Laura Mather is one of those people you can interview for hours without running out of questions. Her experiences in cybersecurity at the NSA, Ebay, Encyclopedia Britannica — not mention her own security firm, Silver Tail which sold to RSA in 2012 — are fascinating on their own. Then there’s her newest venture, Unitive, which is fighting bias in the workplace with innovative software solutions that work in tandem with hiring managers and recruiters. Last week, we brought you the first half of Mather’s interview, where we discussed how bias disrupts great work by encouraging homogenous teams, and what Unitive is doing to correct that.
This week, we’re getting a bit more personal. Given that Mather is a champion for mentorship, we asked her about her own experiences with mentors earlier in her career, what she gets out of being a mentor herself these days, and why structure is important in building a great experience for both parties in a mentorship. Oh, and we had to ask about working at the NSA. Obviously.
What was it like to work at the NSA?
It’s very interesting, it’s very academic, which I found exhausting. You were always feeling like you had to prove your worth being there. At the same time it was really rewarding. I look at what the NSA does, even in the post-Snowden era — as you know, our country is a place where we all have the opportunity to participate in electing our leaders and then those leaders have to make hard decisions every day. As an employee of the NSA, I was giving leaders as much information as I could to help them make the decisions, and to me that was enabling the entire population of the country to have the most effective leaders possible.
Turning to mentorship, have you ever you been mentored, yourself?
I have, yes. I’ve had different mentors for different needs in my career. One example, when I was at the NSA, I was trying to get promoted to senior director. And I was told that in order to get that promotion I needed to improve my executive presence. I went out and I got a mentor, and I worked on the executive presence thing. Looking back on that, I realized I had a colleague that was the same level and he was a train wreck, but he wasn’t told that.
And there’s my old boss from college when I worked at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, who was instrumental in helping me make career decisions when I had multiple job opportunities. He was also fantastic in raising venture capital. I’ve got a couple of people who were really awesome at helping me be a first-time founder. There was one particular woman who helped me see how to message things differently to employees, versus customers, versus board. So I have always always had people to rely on through different phases of my career.
And have you had any experiences as a mentor before Everwise?
Definitely some informal experiences. I really care about people, and I think that becomes obvious and makes people reach out to me to ask for help. There were two years between selling Silver Tail and getting Unitive going, and in that time I actually worked with a lot of entrepreneurs to help them figure out how to navigate the whole startup ecosystem — mostly women, but some men too. So I’ve done quite a bit of that. And I really enjoy it. To be honest my biggest frustration with mentoring is that it’s not very scalable, and it’s not very structured, and that’s why I was so excited when I came across Everwise. Somebody’s finally solving this problem that’s needed to be solved for a long time.
And when you state that mentorship isn’t scalable or structured, what you mean by that?
I mean it in two ways. The first is, by not setting specific goals it can feel less satisfying, especially for the mentor, because it just ends up being like a therapy session each time. And there’s nothing wrong with that type of progress, but being able to see someone move forward in a very specific goal is extremely rewarding.
The other part of the structure is that it’s always hard in a mentor-protégé relationship to figure out how often you should talk. Protégés often feel guilty for reaching out to mentors, but Everwise creates structure around the schedule and what’s recommended. The protégé knows that this is something the mentor has signed up for, that the mentor knew what what the structure was going to be when they signed up. The protégé doesn’t have to feel guilty about it. At the same time, on the mentor’s side, if the protégé starts to email them eleven times a day, they can say, “Here’s what we agreed to from the beginning, we need to take a step back and talk about what this relationship is.” And it just makes it much more appealing for a mentor, because you know what you’re getting into. I was often worried that someone would suddenly need me 24/7 but when I was on the Everwise platform, I knew that if that happened it was easy to have a conversation about it.
Has mentoring improved your professional or personal life in any way?
Absolutely. You get to hear about other people’s situations. I’ve had the opportunity to think about situations that I haven’t had to address yet, but I knew I’d probably need to address in the future. It’s so much easier to think of a solution when you’re not in the midst of it. When it comes up later, you think: When I wasn’t facing this myself I thought it would be great to have this kind of conversation, so maybe I should go to that. It gave me a really great perspective on how to take a step back and not be so emotionally engaged, to see more clearly.
Do you find mentoring is better if you have a lot in common or if there’s more of a difference in experience and perspective?
Everwise was very worried about that when they made the match because my protégé was in nonprofit, and they didn’t know if it was going to be relevant for me. But I think, for me, it was more interesting to have somebody in an area that I’m not totally familiar with because I really love finding solutions to problems that are analogous. It stretched my brain.
In a lot of ways, it’s easier to talk to your protégé about something when you can make it less personal. Like, “Okay, you’re in this situation where you’re trying to deal with your donor for your nonprofit and it’s really frustrating. I have not done that before, but I had a case where I had to go ask for a raise and I got turned down and it was really frustrating maybe it’s kind of similar.” Again it helps the protégé to take a step back and look at it from a much more objective point of view. To see that this is a common problem it’s not just them, in this moment — that it actually goes across disciplines, across for-profit and nonprofit. I think that can have a huge impact on how valuable the relationship is.
What surprised you most about this mentorship experience?
I really liked the goal setting part of it. That doesn’t mean that I would 100% stick to that and that’s all we talked about, but I was pleased with how it changed the relationship, because again, I’ve had many of these informal type of mentoring relationships that can sometimes end up feeling like therapy session. But structure around goal setting made for a measurable impact that was critical, and for me it elevated the satisfaction level by an exponential amount. I wasn’t expecting that big of a change.