In Chapter 6 of Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg tells women never to ask someone to be your mentor. She compares it to being like the young bird in the children's book "Are You My Mother?". And just like the innocent little bird who asks a steam shovel if its his mother, it should be obvious to us when someone is our mentor or not. Asking someone to be your mentor is the wrong question. She compares it to someone on a date asking "What are you thinking?"
Instead, Sandberg tells women that they need to earn the right to be mentored by asking very specific questions, providing some special insight, creating some kind of value, etc. Basically you need to prove to someone that you're worthy of being mentored. And you have to do so in a way sensitive to gender dynamics (don't meet a senior man in a bar). And don't appear too dependent on others.
That makes me angry. She spends the preceding chapters telling women to raise their hands and keep them raised when asking questions. She tells women not to worry about looking stupid or desiring to be liked. She spends the subsequent chapter telling women that they should be honest.
What is so wrong with asking dumb questions because you don't care what people think about you, because you actually want to be mentored, because asking for the label is the only way to get to a mentoring relationship?
I ask dumb, wrong questions all the time. I try not to care if people think I'm too dependent on others. I have asked other men to mentor me and men have asked me to mentor them. I feel privileged rather than burdened by the invitation (albeit I can count on my hands the number of requests I've received and her number might hit a thousand). And the men whom I've asked - some of whom have gently turned me down and some of whom said yes with conditions - appear totally accustomed to the question.
Men ask dumb questions all the time. We don't take it personally if someone doesn't answer or even reject us, we're going to keep asking. My point is we need to reward people who have the courage to ask questions, even if they're often stupid or inappropriate.
The point is when you ask a question - especially one where you ask someone to mentor you - you are risking something. It means you want help and you respect and admire the person you're asking.
If you're in a position of leadership, people are going to ask you to mentor them so you might as well figure out how to respond rather than chide people for putting themselves out there. Not every woman will read Sandberg's book and know to ask smarter, better questions.
I get it though. She gets inundated by requests from women all the time. And being asked this question is obviously a pet peeve of hers. See, the invitation to mentoring strikes at the heart of being a woman. She's attuned to the relational dynamics of the question and the obligations it might impose on her. It makes me her feel like an impostor and it places a burden on her that she feels uncomfortable living up to (this is similar to her discomfort with being named one of Time's 100 Most Influential People).
My suggestions for how Sandberg (and any leader) could respond to mentoring requests:
I'm flattered - thank you. [The next part varies - below are some possibilities]
Let's talk more about what this might look like. Contact me later so we can set up a time to meet. [for someone who's already been on your radar, see potential and want to invest in]
Why choose me? What do you want do you want to get out of this? Why should I invest in you? [filtering questions for someone you don't know well enough and even these questions themselves are a form of counsel - you're mentoring already]
I'm sorry but I'm too busy. I recommend you find someone you already know and build a relationship with them. [an honest direct approach when you have no clue about the person and don't have time to explore further]
In a context where you feel obligated to spend time with anyone who asks, you can avoid investing in someone who is a life-sucking force by setting limits on your relationship. You can say up front that you'll meet x number of times and evaluate how things are going at that point. This gives you a way to escape if the relationship is not progressing and the person just wants someone to vent to.
But when someone asks to be mentored, we can do a lot more than get annoyed by the invitation. We can turn the conversation into a mentoring opportunity.