Last week in our MSLOC 420 class we discussed the HBS Rosalind Fox at John Deere case and welcome Rosalind as our surprise visitor who invited us to ask her questions about her career and work as black Plant Manager woman at John Deere’s Des Moines Works. One of us asked Rosalind the question whether she has worked or is still working with a coach, and Rosalind shared with us that she indeed had worked with a coach but had found it difficult to connect with her white coach. Some of us were a tad surprised by Rosalind’s frank answer. I wrestled with Rosalind’s answer, too, also thinking whether my black mentee of many years would have responded the same way if she were asked whether I was effective as her mentor.
Absolutely, Rosalind’s and my mentee’s experience working and building a career as minority was an entirely distinct experience from mine, and I appreciate that even trying my hardest, I will not know how it is like to be a black woman in a predominantly white profession and culture such as my former law firm. In addition to not being able to fully feel and appreciate her experience, I also might not have been effective in challenging my mentee when this might have been appropriate, for example, if there was a situation where I was convinced the colleague at issue had not intended for my mentee to feel this or the other way and tried to achieve a reasonable goal. I would not have suggest to my mentee that she might tell herself a “simple story” like Jennifer Garvey Berger had in mind in Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps. I would not have wanted my mentee to think that I did not understand her or did not make all efforts to understand her. So, on balance, I now understand Rosalind’s answer.
Yet, I do believe that white mentors can still be effective in listening and helping their mentees to figure out how the culture at issue works, what the “rules of the game” are, putting things in context and providing a safe space for learning the ropes of the job. In addition, white mentors are very well positioned and have the job of introducing and sponsoring their black mentees in their work place as well as externally.