Carmilla Tan On Finding Your Mentor (And Eventually Becoming One)

Finding mentorship and receiving peer guidance can be difficult for women. Unlike men, women tend not to ask for these mentoring experiences and rely on different forms of networking. She Spends sat down with Carmilla Tan, FSA, MAAA, senior vice president of analytics at Brighton Health Plan Solutions, the health plan management division of Brighton Health Group, to discuss how women should network and find mentors. She particularly found success with creating two women-oriented support groups. Tan has three mentors and three mentees. She shared her tips with us on finding both.

 

When we spoke last, you mentioned that Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg served as a huge inspiration. How did the book make you want to take action?

I was very inspired by the book, and I thought, I can’t be the only one who stresses out about work life, about succeeding and going to the next level while also caring about carpooling for my kids. For school, in some places, they’ll schedule the PTA meeting in the middle of the day. If you’re a working mom, there’s just no way to get there. I thought I can’t be the only one with this angst. My train station is Dobbs Ferry [in Westchester County, N.Y.] and I would take the Metro North into the city. I would notice that there would be a whole bunch of women who looked exactly like me, trying to catch the train. When it was time for me to put a Lean In group together… I actually sort of scoped out the women who were taking the 5:59 train with me. There’s this implicit thing, at 5:59 in the morning, you don’t talk to one another. I found a way to find these women somewhere in the community and said, “This is so random, but would you be interested in going to this Lean In meeting?” Sure enough, there were at least 12 of us who get together regularly every three months. The key to a successful Lean In meeting is actually wine. Aside from the Lean In book, I felt I couldn’t be alone going through work life, and I did something about it. I formed another group also. In the workforce, not everyone has kids, not everyone has a partner, but there are women who are obviously trying to rise above where they are.

 

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"That’s a whole bunch of powerful women that just walked out the door."

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Is the Lean In group a place to vent or a place to receive actionable tips?

No, it’s actionable. Our group, we call it our “safe space.” There are rules. The industry is small, so you’re not supposed to share anything outside the walls of the boardroom we’re in. Whether it’s, “I want to make partner the next round” or “How do I make managing director?” or “I’ve been in this place for a long time. It’s time for me to look for a job. Does anyone have good leads?” Part of it is just the feedback of, “I tried out for this job and this is what they said.” The other women will say you learned something, but next time you should consider these three other things: Why were you not considered? What are the skills and how do I prove to you I have those skills? Is it references? Is it being more published?

 

Do you find that the women in your Lean In group are all among the same age or same place in their careers?

I think we’re mostly the same age and in the same field. What I’ve noticed from the Lean In group I have back in Dobbs Ferry, there were some who were from the same company, there were some who are lawyers. After a while, it’s good to have a group who’s in the same field you are. You don’t even need a Lean In group, exactly. It can be any organization or any gathering of women. My group in my town, we early on said we did not want a Lean In group with teachers or nurses, because we could not identify with that lifestyle. We also said doctors; we don’t have anything in common with them. We were looking for a certain kind of professional background that dealt a lot with men.

 

Have you been seeing that your male coworkers are supportive of these groups or aware of them at all?

Well the best thing with my second group is we had our first meeting in the boardroom. There were some guys working late. When we were done, someone in that group of men said, “That’s a whole bunch of powerful women that just walked out the door.” 

 

Why aren’t women asking for mentorship?

It goes back to not being shy. Especially women, we have a tendency not to ask for help because of pride and to be stronger than guys. Guys have their networks too. We’re probably just not aware. It could be tennis or golf or whatever. I found that if I could do this again, I would have asked earlier.

 

How do you find a mentor and ask them to take on that role? How many mentors do you need?

You need several. One is not enough. You actually need at least three or four in different fields, so when the time comes and you need some help or advice, you’ll have different perspectives to bounce around with. You should be very direct in asking for a mentor or someone you would like to call on. Just be very direct. Have some sort of relationship so it can’t be cold calling. Say, “I would appreciate some guidance as I navigate through my career. I would like you to consider being my mentor. This means that every three months I will check in with you if you will be gracious enough to free up 30 minutes in your calendar or I can take you out to dinner or coffee, and I’d like to bounce off some ideas for what I’m thinking about for my career.” What’s two hours in a year? Mentors are very important, because aside from giving you advice, they can open doors for you, whether that’s connections or access to certain events. Sometimes you don’t even know what you’re asking for but at least they’ll keep you in mind when some opportunity comes up. Don’t be shy and be very upfront about the request. You’re not apologizing. It’s an honor to be asked to be a mentor. Mention what the time commitment is. Before you leave the last meeting, you actually want to say, “Thank you for this time. Can we look at calendars now and let's set up the next one three months from now.” If you can do it, face to face, even better.

 

Can you speak to the importance of women mentoring women and why it’s important?

Years ago, when I worked for a consulting firm, there was a woman who pulled me aside when I got pregnant and said, “Regardless of what these nice guys tell you, never bring your baby in because people will not be able to get that mental image out of their minds of you being able to stay late and getting that cushy assignment.” I know the world has changed since then, but I really appreciated that advice. When you think about some of the pitfalls that women navigate from, why reinvent the wheel?

 

What else should women know?

You should also consider being a mentor yourself. You may be in the phase in your life where you think, “What do I have to offer? I need a mentor.” Aside from receiving mentorship, you also need to give mentorship advice. Whatever stage in life you are, there is someone who needs help and can benefit from advice. I would also suggest being a mentor to someone else: high school kids, the summer intern. Don’t feel you need to be 100% qualified to take that role on. Women think they need to be 100% qualified to take the job, and guys think they only need to be 68% or some low number like that to be qualified to take on a role. Same thing with mentorship.

- Amanda Eisenberg / She Spends Issue #25

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