Lynn Sontag, Menttium Owner & CEO shares her perspective on a life well lived and why she has dedicated her life to developing and mentoring others. Menttium was founded in 1991 with the mission of advancing women in corporate America. Lynn has been involved in the mission for the last 25 years and has guided the organization towards broader initiatives supporting key talent, executive development, as well as diversity, equity and inclusion in the global market. Lynn talks about the rewards of taking risks; the growth opportunities of “mentoring at the difference;” the transformative power of mentoring; and the importance of gratitude during both the good times and the challenging times.
Brown: Hi everyone. Welcome to the first episode of the Menttium podcast. It is Menttium’s 30th anniversary this year, so to celebrate this momentous occasion, Menttium is producing thirty stories for 30 years. Each episode will feature one of Menttium’s outstanding mentors, sharing their stories about leadership, life, and the transformative power of mentoring. My name is Solveig Brown, and on this inaugural podcast, I am pleased to say that my guest is Menttium CEO and Owner Lynn Sontag.
Lynn is a mentoring guru. She started her career at 3M where she was responsible for developing, implementing, and facilitating internal mentoring programs and executive round tables. Lynn joined Menttium in 1996 as the vice president of consulting services and became the owner and CEO in 2002. Lynn has been a pioneer and leader in creating award-winning corporate mentoring programs that support leadership development and inclusion efforts in the global business community. To date, Menttium has over 80,000 participants in seventy countries.
Lynn is a recipient of the Business Journals Women’s Changemakers Award. She has served on the University of St. Thomas – Opus College of Business advisory board, and she is an active member of several professional organizations that support women-owned businesses and women in leadership. Lynn leads her team with humility, authenticity, and grace and feels grateful to do work that makes a difference and helps people step into their best selves. Welcome, Lynn. I am so glad to have you as a guest today.
Sontag: Thank you so much Solveig for that introduction. It’s great to be here with you today.
Brown: Congratulations on the 30th anniversary of Menttium. This podcast is such a great idea. What made you decide to do a podcast to celebrate Menttium’s 30th anniversary?
Sontag: As you may have guessed from my introduction already, pure gratitude. In 30 years, Menttium has had over 80,000 participants across the globe, and we couldn’t have done this without the generosity of our mentors. They are leaders who are committed to helping the next generation of leaders. There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t hear from a mentee or a mentor about how this mentoring experience has changed their life. I often interview mentees as well as mentors, and I can tell you that the mentees are amazing in their commitment to wanting to step into the best of themselves. That gives me hope for the future of the planet and so I thought it would be exciting to share their stories this way.
Brown: I’m looking forward to hearing the stories of all these voices of experience and these wonderful mentors. Lynn, as we’ve heard in the introduction, you have devoted your professional life to mentoring. You started out at 3M and then decided to work for Menttium 25 years ago, and in 2002 you purchased Menttium and have been leading the organization ever since. Can you tell me more about what inspired you to buy Menttium?
Sontag: It’s a great question. I would love to say that it was planned, but mostly it was being in the right place at the right time with a willingness to risk walking into the unknown. I have a vivid memory of the founder confiding in me that she was ready to retire, and I went home and talked to many people about buying the company from Gail, my husband, and colleagues. However, it wasn’t until later in the game that I thought I should call my mentor at the time. I called him, but he wasn’t around and by the time he called me back I had already bought Menttium. But before I told him that I had bought Menttium, I asked him, “Do you think I can lead Menttium?” There was this long pause and then he said, “well, there’s potential.”
That’s my story, and I’m here 19 years later. He was right, there was potential. But more than that, I have personally experienced the support of mentors and wanted to provide that opportunity to others. After all, learning through others is easier than making all the mistakes yourself.
Brown: That is such a great story of risk taking, of being there on the precipice of a scary decision and deciding to go for it. You’re a living example of jumping in and being bold and taking action, and here you are, 19 years later going strong.
Back in the nineties when most leaders were men, Menttium made the commitment to create mentoring programs that would support women in leadership. Then in 2008, Menttium launched the Momentum Mentoring program for professionals of color. Can you give me some examples of how these programs have helped drive diversity, equity, and inclusion?
Sontag: Another great question. Menttium’s mission is about helping individuals thrive and through that then their organizations become successful. The data and the business case for diversity and inclusion in the environment has been around for decades, including in my early days when I was back at 3M. But you can’t get there without equity, without equal access, without equal pay and respect for all. This has been painfully apparent this last year in ways that now demand our attention that we have to address. The Menttium programs were ahead of the curve in some of those ways in that we have successful leaders who share their wisdom and life experiences in a safe and confidential space that supports women and people of color to find their voice. And that’s the key thing to find their voice. It gives them the confidence to go into their organizations and work for change. It must be everybody working to change these cultures and to help people be successful and grow into leadership positions and address these complex issues. But even more than that, what I have found over the years is that it allows the mentors who are senior leaders in their own organizations to see the flaws in the system and then to see how they can drive change in their organizations. Again, it’s been a focus for Menttium for a long time, but it’s about helping people see things differently and having the courage to make that change.
Brown: Do you have any examples of stories of mentors and mentees in these programs that have created this moment of change and this moment of confidence and this moment of being able to empower someone’s voice?
Sontag: I have lots of stories. Those are always hard to really define. But I’ll be brave and share an early story with the Momentum program. Back in the Momentum days, we had a group component, so we had a cohort of twenty-five professionals of color and then they each had mentors as well. One month they would meet with their cohort and one month they would meet with their mentor, and we would work them through some content. We were able to build trust in the group enough to have some vulnerable and deep conversations. I’ll never forget, one of the women, and this was only in 2008, saying she was told by her manager that if she continued to keep her hair the way she had it, and she had it in cornrows, which is a common hairstyle for African American men and women, that she would not progress in the organization and that she needed to consider that this was probably not the place for her.
When you aren’t expecting that and when it’s all about how you look versus how you perform in the organization, you’re just really taken aback. Because I remember I had some of those experiences myself in my early days at 3M where I was just taken aback by someone commenting on my looks. This person was able to have a dialogue with their mentor about this comment from the manager and put an action plan together. First, determine if this is the place for her. Was that organization a place in which she could thrive? But also, what action plan did she want to put together so that she could work through this because it was certainly a complex issue at the time. Her mentor was able to walk her through and help her plan different scenarios. Ultimately, she did decide to stay at the organization, but she had to work around the manager frankly, but she was able to work through that in a way that allowed her to get into a different part of the organization where she felt respected and seen.
Brown: Just having that external mentoring support gave her the ability to talk it through with someone and make a strategy and figure that out. That is a powerful story. It goes along with one of the things I hear you say often, which is, mentoring happens at the difference. Can you explain what this means and give me an example of how this mentoring happens at the difference?
Sontag: So often people think that the best mentor for them is someone that they instantly connect with. Generally speaking, when people informally look for their own mentor, they will choose someone who already aligns with their values, their thinking, and therefore reinforces their version of and view of the world. What we have learned is that dialoguing and working with a mentor who is different from you, different life experiences, different perspectives on issues that we all grapple with, challenges you in unexpected ways that allows you to step outside of what you think you know and that’s the key for learning.
Brown: That is great. Do you have any examples where mentoring at the difference really made an impact on someone that might have wondered why did you set me up with this mentor, they’re so different from me, and then having a turnaround story?
Sontag: We get that a lot actually. We’ll get a few mentees that reach out to us after they’ve been matched and say, I can’t see why you matched us. We say meet a couple times and by the third time they’re saying, wow, this was not what I expected and is so powerful. One time we matched a chief diversity officer at a medium-sized company with someone who is retired from a very large organization. He came from operations in manufacturing in the auto industry, and she was coming out of an industry that was related to the auto industry, but not like it at all. She was again trained in human resources and all the complexities of cultures, and she was really trying to push her HR and diversity inclusion agenda hard with her senior leader. She reported directly to the CEO, and she could not for the life of us understand why we would match her with an operations leader who had no background in any of this and was direct and straightforward and by the numbers. After a couple of conversations as she was talking to him about how to position and present her business case for spending more money in the organization and around these strategies that she wanted to implement to the C-Suite, she realized that it was actually the perfect match because he was going to question everything about coming back to what do you want the outcome to be, but also what’s in it for them? Why do they want to spend this money? What’s the business case, what are the numbers that make them want to do this? She completely redid her presentation and got the budget she was looking for, but she said she would never be able to do that without being matched to this mentor.
Brown: That is a great example of coming in with a different perspective because he obviously had thought of things or was in a position where he had a different view of the situation and so she could arrange her proposal to meet that as well. Menttium’s motto is changing lives one match at a time. Can you talk more about the mentoring relationship and why it is such a powerful tool for transformation?
Sontag: We always say that matching is the most important component of a mentoring experience, and it is our secret sauce. While every mentee and mentor complete a profile, we interview every mentee and mentor. During the interview, if a mentee shares with us, they want someone with global experience, for example, we want to know why. A computer can’t do that. It’s important to understand the nuances of what somebody is looking for in a mentor. We always say, tell us more. What are you hoping to learn from this person regarding this topic? That’s important because matching is the most critical component of a transformational mentoring experience. You’re meeting with a stranger, and you are eventually going to get vulnerable. You might bare your soul. In many cases you might cry, because we do that, we’re humans.
As a mentor, you must be able to share what hasn’t worked for you. You have to be able to get off that pedestal to some degree and say, I’ve been there, and I know you can get through this kind of thing, and here’s my experience. Your experience will be different, but let’s learn together and we’ll put an action plan together. Again, it’s about that action plan. The transformation really is, it’s amazing to think that this person is here for you. They’re all volunteers and they’re committed to you without a hidden agenda. They’re there to help you find the best of yourself and to step forward, and that’s all. They’re not working for your organization in our cross-company program, so you have somebody that is just there for you. I think that’s how the transformation happens is that I can be authentic, I can be vulnerable, and I can be real with this person.
Brown: That is a great way to summarize that authentic, vulnerable, and real, and it creates that safe space. Also, it seems like the mentors have learned from their years of experience and many times have gone through similar challenges. So, I’m interested in your 25 years at Menttium, what have you learned?
Sontag: Oh, that’s a book. I need to write a book on that. It’s so thick, I don’t know if I could do it. I shared this with the Menttium team not long ago, and I think it’s appropriate here. One of the first things I would say is, you are enough. You have everything that you need to craft the life you envision. The more years that have passed in my life and I’m in decade number six, the more I understand this. A well-lived life comes from the core of who you are and how you show up in the world. It’s not the things you have or what others say about you. So, you are enough. This is what mentors do so well; they help you envision that and find that within yourself.
Second, life is about learning and it’s hard, you’ll fail often, all the steps of the way. It’s not that one and done and now I know it and I can move on. But this will bring richness to your life journey that you will only appreciate later in life. I often say to myself, why didn’t I learn this when I was in my twenties? It would be great to learn all these things about the universe when we’re young. Time and experience really help us realize the gift of being human on this incredibly beautiful planet and that’s a gift in and of itself.
The third thing that I would say is to be generous, compassionate, and assume positive intent, which is just another way to say forgive. Forgive yourself and forgive others. We are all works in progress, I’m still learning. When I think about how naive I was in my twenties, in my thirties, I failed often, and I just didn’t know it. So those are the three things that I would point to.
Brown: Those are great things, and I personally hope you write that book because as you were saying that it resonated with me. I have heard you talk a lot about gratitude. You brought it up in the introduction and I hear you speak about it often. Can you tell me what role gratitude has played in your personal life and in your leadership style?
Sontag: That’s another great, but big question about how you get there on a day-to-day basis and then over your lifetime. Leading others is a responsibility and it’s not easy because you must be strong enough to do what’s right, which isn’t always what’s popular. We’ve seen that over and over again in leaders. I could not have stepped into my authentic self and humbly led without the support of my family, my friends, my colleagues, and in a 40-year career, my many mentors. So, I am grateful every day. I am grateful when I wake up in the morning and I can take a deep breath. I know others that can’t, and over the years, I’ve just learned to be grateful for the little things as well as the big things. I’m grateful that I get to do this wonderful mission driven work and I’m so grateful that Menttium is still here 30 years later. That is how I start every day because again, life is hard and you’re going to need that gratitude to get you through some days.
Brown: Seeing the powerful impact of changing lives one match at a time and the different routes that one mentoring relationship creates with all the possibilities it opens, and I love that the foundation for you is always about gratitude and being so grateful for the big and small things.
Lynn, we have time for three final questions, and these are ones I’m going to ask everyone throughout this series. Do you have habits that you feel have contributed to your success?
Sontag: I don’t know that I have habits exactly, but what I can tell you is I’m stubborn and I don’t easily give up. That’s how others would describe me when I’m trying to handle a challenge or problem solve or even from an innovative standpoint.
Brown: You’re determined; you’re going to find a solution; you’re going to find a way. What would your advice be to up and coming leaders?
Sontag: I wish I would’ve told myself, it’s one of those things where you said, what would I tell my 20- or 30-year-old self? It’s, let go of your fear and have an attitude of abundance.
Brown: That is great advice. Wow. Then, do you have a favorite saying, quote, or motto?
Sontag: I do, I have many. One of the ones that I love from Lucille Ball is “love yourself first, and everything else falls into line”.
Brown: I love that. That is a great one to leave us with “love yourself first and everything else falls into line”. Lynn, thank you so much for being my guest today. I am truly grateful to have had this conversation with you. Your passion for mentoring is inspiring. Thank you for sharing such great stories and wisdom from the past 25 years at Menttium. Thank you all for listening to this Menttium podcast. Be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss an episode. For additional resources, you can find the show notes on the Menttium website. See you all next time.