Women Mentoring Men: Rob and Michelle’s Story of Challenging Norms, Breaking Down Barriers, and Affecting True Change
“I remember walking into the room and hearing someone say, ‘Wait, he’s not the mentor?’”
In Spring of 2020, Menttium launched a ground-breaking pilot program, Women Mentoring Men: Standing Together for Change. This program was designed and developed to help engage men as allies and advocates for gender parity, and to facilitate courageous conversations about equity in the workplace. After overwhelmingly positive feedback from pilot program participants, we wanted to bring you Rob and Michelle’s story. Rob Grubka is President of Employee Benefits at Voya Financial, Inc. Michelle Wieser is Dean of the School of Business and Technology at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota.
This Q&A-style blog will share a glimpse of their journey and the impact of this unique mentoring partnership experience.
Question 1: What motivated you to participate in the Women Mentoring Men Program?
Rob: Within the business that I run, we had a very tilted mix of sales distribution people. That’s a common thing in our industry, unfortunately—it’s not unusual that sales teams are male dominated. So I started to ask myself, “How do we start changing this?” Through those questions and conversations with other leaders in HR, I heard about this opportunity with Menttium, and I knew it would be such a great experience for me. It was a real-life opportunity to make a move and take action toward diversity and inclusion. I wanted to put myself in a better position to be a leader in this area for my team, and identify what we should be doing differently as an organization.
Michelle: It’s been a lifelong passion of mine to encourage and support gender equity in the workplace. It’s what I did my dissertation on, and it’s just really at the core of what I’m passionate about. I had previously been a mentor in a Menttium program and I absolutely loved it. I loved the Women Mentoring Men program concept, I loved the approach, and I loved that we felt like we were shaking things up and making a real impact. It was an incredible experience. What was most exciting to me about this program was that it disrupted the typical model of mentoring, and it brought a group of us together who had a lot of life and work experience, and a lot of passion around this topic, and who were really looking for more ways to make diversity and inclusion more actionable.
Question 2: What were some of the key takeaways or lessons learned through participation?
Rob: First and foremost, I think this program was both a learning, and a relearning. We are all individuals with our own paths and experiences; we all have our own journeys. I’d been through a few mentoring experiences with people similar to me and similar to my background. One of the coolest things that stuck with me after participating in this program, aside from getting to know Michelle and her experience, was that we brought a group of people together that were basically strangers, and yet were able to get so much out of simply listening to people’s stories and seeking to understand others. At the time, there were so many other things happening in the world and specifically transpiring in Minneapolis, that it was such a timely opportunity. Looking back at the program, what perhaps sticks out to me most is that it’s amazing how far a little humanity goes. It’s incredible the impact it can have when you come together in a space that’s about sharing experiences versus judging experiences. It was incredibly moving.
Michelle: For me, there were so many lessons learned: lessons from the one-on-one mentoring relationship with Rob, lessons from the broader group that came together, and lessons from within. I remember going back to my office after every single one of those sessions and thinking to myself that something in my life had been changed for the better. At the very least, it was an element of increased awareness. At the most, it was an entire toolkit on how to approach this subject differently. One key takeaway was that, as a woman, I must be an advocate. It’s not enough to just be an ally. I have to use my voice and actively speak up for others, to advocate for their advancement. I need to find other women with high potential and encourage them. This is exactly the same as what Rob is doing: taking an active stance toward this end goal of a more equitable world. Another key takeaway from this experience was learning that there is still a lot of work left to be done in this area, in all kinds of equity and equality and inclusion efforts across our organizations. The part that felt the most hopeful to me was that even though we were a relatively small group, we genuinely made a difference and are making a difference. There were times we would think, “There are only 10 or 12 of us in this room. Can we really affect change in a meaningful way?” And I think that answer that we confidently landed on was yes, we absolutely can.
Rob: Can I piggy-back off of one point you just made? Another thing that really stuck out, as Michelle was saying about being an advocate and support others, Michelle had told me that everything she ever got was because she went out and got it. She worked hard for it. That reminded me of the fact that people need support, and we must come around them to make space for those conversations. We need to lean into it more heavily and intentionally than we would have otherwise. Michelle has accomplished so much, and that was because she went and got it and pushed for it. You think about how many people do not feel comfortable or equipped to do that—it really does take a ton of courage. That’s why we must find ways to support and equip each other.
Question 3: Was there anything that surprised you about your experience?
Michelle: It really was just surprising, to Rob’s point, how powerful and moving it was to come together with perfect strangers and have such authentic and emotional conversations. There were tears during these sessions: tears of frustration, anger, pain, but also tears of healing and reconciliation. I don’t think any of us went into this expecting to be brought to tears through these sessions, but I think that really, truly speaks to how transformative this experience was for all of us.
Rob: Yes, I couldn’t agree more. This was obviously an experience that people needed. It wasn’t a big group, but it was about people coming together and making space to have conversations, being open and real, and being willing to share and be vulnerable.
Michelle: I think also, like any good mentor-to-mentee relationship, the mentor gets just as much out of the experience as the mentee does. That cannot necessarily be said for every mentoring program, but I really do think that speaks to Menttium as an organization. It’s because of Menttium’s work on this particular effort, and the way that their programs are structured, that you’re equipped with the tools you need to have a successful, beneficial mentoring relationship. They bring in speakers to poke and prod and bring out this emotion and these thoughts with one another. As a woman, I consider myself to be extremely pro-woman—very much oriented to helping women achieve their goals, to use their voice, to rise up—but I still realized through this process that I wasn’t doing enough. So, recently, I actually just started a new blog to help take real, practical action. It’s called Shine and Rise, and I just built it last week! I realized I talked about how pro-woman I was, but I had to ask myself if I was really being active and reaching out and making a difference. Maybe this was an outflow of this whole Women Mentoring Men pilot program experience.
Question 4: Why is it so important that men find women mentors?
Rob: I always try to push my team to broaden their experiences and to think deeply and intentionally. It’s about finding new people with different backgrounds and experiences that enables you to think differently, get out of your ruts and traditional ways of thinking, and actively seeking out different perspectives and opinions. That can happen by accident, but the chances of it actually happening are much better if you get focused on it and intentional with it. For me, it was about widening my purview and thinking broader and bigger that I might have otherwise. I don’t know anyone that can’t benefit from that.
Michelle: I think, like anything, it is an important chance to walk in someone else’s shoes. A lot of times, you’ll look at a woman who has achieved some level of success through typical measures in her career, but when you realize how she got there, you realize that she had to fight for it, built business cases for it, and clawed her way to that position. It’s exhausting sometimes. Having someone walk in those shoes of a different gender and realize what it would be like is a powerful tool in understanding and empathizing with one another.
Question 5: If any of our readers are looking for ways to spark change within their organization towards gender parity and equity, what are a few practical steps they can take? What are you doing differently as a leader to be an ally to women as a result of this program?
Michelle: I think if you don’t have a women’s organization or group you’re actively participating in, that is obvious low-hanging fruit. If you do, it’s getting an executive sponsor involved, like Rob. Get men at the table, actively involved in these conversations. Remember, it can be simple things too. Even less formalized programs and processes can move the needle in helping encourage and equip others in your organization.
Rob: I think there’s a nuanced, cultural aspect at play here—whether you’re at a small or large organization—but it’s about creating an environment in which you can go deeper. Having the opportunity and the environment to give feedback is paramount. We talk about these microaggressions like Michelle just shared, and how they manifest themselves—we’ve got to create environments where it’s safe to address conflict and to say, “Hey, that was not an appropriate thing to say.” We’ve got to have a virtuous cycle of feedback where we can get better every day—together. It’s about having courageous conversations and being able to catch each other in the moment. It’s all related to how you build trust or break trust. It’s not these momentous occasions that break trust or ruin relationships: it’s the little things that add up that can become so destructive. We need to build environments where it’s safe to have these conversations, call each other out, and learn what is appropriate and what’s not. The words you use matter! There is a time and a willingness aspect, too. You’ve got to be willing to be committed and consistent. I fear a lot of companies may be well-intentioned, but they might end up doing more damage than good if they aren’t consistent with it.
Michelle: Yes, the in-the-moment reactions and challenges are so important. It’s hard, but it’s important.
Question 6: What is one piece of advice or wisdom you would offer to future men and women participating in this program, or similar programs in their organizations?
Michelle: It’s so hard to limit it to one, so I’m going to share a few here. Open yourself to all the possibilities. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Don’t be afraid to share. Don’t be afraid of emotions coming to the surface, even if you didn’t know they were there in the first place. Value each other. Be trustworthy with each other. Support each other through the process.
Rob: The act of building people up and making these conversations okay—especially in a world where it feels like everybody wants to tear everybody down—is so important. It’s amazing just how big of a difference that can have on people and their outlook and their growth. It’s just so important.
Michelle: At the end of the day, it’s about structure and space. I mentioned earlier the importance of structure, especially the kind that Menttium puts into place in its programs. Rob mentioned the space that needs to be created. On our part as participants, what’s required of us is simply to show up. You’re not distracted. You’re not on your phone. You’re committed to it. You come. You focus. You buy into the process. You realize that you’re going to learn and change in ways that you didn’t even know you needed to change. And it’s going to be incredible.
Question 7: Some men are reticent to participate in a program like this. How do we change that? What would you say to those men?
Rob: Fear can be highly motivating, both in good and bad ways. I think some men perceive this as a scenario where they’re fearful that they’re not doing something right, and they’re afraid to be seen as though their performance is insufficient or lacking, which is absolutely not what this is about. Many men also fear that they could react poorly or say something wrong when listening to others’ stories. There are many times in life where the biggest, scariest steps are the most rewarding, so what I would tell men is this: do not be afraid to take that first step. I got so much out of this experience—probably more than I ever would have expected, and I can’t advocate for it strongly enough.
Michelle: As with anything in life, you’re not going to grow or get better unless you invest. Unless you take risks and get comfortable being uncomfortable. You have to be willing to commit, to buy in, and to open yourself to the experience and the growth opportunity.
Rob: When you think about it, men take a ton of risks in the workplace. For some reason, men are especially afraid to take this risk because they’re afraid of how they’ll be seen or judged. That’s not what this is about. I would urge men to consider that women get judged in a lot of ways that are neither fair nor helpful, so how do we get in the game and change it? We need to get off the sidelines and participate!
As we reflect on these impactful stories, we are left encouraged and inspired to continue this important work. If you’re looking for ways to get off the sidelines and into the game, we’d welcome you to learn more about mentoring opportunities with Menttium. We’ve been helping mentors and mentees alike grow in leadership, inclusion, empathy and so much more for 30 years, and we’re launching our next Women Mentoring Men Program this Fall. We’d love to have you join us. To learn more, click here.