really interesting and we really appreciate you coming and we love what you’re doing. Thank you for doing it.
Anna Robinson (24:21):
Thanks for your support. This was fun.
Lisa Graham (24:24):
The Change The Rules podcast is sponsored by Chez Boom Audio and the talented Shayna Brown. You can find her studio at https://chezboomaudio.com/. That’s C H E Z Boom Audio dotcom. Change The Rules is brought to you by Notley, a catalyst for social innovation and today’s impact organizations and changing communities. And you can learn more about us at www.notley.com and to learn more about CERESA, you can visit www.ceresa.com.