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Substitutions: The Choices We Often Have to Make in Work and Life

Originally published in proFmagazine, December 7, 2018.

While finding and serving as a mentor are key ingredients of a professional life, it is always possible to choose a substitute if and when you find yourself, for whatever reason, without.

I love to cook. I try to make time at least once a week – usually on a Sunday – to make a meal completely from scratch. And when the weather turns cold, I almost always opt for my favorite soup: winter minestrone. This is a complicated recipe with a long list of ingredients. And making it is a real commitment as it requires about an hour’s worth of chopping – carrots, celery, onion, garlic, peeled butternut squash – not to mention the homemade chicken broth that was made the day before (from the bones of the roasted chicken that was eaten the week before). This soup is literally about a week in the making before it’s done.

On a recent occasion, I was partway into the final assembly of the soup when I realized I did not have a bay leaf, which is meant to simmer in the soup for about an hour before adding the final ingredients. I turned the kitchen pantry upside down, sure that a bay leaf was there, but to no avail. With no interest in running to the store for just one ingredient, I decided to Google substitutions: “What can be used in a recipe instead of a bay leaf?” The answer was quick and easy – it was thyme. And fortunately I had plenty.

As I added thyme to the winter soup, I couldn’t help but think about how many other things we substitute in our lives – out of necessity or not. Just like a recipe for a great meal requires various ingredients, the recipe for life and work has a long list of ingredients as well, and many of them can (and sometimes should) be substituted. In fact, whether we’re aware of them or not, we choose to make substitutions in life all the time.

This notion came into clear focus recently when I was asked to serve on a panel about mentoring at my university’s Women in Business Leadership conference – as a last-minute substitute. While I have undoubtedly mentored many throughout my academic career – very much on purpose – I have never really had a mentor myself. I certainly didn’t have one during my formative undergraduate and graduate school years. And I have always felt the sting of what I had missed. Needless to say, I also felt a little out of my league on this panel.

When the moderator asked each of us on the panel (all of the other women leaders participating in the discussion were CEOs, presidents or vice presidents in major corporations) about our own experiences with a mentor – what we looked for and how we developed that relationship – I was scrambling for an answer. How was I going to explain to the audience that I never had a mentor, given I was sitting on a panel about mentoring?

I waited until my fellow panelists finished their thoughts (most of which I do not remember, as I was working hard in my head to compose my own). I then told a few stories, not about how I had found a mentor and developed that relationship, but how I had a few “defining moments” throughout my adult life that involved other people influencing a major turn in my career trajectory.

I told the story, for example, about a college boyfriend from whom I learned about Russian history after a mutual friend referred to him as a “Bolshevik” and I had to research the term. That one conversation led to multitudes of others after I began to read and learn about the Russian language and Soviet politics. I was fascinated – and hooked. That experience in my early days as a college student affected years of college course enrollments, graduate school choices, research projects, international fieldwork, dissertation writing and academic positioning.

I told the story about being asked to lead a discussion section of American Government 101 while a “super” (fifth-year) senior in college. I still have no idea who recommended me for the position, but I remember distinctly receiving the phone call in 1989 asking me to take on the assignment and, although hesitant because the task of leading a college classroom at the age of 22 seemed rather daunting, I said yes. I had no idea that I would fall in love with college teaching, just as I had fallen in love years before with college learning. This new love for teaching clarified for me what I wanted to do with my life – pursue a PhD and become a college professor.

I told the story about being asked to serve as acting director of my academic department when the director went out on sabbatical. I never thought I would take on university administration, but the director said he trusted that I would take care of the day-to-day tasks of running an academic unit, and that I would work well with my department’s colleagues, staff and students to ensure they have what they need to succeed while he was away. Although I had originally planned to be on sabbatical at the same time as my director, I pushed my plans to the following semester and took the leap into administration. Little did I know that I would actually enjoy the challenges of academic leadership – and after returning from sabbatical the following year, I applied and was hired as associate dean of a new and growing college, for which I have now served as dean for more than six years.

At the end of my discussion on the mentoring panel I concluded that although I didn’t have a specific mentor throughout my career, I had experienced some “mentoring” (or defining) moments that I can attribute to someone seeing something in me that perhaps I didn’t – and challenging me to step outside of my comfort zone and grow. Perhaps because I had an open and curious mind and a willingness to face discomfort, I said yes – and my life was changed. In fact, I could have also told the story about being asked to serve on that very panel about mentoring at the last minute (as a substitute) and saying yes, only to learn something about myself in the process.

While finding and serving as a mentor are key ingredients of a professional life, it is always possible to choose a substitute if and when you find yourself, for whatever reason, without. Little did I know that choosing to have a curious mind, being open to suggestions and ideas that others bring my way, and being willing to leap without knowing exactly where I would land would be good enough substitutes for a mentor when I not only didn’t have one, but didn’t even know I should. And just like my favorite soup that was made with thyme instead of a bay leaf, my career outcomes as a result of substitution have been quite fulfilling.

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