The news anchor on what she learned from Bob Bazell, women supporting women, and why male bosses should still continue to mentor women post-Harvey Weinstein
She was the mentor that made Soledad O’Brien’s nine months easier.
Back when Soledad O’Brien was anchoring NBC’s “Weekend Today” and pregnant, her then-colleague and future California First Lady Maria Shriver gave her helpful advice on surviving bouts of morning sickness. “She’d tell me how to puke when you have to go on television later,” the 51-year-old tells Moneyish. “She’d say ‘I did it and got through it. You will too.’” (Shriver’s tips on not having your makeup run include committing to throwing up as well as keeping your eyes open when vomiting, so the mascara is less likely to smudge. “Kind of genius,” O’Brien adds.)
Now the chief executive of production company Starfish Media and a mother of four, O’Brien is trying to pay it forward. She works with younger people via PowHerFul, her non-profit that supports women through college. She also counseled mid-career media professionals when many of them were recently laid off by ESPN. And this Saturday, the anchor of political talk show “Matter of Fact” will co-host the sixth edition of “American Graduate Day,” a program that explores how mentorship can change the lives of high schoolers.
Soledad O’Brien tells Moneyish how Maria Shriver mentored her through a pregnancy https://t.co/dG8ccdJ6F6
— Moneyish (@Moneyish) October 12, 2017
“Mentorship in middle and high schools is as essential as for employees growing in their careers,” she says. “But it’s more challenging. The rules aren’t completely clear for young people.”
That’s why O’Brien thinks it’s important that mentors and mentees set out ground rules if they’re intent on creating a working relationship. Perhaps most crucial is for both parties to value each other’s time. “Oftentimes, mentees don’t necessarily get the rules. When someone says something starts at 9 a.m., they don’t realize that it means 8:30 and that coming in at 9:05 a.m. really makes them 35 minutes late,” she says.
Indeed, she attributes her success partly to being a good disciple to the likes of Shriver, Bob Bazell, NBC’s former chief science correspondent, and ex-Time Warner chief exec Dick Parsons, who was her boss at CNN. O’Brien credits Bazell in particular for teaching her to scratch beyond the surface of a story to find the “35,000 foot view. What you need to be thinking about but aren’t.”
“I always took their time seriously,” she says. “If I agreed with their advice, I worked hard at it. If I didn’t, I told them that and walked back through the logic with them.”
How did O’Brien, whose family didn’t have any connections to her chosen industry, manage to get some of the biggest names in late 20th century media to look out for her? Largely by showing up early and staying late. “Some relationships are arranged but I’ve found that the most successful ones aren’t,” she says, “You volunteer, help out, say ‘I have a quick question’ and then suddenly, you have an emotional connection and a mentor. Mentorship happens when you meet someone and like how they think and work.”
Corporate America is increasingly cognizant that such relationships are key to workplace diversity, especially since women and underrepresented minorities often don’t have access to the social circles that ease career advancement. A recent study of 222 companies by Lean In and McKinsey found that about half of them offer mentoring initiatives for such groups.
But this push also comes at a time when powerful men are wary about getting too close to female subordinates for fear of inadvertently coming across as inappropriate. Bars and golf courses—long the setting of close male confidences—aren’t necessarily HR-friendly. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg recalled in “Lean In” her fear of whispers if someone saw her leaving the hotel room of her mentor, former Treasury chief Larry Summers, after a late-night work meeting.
I'd add: do not masturbate into a potted plant. See–easy, clear rules. https://t.co/G8wNk9p5yP
— Soledad O'Brien (@soledadobrien) October 11, 2017
For her part, O’Brien is a staunch supporter of women looking after women. “They’ve been through a lot and can give you great insight into what’s coming up the pike,” she says. Yet, she also thinks that males shouldn’t be scared off. “Everything is overcome-able,” she says. “If you’re a man with a young female mentee, then going to the bar for a drink is not a good idea. Coming to the company cafeteria is. This is really basic.”
She’s also an advocate of group mentoring, where a dozen people sit in for a session and then follow-up via email. “Mentoring is not just in the moment, it’s a relationship.” she says. “You give them advice, maybe they send you a note later letting you know they got a job. You say fantastic. Now I’m invested in them and they’re invested in me. But it’s a skill that has to be taught.”
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