Climbing Partners 

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I've been Lea Setegn's mentor for more than a decade. A few years ago, she started mentoring me. If that seems odd, well, you've probably never had a mentor or been one.

For Lea and me, it started in 1992, when I was a newspaper metro editor in upstate New York, and she was an intern. I coached her and then encouraged her to leave her hometown to take an entry-level job at another, smaller paper. A few years later, having paid her dues, Lea came back to the metro newspaper as a copy editor and then editor of the weekend entertainment magazine.

It was a testament to 20-something Lea that she landed a management job at such a young age. She was an accomplished journalist, so planning coverage, making assignments, editing stories and handling production schedules were easy tasks. But navigating corporate landmines and learning to manage people -- including coaxing good work out of cranky older reporters with huge egos — was a lot tougher.

Lea says I helped her learn to handle office politics. "At 26, I had little awareness of interdepartmental issues," she says. "Everyone in the newsroom was fighting for their piece of pie, and you just had to navigate the currents."

Soon after Lea's promotion, I left to take a high-level editor's job in Richmond. We kept our relationship alive through phone calls and e-mails. After a while, Lea tired of management struggles and sought advice about making a change. She was willing to move from her hometown and interested in coming to Richmond. With no openings on my staff, I asked one of my own mentors, an editor at the Times-Dispatch, for suggestions. Lea ended up getting hired as a reporter.

We picked up where we'd left off at regular lunches halfway between our offices. A few years later, I took a management job at the T-D's parent company. By this time, Lea had run into some career roadblocks. Now our mentoring sessions were often impromptu chats in my cubicle. Our topics ran the gamut: time-management, people skills, "managing up," assertiveness vs. aggressiveness, effective negotiation.

Looking back, Lea says what helped the most was having a mentor in her field, someone who understood the work situation. "I had someone to talk to who didn't think I was insane," she says. Lea says she also relied on mentoring to "double-check my response to a situation."

My own job frustrations came to a head just as Lea seized control of her career. She quit the paper and eventually shifted into human resources. As she was settling in, I lost my job. The timing was opportune. Now Lea was positioned to advise me, a midlife job seeker, on how to work the human resources system to my best advantage.

"It was awesome to be able to give that back, to have information to give and to be able to help someone with so much experience," Lea says. "I was glad to be able to give something back after all I'd been given."

Lea's support during my four months of unemployment kept me focused and upbeat, and helped me get my career back on track. We're still a mentoring pair, but these days, it's definitely a two-way street. She continues to think of me as a teacher of management tricks and a giver of career advice. I pick her brain about corporate inner workings and human relations.

Oh, and somewhere along the way — neither of us is sure just where — we became really good friends. Frankly, we're not certain where the mentoring ends and the friendship begins.

We think that's the best thing of all.



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