Black, White and Gray

I saw my niece a few weeks ago as she was getting ready for both the summer and her upcoming 11th birthday. She’d just come back from a course on babysitting and she flipped through the book she received and read out some of the more interesting points they’d made. As she was doing so I was reminded of my own woeful preparation for babysitting when I was a couple years older than she, having had to ask the sibling of the toddler I was babysitting how to put the little one’s diaper on. And CPR training? Nope. I did though always know which cabinet the good snacks were in. Survival instinct.

She walked me through how to handle a baby who was choking, what to do when someone calls the house asking for the parent, and how to handle someone coming to the door with a delivery. I found myself pretty impressed by some of the solutions they recommended and once again, reminded of the fact that I’d regularly answered the home phone – yes, the one attached to a cord – and told strangers that no, the adults weren’t home. We’re in a different era in a number of ways.

She also read through what to do when a parent asks the sitter to do something he/she believes not to be safe: let the adult know that that may not the best approach, why, and suggest an alternative. If they decline that alternative, then the sitter should leave and decline further work with the family. And while if the world is black & white this may make sense, the reality is that any real-world scenario like this is likely more nuanced than the guide made it out to be. If the parent is suggesting the kids run out back to play catch with knives or be driven around without a seatbelt or car seat – well OK. If on the other hand, they tell the sitter they use the microwave to heat up formula, perhaps it’s an overreach to refuse to do so. After all, while not uniformly a good practice, presumably the parents haven’t been chronically burning their children’s mouths since birth. My sister and I did our best to share this nuance with my niece – who at almost 11 was struggling to understand why rules apply sometimes but not others.

A few days later as I was meeting with a mentee and sharing a different way for her to look at the frustrating situation at hand, the conversation with my niece came back to me. And reminded me that this was a great example of the difference between – and value of – training and mentorship. She’d gotten solid training at her babysitting course. But it was through some mentoring, or in this case life perspective from my sister and me, that she began to understand (I hope!) that sometimes rules are not quite so cut & dry. This is the invaluable role that a good mentor plays – offering different context and perspective to a situation that the mentee may not see. And that’s why BOTH are so valuable – and it can be a miss when we offer training without similar support in identifying mentors.

Check out a few impressive statistics on the value of mentoring: “25% of (Sun Microsystem’s) employees in a test group who took part in the company’s program had a salary grade change, compared to 5% of employees in a control group. Mentors were promoted six times more often than those not in the program; mentees were promoted five times more often than those not in the program.” Why is this so? While I’ve no specific knowledge of Sun’s program, typically the value of mentoring at work is in developing both an advocate and someone who can provide perspective; said differently, mentors provide the gray to the black and white that often comes from training.

I’ve had to nudge a number of women I work with to find a mentor. Many are the first ones to attend training to improve their skills and are happy to provide support to others where they can. But when it comes to helping themselves – OK, ourselves – we hold out. Sometimes out of a concern of ‘bothering’ a potential mentor, uncertainty about what to ask or unclear value of taking time away from completing the next work deliverable in front of us. Or perhaps, like my niece, greater comfort with the black and white of clear rules than with the gray in between. But as most of us with a few years of work experience under our belts know, the reality is that while black and white provide the guardrails, an awful lot of what happens at work sits squarely in the gray.


  1. What a great explanation of the value of mentoring. Reminds me of a coach and the value of listening to a trusted source.

    I might add that I think same gender mentors are a good consideration in many environments (though I have generally found men are more willing to mentor than women.)

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