Timeless Lessons of Mentoring

By Ellen Spira Hattenbach

[This article is the third in Advancing Jewish Leadership: A Series on Jewish Context and Professional Practices. Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership is currently marking its 90th anniversary with the launch of the Center for Jewish Leadership. In this series, faculty, mentors, graduates, and staff of Spertus Institute’s graduate degree, certificate, and professional programs share valuable insights relevant to all those working for and with Jewish organizations.]

The “champion for champions” has been my branded name for years, serving as the go-to person to coach, advise, steer, steward, and shepherd employees seeking to advance or change careers. Mentoring, like motherhood, is just in my DNA.

But when a mentor becomes a mentee, what lessons, if any, can be learned? That was the position in which I found myself during my enrollment in the Certificate in Jewish Leadership, a programing jointly sponsored by Northwestern University School of Professional Studies and Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership. The Certificate in Jewish Leadership was developed to serve established and emerging leaders (including lay leaders) of Jewish organizations. To date, it has served leaders of organizations focused on social service, philanthropy, education, culture, and advocacy.

As the most “senior” student in the class, I had been accustomed to mentoring others for over thirty years, both as a professional and a Jewish organizational volunteer. But all that changed as the role reversal began.

A central component of the Spertus model for this program is the assignment of a mentor for each student. To find the right match, the curriculum developers issued a survey asking pointed questions about personal and professional goals and the characteristics of a mentor that would most resonate with the student. The results were used to identify a professional mentor who has extensive senior-level Jewish leadership experience. To foster the ability for mentees and mentors to speak frankly and honestly about professional matters, the names of the mentors assigned are kept confidential. Mentors work closely with students to pinpoint areas for professional growth, discuss professional challenges, and help foster professional application of the program’s content.

While I had no idea what to expect, my mentor took this responsibility seriously. The first day of what would become our scheduled bi-weekly meetings, I was greeted by, not just my mentor, but his top executive and four large-ringed, intimidating black binders. Regardless of my professional stature, I felt like I was back in high school about to embark on a daunting AP course.

But my mentor quickly assuaged any apprehension as he was welcoming, open, and revealing. He shared his brain-trust, his experiences, his philosophy, his Jewish viewpoints, his valuable time, and his passion for giving so much of himself. Throughout the formal mentorship program, there were numerous signs that our new relationship was going to be a success.

My mentor was both an impressive explainer and listener. He was genuinely caring and encouraging about the uniqueness of my personal journey. Though in no way a career therapist, his advice was geared toward helping me through obstacles at work and becoming a stronger Jewish leader.

Call it tough love, but this mentor challenged me to think through reasons I wanted to become a more capable and qualified Jewish leader. We explored what that really meant to me (and to him) and whether the course of action I was taking was the best way to tackle it.

In addition, he introduced me to key people in his network, an indication he trusted that I would represent him well. He invited me to join his sponsored tables at events that support Jewish and Israeli causes that matter to him. I experienced his family business, family dynamics, and the Jewish philosophies that drive his continued success. Though I was in the position of his pupil, he indicated that our relationship was reciprocal, another sign of a positive mentor-mentee connection with mutual respect for each other’s strengths and contributions.

The outcome proved to be one of my most valuable life lessons. When a person is thirsty for knowledge and has the luxury of a well-matched mentor, the mentoring experience transcends age, experience, and position. In Judaism, our sages advise “Who is wise? The one who learns from every other.…”  Learn I did, and still do.

As the formal program came to a close, I could not help but express my gratitude to my mentor. From preparing fact-filled binders, sharing information, and proffering judicious advice, to carving out valuable time to challenge, steer, and help me grow, this mentor extended his hand and pointed me in a more focused direction. At our final scheduled meeting, I left on his desk a yad, the Jewish ritual pointer used to read Torah, as a symbol of his gifted guidance and wise words. I know that should life throw me a curve-ball, my mentor will point me in a straight line with my best interests at heart.

While not all mentor-mentee assignments may result in such positive outcomes, the token sign of this relationship’s success is that it continues well-past the granting of the physical Certificate in Jewish Leadership. A year later, I continue to visit, meet, call, and email with this remarkable Jewish leader and his staff. I won’t just hope our relationship will last a lifetime; I will make it do so.

The Spertus model of mentoring presumes that partnering with established Jewish leaders, community-based professionals, and teachers is vital for Jewish professionals and volunteers to actualize their leadership potential. For this mentee, the model was spot on. I started with the right mentor match and ended with a lifelong relationship. Just imagine the results of scaling this model nationally.

Ellen Spira Hattenbach is Director of Strategic Marketing for Frost, Ruttenberg & Rothblatt, PC. She serves as Vice Chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council Domestic Affairs Commission and President of Mitzvahs with Meaning.

Previous articles in this series include:

Series Introduction: Insights from the Field and the Classroom by Dr. Dean P. Bell
The Building Blocks of Jewish Education by Dr. Barry Chazan