Can a man be your mentor if you are a young woman?

This was the naïve question of my 20-year-old self to a friend of mine at a time when I was an intern at the regional news station. I’d hoped one of the women journalists might see themselves in me and offer guidance and support. But what I found instead was the male anchor and producer of the late-night news was the one who mentored me. I learned so much both because he was light staffed and because he trusted me to jump in, work with editors and craft stories. With encouragement from him, I also braved my application for a graduate program in London. That decision changed my life in many positive ways.

Still, I recall vividly how one friend cynically cautioned me that there was no way he was doing it without an agenda. She was sure no man of his age (40-something) would invest in the skill development or career progression of a 20-something woman without there being a more sinister goal. But there was never anything ambiguous then, nor in the years after that time. I always felt respected and safe.

International Women’s Day is an opportunity to celebrate what’s progressing. In the age of MeToo and Balancetonporc (denounce your pig), I wanted to share another angle and some stories of men that have not thought twice about mentoring a woman, even as others might imagine it dangerous or ill-intentioned.

While I’m not using this occasion to call them out, let me note that I celebrate amazing women that have mentored me or influenced my path in big and small ways. I am thankful for them every day of the year.

Regrettably, I must also note that I’ve overcome those MeToo moments of varying degrees that made it a harder road than it ought to have been. I hope today’s awareness raising and accountability efforts make the world different for my daughters. To that end, it seems timely to shine a light on where there is still such potential for positive momentum – by celebrating and encouraging men who mentor women of all ages without the lens of fear or sexual objectification.

Learning the ropes and being pushed out of the comfort zone

John Manfredi, was a senior executive at Gillette. I met him when I stepped into a role managing the Marketing and Advertising Commission of the International Chamber of Commerce in Paris. He was the longstanding Chair of this global Commission, which brought together agencies, advertisers and media from all regions to develop the global rules for advertising self-regulation.

He was known for being a tough, demanding Chair. My predecessor was rather intimidated by him. But I never found him difficult. I liked how high he set the bar because he helped me grow and stretch myself. He wouldn’t let me stay behind the scenes administering everything, while the Chair and Vice Chairs were the face of the work. He forced me out of my comfort zone – you know that place we tend to stay unless we feel 120 percent competent?

One year there was a new Digital Media Working Group being convened in New York and the Chair of that group couldn’t attend. John and the Vice Chair convinced me to preside over it in his stead. I was daunted – full of thoughts that the experts in the room would find me an imposter. But once I stepped up, I learned that the worst thing we imagine is nothing like what we experience. Being perfect isn’t the prerequisite for trying something new.

When John and I were in Latin America launching the new Code, we were giving presentations in front of hundreds of people, including ministers and other ‘big wigs’. I recall expressing how nervous I felt and asking how he overcame that to be such an excellent presenter. He said, ‘Elizabeth, I get nervous too.’ By sharing his own vulnerability and his ability to use that emotion positively,  he helped me channel nervous energy to improve my performance.

During the PR campaign launch of the Code, we had some hiccups with underperforming suppliers, so my teammates and I had extra pressure on our shoulders to deliver on time with limited resources. Backing us up on the extra effort we made was John. We soaked up the lessons from his experience and expertise during this time. When he retired a short while after, I made a joke at his party that the organization had a genius scheme – with senior corporate executives training its policy staff while paying fees to do so.

Leap and let rising air catch your wing

Knowing the value of a great mentor, I knew the next opportunity when it came knocking. I was in Beijing for an Asia-Pacific Economic Corporation(APEC) event and Joseph Alhadeff, Chief Privacy Strategist at Oracle and Chair of ICC’s Digital Economy Commission was also in town for related meetings. We’d worked together several years earlier when he was Vice Chair of that commission and I was a part of the staff team. He set up a meeting to catch up. During the meeting, he convinced me to apply for the executive role managing the Commission he chaired and a related advocacy project. I explained the three reasons why I hadn’t already applied for the vacant post. We discovered a shared a vision on improvements and agreed on needed changes. Then he sweetened offering to help me with my career-development plan. I went for it knowing how valuable that experience of working with him and the others on the commission would be both personally and professionally.

Joe and I worked together and made the changes we agreed on that first meeting. We found some incredibly talented people to work on this adventure with us both on the staff side and the commission leadership side. Along the way, I got to be mentored by him and others while mentoring my team and peers across the organization. Joe spotted things out on the horizon and connected them long before most people and I loved learning this from him. But our time was cut short.

Like everyone, Joe sometimes made mistakes, but he took it well when I pointed out a blindspot. To paraphrase something poignant my brother said when accepting a Catalyst award for leadership: Men seeking impact in promoting women and diversity must not hold themselves back by the fact that they will inevitably make mistakes.

Joe connected with people and listened to what mattered to them. This talent had perhaps been underestimated until he passed away in 2017 at just 57 years old. People from around the world expressed how impactfully he’d connected with them. He taught us all the lesson Maya Angelou described best: People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did but people will never forget how you made them feel.

John Manfredi passed away a year ago. I salute and celebrate Joe, John and the many men – including my brother – who mentor and champion their colleagues. With their stories, I encourage others to step up and not be afraid to do so.