Simmons Leadership Blog

Professor Stacy Blake-Beard and the importance of mentors


Simmons SOM Associate Professor Stacy Blake-Beard has focused her research on mentoring and value to women across all industries.  She shares with us her perspectives on her career path and how important it is to network and foster mentoring relationships throughout the course of your career.  Stacy will participate in two sessions on mentoring at this year's Simmons Leadership Conference.

What woman in business - current or former - do you most admire? What has she taught you?
I admire Ann Fudge. She is the former chairman and CEO of Young & Rubicam Brands, a global network of marketing communications companies. I appreciate several things about Ann--she is a strong relational leader. By relational leader, I mean that Ann takes care of business and takes care of people at the same time. Some leaders are good at taking care of their people but suffer in terms of running the business. Some leaders are masters at achieving their business results but run their people into the ground getting to their goals. Ann is exceptional because she can do both. I also appreciate that she is not afraid to be a pioneer; Ann has been and continues to be someone who can operate at the frontier. One of her recent "firsts" is being appointed to the board of Infosys, a large Indian technology and outsourcing firm. The thing I appreciate most about Ann is that she is transparent about how important family and balance are to her. Her decisions and actions mirror her values--she doesn't just talk about how important family is, she actually lives into that belief. Ann is a graduate and strong supporter of Simmons, so I have had the pleasure of talking with her and having her come into my class to share her experiences with Simmons students. Because of these interactions, I can share that one final thing that I appreciate about Ann is how warm and generous she is with her time. She is known for her support of several causes, including the Boys and Girls Club and United Way. Ann is someone whom I consider a mentor and a role model. She has taught me to follow my true north, to know what is important to me and to follow that, even in the face of challenges and crises.
How did you get started in your career?
During my undergraduate program, I realized that I probably should not go into medicine as I'd planned from the time that I was eight or nine years old. Organic chemistry--that is all that I am going to say. As I was trying to figure out what I should be doing, since I now knew what I should not be doing, I utilized the resources and services at the Career Center at University of Maryland College Park, where I worked as a Career Assistant. Through research and diagnostics, I confirmed that I was actually really interested in the behavioral sciences. I knew that I had enjoyed the Psychology classes that I had taken. So I switched my major to Psychology with a specialization in Industrial/Organizational. I also found that there was not much that I could do in the field of Psychology with a BA--I would need to go on for additional education. So right away, I started applying to doctoral programs. I was delighted to be accepted to the University of Michigan to the Organizational Psychology program. Michigan, at the time, was the number one psychology program in the country and Organizational Psychology had been founded there. Off I went to Ann Arbor, where I had a really powerful educational and developmental experience as a doctoral student. My time there prepared me to become a professor. While there, I also did an internship at Xerox Corporation. My stint at Xerox cemented the importance of being able to use the knowledge I was gaining in the academic arena in real and practical ways in the outside world. I loved the marriage of theory and practice. My work--my research, teaching, and practice--are all informed by my belief that a good theory in action is priceless. It was at the University of Michigan that I learned of David Thomas' research on mentoring and diversity. I was so taken with what he was doing that I decided to also study this area, adding the dimension of gender to my interest in mentoring and diversity. Twenty three years later, I am still passionate about this topic.
What do you like most about your job?
This is a hard question because there are so many things that I like. I'll share three things that I really enjoy about my job. I love the ability to inform and influence others through publication of research, teaching, and speaking engagements. Through each one of these venues, there is an opportunity to share messages that I think are important with a variety of audiences. The second thing that I appreciate about my job is the autonomy that I have in relation to my time. I have a great deal of control over how I spend my time--the content of what I am doing as well as where I am doing it. The third thing that I really enjoy about my job is the opportunity to keep learning. I am never bored. I have the option to delve deeply into my passion, mentoring at the intersection of race and gender. I can also expand by moving this research to a more international perspective. My Fulbright award provided the access and support to study the mentoring experiences of professional Indian women in four cities (Hyderabad, Bangalore, Mumbai and Delhi). I expected to see some of the dynamics I am observing--the importance of mentoring, the challenges of gaining access as a woman in a very masculine culture. But I am also learning things that I was not expecting, like the importance of mother-in-laws; this information is becoming apparent as I am analyzing my interviews. This characteristic of constantly learning and having opportunity to deepen and widen my research interests is another reason why I love my job.
What's the best piece of career advice you've gotten along the way?
I work with a phenomenal coach and early into our work together, she suggested that I needed to get a tag line. "Tag line," I asked..."what do you mean?" She explained that I needed to have a quick accessible way to identify what is most important to me. It is important to have this information, this tag line, because with it, I can make decisions about what I am doing, where I am going, how I am doing it. I also need to be as clear about what I should not be doing and how can I avoid the time sinks and the distractions that come at us so regularly. Both sets of decisions should be informed by what is critical to me. With a fair amount of work, I figured out what is essential to me--I created my tag line. This advice has been absolutely critical--as I face decisions or as I am offered opportunities, I hold them up to this tag line. It makes it so much easier to decide to take something on or to decline and share it with a colleague who is better suited or more interested. One final piece of advice I received is live hard, play harder--I like that one as well.
How can women attain more leadership positions in all industries?
Network effectively. No one gets to where they are by themselves. So women need to make sure that they are building the networks to position themselves. Of course, they also need to have the competencies and the talents to do the work. But that alone is no guarantee of success. It really is important to have a cadre of people ready to help you get to your goals--we can do better in this regard. This also means that we need to ask for help when we need it. So figuring out how to strategically ask for help and then having the network in place to provide that assistance are two core competencies by which women will be well-served .
Many mentoring relationships are informal. In the absence of formal, company sponsored programs, can an informal mentoring process still create results for the mentee?
In the absence of formal programs? I believe that informal mentoring is optimal. Informal mentoring has been and continues to be a key source of career support and development. These relationships offer the career and psychosocial functions that have been connected to faster advancement and greater satisfaction. Formal mentoring programs--with the caveat that they must be well developed and thoughtfully implemented--are also beneficial. So I am not saying that formal mentoring is not also useful. Both types of relationships are tools that we see leaders including in their network of support. And informal mentoring relationships, that you can develop yourself and that are not subject to the dictates of the sponsoring organization, are quite powerful tools to have in your developmental toolkit.
Any tips for work/life balance?
Learn to say no so that you can say yes to the things that really matter. This is my tip--it sounds simple but it is such a powerful nugget of advice. I remember one of my mentors telling me this very early in my career--he indicated that I was good at what I did, that I was excellent actually. As a result, he told me I would receive many requests for my time, energy and expertise. He predicted that I would get far more requests than I could possibly take on--and he was right. My goal for 2012 was to master the "graceful NO"--to actually have people thank you for saying no because you did it so graciously (smile). I am getting pretty good at it. It helps to have a network of people to whom I can refer opportunities that I cannot take on. So when I have to say no to someone, I often can recommend another person who can do the task or take on the opportunity. So I end up with a win-win situation--I have said no and left time available for what is important and I have passed on an opportunity to a friend with the referral. Of course, I still mess up. On occasion, I take on a project or an engagement to which I should have said a "graceful NO." But those times are happening with less frequency; I am becoming a better protector of my time.
How would you mentor a new businesswoman starting her own business right out of school?
My response to this answer depends. It depends on so many factors--who is this woman? What does she want to do? Where is she in her life? There is one thing that I would say to any woman (or anyone) at whatever stage of her life she is. I'd say, do you have your tag line? Do you know what is absolutely critical to you? I'd want for her to know why she is starting this business and what she hopes to accomplish--beyond herself, beyond making money. If she knows these things, the rest will come--she will be able to attract the resources to make it happen. She will be able to enlist the support to accompany her on her journey. She will know the audiences she wants to influence and impact. It all starts with having the vision and knowing what is important to her.
What is your favorite quote?

A quote that I use to help me keep things in perspective:
In the end
Everything will be okay.
If it is not okay
It is not the end.

I love this quote on days when I am feeling particularly overwhelmed or less than my usual sunny optimistic self. These days are not often, but on occasion they do show up. When that happens, I go the special spot in my journal where I have this sage reminder of the importance of perspective and the certainty that things will work out. It always brings a smile--reminds me of the succinct no-nonsense advice that the women in my family provide to me.

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