The futility of Meghan's mentoring scheme

6 August 2021

8:00 AM

6 August 2021

8:00 AM

What, do you reckon you’d get from Princess Eugenie in 40 minutes, always supposing you were a woman trying to return to work, after furlough, or a baby or something? What insight would this amiable royal have to offer the rest of us? Sheryl Sandberg might conceivably have more to say but probably nothing you wouldn’t get from that fascinating book, Lean In, which I haven’t read but have read all about. Or Hilary Clinton? One would welcome her advice on marriage, obviously. Or how about Amanda Gorman, the attractive young woman whose very bad poem was the highlight of the Biden inauguration. Whatever, it wouldn’t be to do with mugging up on the basics, like grammar, before embarking on poetry.

They are, of course, among Meghan’s ‘mentors’ and she’s called in this special favour from her besties as a very special birthday treat. The 40:40, as she’s calling the project, is 40 celebs promising to give 40 minutes of their time to 40 women returning to the workplace. Can you believe it! What’s more, they get their very own T-shirts; can’t wait to see what Edward Enninful makes of his.

Mentoring is very much of the moment. Lots of universities, colleges and schools call on their old members to give a helping hand to aspirants in their field. Most usefully, it offers the young person a leg-up in the way of contacts and work experience. But alas, that kind of favour is a bit frowned upon nowadays, because it usually entails a benefit for the already privileged and becomes a way of reinforcing social hierarchy.

The only kind of mentoring that actually works is the kind that never had a label; it just involved working around someone with experience who’s good at the job you are trying to do. So, a senior lawyer might get his sidekick to get the coffee, but he’d also pass on an example of good working practice and advice on what would be useful in what context. When you work with someone who’s better and more experienced than you, you do your best to follow, like a duckling; it’s a rewarding relationship for both parties.

The former editor of the Evening Standard, the kindly Stewart Stephen, was very good about advising younger colleagues. And I don’t mean that as innuendo; among other things, he advised one young woman destined for greatness always to choose smoked salmon as a starter when she went out to lunch. That way, she’d put on less weight. That was actually useful.

The old formal kind of mentoring was altogether more serious; it was an apprenticeship and you paid for it and you worked for it and it lasted seven years. It most definitely wasn’t a 40 minute affair. It was the approved way of passing on skills down the generations, but that was for proper trades, not general aspirational stuff. And it was not designed to make the mentor — or in this case, her lovely friends — look good, but to transmit methods of working.

A pity that Meghan isn’t one of the mentors herself, really. She could so easily pass on the secret of her success, which can be summed up in a nutshell: marry well. That would have been intelligible to Jane Austen, but it’s probably not what a hapless woman returning to the workplace would get from the Duchess of Sussex. Probably it would be to do with always being authentic, and staying hydrated.

I am perfectly keen — possibly too keen — to foist my opinions on my colleagues, but I can’t honestly think what I’d have to say in 40 minutes of mentoring. It’d be more along the lines of avoiding my example in all things except one: to save your last question in an interview for the subject that’s going to get you thrown out. And to make sure before you send an email that you’re actually sending it to the person you intended.

This being Meghan, the exercise is fabulously self congratulatory. It draws our attention to her circle of famous friends and it is an interesting take on philanthropy in that other people do the actual work, such as it is, rather than the birthday girl herself. It is, like so much virtue signalling, entirely cost free. Still, anything that keeps her away from children’s literature has to be a good thing. Do you suppose a self-help book is on the cards?

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