Jean Hernandez vividly remembers meeting Tonya Drake.
Drake had applied for a vice president position at Bothell’s Cascadia College, where Hernandez worked as an administrator. Hernandez was impressed and strongly recommended Drake for the job.
But Drake didn’t make the final cut. She was, she recalls, “Quite devastated.”
They didn’t really get to know one another until years later, when both served as commissioners for the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, which accredits higher-education institutions in seven western states. This time, Hernandez, now president of Edmonds Community College, impressed Drake.
“I just really enjoyed how authentic her leadership style was, how we all felt heard and included,” Drake recalls. “I thought to myself, ‘I hope I have the opportunity to work for that woman.’”
A relationship was born. Hernandez eventually did hire Drake. Today, Drake considers Hernandez, who stepped down as president in 2017, a good friend and an important career champion.
“She would be able to say things to me, critical things, that I could take as helpful,” says Drake, who last year was named chancellor at Kent-based WGU Washington, a partnership between Western Governors University and the state of Washington. “Whereas if somebody else said those critical things, you would want to push back.”
Mentors — defined as advisers — and sponsors, defined as advocates, have never been more important for women seeking career advancement. Research by recruiting and consulting firm Egon Zehnder discovered that only 54 percent of women have access to senior leaders who also function as mentors. A LinkedIn study of nearly 1,000 female professionals found that 82 percent of women agree that having a mentor is important, but 67 percent said they’ve never been one because no one ever asked. Nearly one of five women has never had a mentor.
Many companies such as Wells Fargo have formal mentorship programs, but that’s not how the mentoring relationship developed between Laura MacNeil, head of the Pacific Northwest region business banking team, and Jenny Knapp-Parce, a senior vice president at the bank. They met when MacNeil began managing the bank’s commercial banking office in Tacoma. Knapp-Parce was already working there as customer service manager.
We spoke with all four women about the importance of mentors and sponsors and how their relationships have influenced their careers.
Jean Hernandez: Between the mentoring and advice, you’re involved in the person’s life. I’ve met Tonya’s children, I’ve met her husband, we’ve done some socializing at different times of the year at each other’s homes. So it’s the whole person and you accept them where they’re at, but you’re also sort of always this wind beneath their wings kind of thing. You’re just always trying to help them move to that next level of their lives.
Tonya Drake: A colleague was thinking of getting back into education again and seeking some advice. I don’t know if I would call it mentorship. And she told me she decided not to finish her Ph.D. We went through the pleasantries and talked about options and families just to build the relationship. And I took a swig of water and just said, “Ok, let’s talk about your Ph.D. because I’m not gonna let this go because I know my mentor wouldn’t have let it go. I knew Jean wouldn’t have let it go.”
JH: Even though I was the boss, I can’t think of any time that I just said to you [Drake], “That’s it. Do it my way.” I don’t think I ever went that route. I did with a couple of my other vice presidents, but that’s a different story. I think for us it’s more of an equal relationship. Even when I was president, I don’t think it was top-down. The reality was, we really could have very open conversations.
TD: I do think sometimes that not everybody seeks that or has the courage to ask or hear some of the things that they don’t want to hear. And I would hope we pay it forward in meaningful ways.
JH: One of the things that I’ve learned from Tonya is where I sometimes want to say, “Come on, you guys. Get it done. Got to get going,” is to take a pause and try to have more of a conversation and be part of that problem-solving. Because you’re [Drake] really good about doing that with your staff.
Jenny Knapp-Parce: [Laura] helped push me to think a little bit bigger. That’s really important to have someone who will push you a little farther. But we never call each other mentors. I don’t necessarily think that’s important. The relationship is much more important than the label.
Laura MacNeil: There was no formality about it. It was a trust. That trust over the years has made both of us stronger and we’ve both been able to ask each other for advice. I’ve always found that as a mentor, even if it was a defined role, I’ve gotten as much out of it, I think, as the mentee probably has gotten out of it.
JKP: She had all the leadership skills and she jumped right in [to a new role at the bank]. And for me that’s a great example because I probably would have been fearful of going into a job like that and maybe I wouldn’t have thrown my name in the hat for something like that. And so that’s what I think I’ve learned from Laura over the years.
LM: When I moved into a risk-compliance role, I knew I could call Jenny and she could help me figure it out. And now she’s mentoring me. It has to be fluid. It’s just a relationship.
JKP: Laura personally is like, “Yeah, I can jump in and do that.” Sometimes, especially as women, we tend not to do that. We tend to think we need to have 90 percent or 100 percent of all of the skills necessary for a job. We don’t. Nobody does.
TD: “How can I connect you?” That’s what Jean said when I was applying for the WGU Washington position. Immediately she connected me with Sam Smith, the former president at WSU, who she knew sat on the advisory board. She knew the former chancellors. That really opens doors in ways that never would have been open to me otherwise.
JKP: Another thing I’ve learned from Laura: She’s fearless. She’s a great networker. And that’s something I’ve historically been pretty uncomfortable with. Put me in front of a group doing a presentation and I’m fine. But if I have to go into a room with a lot of people I don’t know and have just one-on-one conversation, I get a little shy and uncomfortable with that.
LM: I think mentorship is even more important in an environment where you’ve got huge, huge companies. You’ve got people connecting more through a device. I think some of the skills that you can learn from a mentor to make a more personal relationship are important.
JH: One of the things I did when I retired as president at Edmonds Community College was start a women of power mentor group. Again, one of my things was no agenda, but anybody could bring up whatever they wanted to. And we just had some wonderful conversations. This network is invaluable because they’re going to be bringing the next generation of women into leadership roles. One is now chancellor of Western Governors University. One is now president of Bates Technical College and the other person was president of South Seattle. All three women went from vice presidents in the last 18 months into really high roles. I absolutely, absolutely take a lot of pride in that. It’s not because of me. All these women are just amazing women.
LM: It’s not just about coming to work, getting a paycheck and doing your job. It’s being connected to the community and relationships like mentorships that help you learn what’s OK and what’s expected.
COMMITMENT. Tonya Drake, left, and Jean Hernandez crossed paths for years before becoming mentors and friends.
On Mentorship and Sponsorship
LM: A mentor is someone that’s taking a vested interest in you and what your skills are and what you want to do in the future. Somebody that you can run something by that might be completely ridiculous.
TD: I don’t think it’s required to like somebody you mentor, but I think it helps, most definitely.
JKP: Sponsorship is somebody that’s going to advocate for me for the next role. If I am looking at an opportunity and I’m really interested, I can call that person and go, “Hey, I have this coming up. Do you know anybody in this chain of command that you can reach out to and let them know what you think of my work product?”
JH: I’ve always been a believer of you lift as you climb because for women in general, but for women of color in particular, we don’t always have a lot of role models. So, trying to figure out where we fit, who we can talk to, can be difficult.
JKP: Personally, my own experiences haven’t really focused on uplifting women. I will say when I am mentoring or sponsoring another woman, I tend to focus on some of the things that I know are issues for women and why they might not go for the next opportunity, like family reasons or maybe the confidence to know that they’ve got all the skills in that next job.
LM: When I’ve wanted to do different roles, I’ve made phone calls to ask, “Do you think this is a good fit for me?” That’s more the mentoring side. And sometimes people ask me, “I need you in my court for this to help represent my work.” That’s a sponsor.
JH: [I learned from a boss] that I didn’t want to be in people’s faces. That was not my style. I was not going to be that kind of boss. But I still consider her a mentor, absolutely, because I learned from her. Mentorship takes many different forms.
TD: Millennials are open to mentorship. I’m not sure that they call it that. And I’m not sure I called it that. I never went to Jean and said, “All right, I need a mentor.” When people come and ask my advice or direction, I know they’re seeking mentorship, but nobody says, “Do you want to be my mentor?” It’s relationship-building. I do find sometimes I need to nudge some of the individuals who are younger than me.
LM: I don’t think young people seek out enough opportunities. I think they’re there. And you shouldn’t be afraid, you know? Somebody is going to tell you if they don’t have time to work with you, but it’s OK to reach out and say, “Hey, do you have 10 minutes or 15 minutes for me,” or whatever it is. Come prepared. Come with a topic you really want to discuss. I think they’re going to be surprised by the number of people who want to help.
JH: I’ve had people ask, “Will you mentor me?” And I have to think about it. I don’t just say yes right away. It’s still a commitment. It’s been a very small number where I’ve said no. Sometimes I don’t feel that I’m the best person to mentor them for what they’re going to need. And I also don’t feel the connection with them. Sometimes it’s just that life happens, and I feel like I’ve already reached my bandwidth.
TD: Just like Jean has talked about learning from me, I learned from my mentees also about priorities. That work-life balance looks a little bit different than say Jean’s generation or my generation. The advice that they seek is very different. As a matter of fact, I tend to seek advice around anything involving technology. “Tell me about Twitter again. Help me with LinkedIn.” I’m learning also to keep pace with the younger generation and their changing values and skill sets that they bring to the workforce. They keep me fresh and help me in areas that are very intuitive to them that aren’t always very intuitive to me.
JKP: Be open to a different path than you thought in the first place. I had a different career when I started. Maybe your expectations and your path will change. Don’t be too tunnel-visioned about it.
TD: I remember when I was younger, I think that there was a tendency that “I can do it. I got this.” If I ask, it might show signs of weakness, but to me those vulnerable stages are where people grow and really develop those long-term relationships that have been meaningful in my life.
JH: I don’t think younger people think of the words mentor and mentee in the same way, but as college president you will meet often with student groups, and I often find myself telling them to find a mentor, find someone you can work with to help you climb the ladder and figure out how things work.
On Male Mentors
TD: As far as mentoring other men, I don’t think they see it in terms of a mentor. In my experience, they’re seeking to utilize connections or get short-term advice, versus maybe a deeper relationship-building that I’ve had with other women.
LM: I’m a golfer. I hang out with guys. I have had male sponsors and mentors. I would never be where I am today if it weren’t for them. Men may not talk about it in the same way, but many of them do it.
TD: I’ve had great male mentors. Right now [former WSU President] Sam Smith is a really strong mentor of mine. We have lunch regularly. He gets me connected.
LM: I may have been more open with other women just because of shared experiences and I know I’m not going to be criticized. I might be coached, but not criticized.
JKP: There’s a lot of similarities that are just shared experiences with women, especially around being a mom at work. I spent a lot of time in one position in the Tacoma office as my son was young because I didn’t feel comfortable moving out and thinking bigger until he was in a place that I felt like I knew he was going to be OK.
JH: I have had male mentors because oftentimes they’ve been either my boss or colleagues.