Theresa Ito knows a thing or two about mentorship. With a career spanning 30 years in the hospitality and tourism industry, she has benefitted from the advice and guidance of leaders in her field, while paying it forward for the next generation.
Ms. Ito is founder and principal of Blue Mountain Solutions in Victoria, B.C., a company that provides training in areas such as leadership, sales and customer service. Clients range from five-star resorts in Mexico and Jamaica to boutique and luxury hotels in the U.K. and Canada.
Having learned her trade in corporate positions at major chains such as Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, Le Méridien and Sandals Resorts International, Ms. Ito says one of the secrets to her success is that she’s had mentors from day one.
During her company’s training sessions, Ms. Ito says she’s often surprised how few of the participants say they work with a mentor.
“Why wouldn’t you have a mentor?” she says. “It’s free life coaching.”
Expand your knowledge base
Born and raised in Jamaica, Ms. Ito worked in California and the U.K. before returning to her home country to take a position at Sandals Ocho Rios as the company’s first female general manager. She says her first important mentor was her father, Ronnie.
“When I returned to Jamaica in my early 20s, [my father] reminded me of my worth and potential,” she says.
Ms. Ito also had supportive female mentors in her life, including her cousin Olivia Lockwood, a professional coach, and Genevieve Dumas, her boss during her tenure at Fairmont Le Chateau Montebello. “They were both extremely successful and charismatic women and I knew I would learn a lot from them,” she says.
A mentor can help fill the gaps in your knowledge base, Ms. Ito notes.
She remembers approaching the head of finance at a former workplace in order to learn about that side of the business. Although the individual initially thought they wouldn’t need more than an afternoon to answer Ms. Ito’s questions, their once a month meetings encouraged her to ask more questions and she gained valuable insights she couldn’t have anticipated.
Ms. Ito also sees a clear distinction between leadership, which is about pushing team members or employees to excel, and mentorship, which is focused on the individual and their goals. Mentors can help with contacts and resources, as well as helping set reasonable objectives to help their mentee get to the next level.
It’s also important to remember that mentorship shouldn’t be a social pursuit, Ms. Ito adds.
“This isn’t about creating friendship, although one could result. Being a mentor is a business relationship.”
“When I’m asked to be a mentor, my first question is: why?” Ms. Ito says. “What are they hoping to gain? Are they ready to do the work?”
She advises newbies seeking a mentor to consider looking within their circle – perhaps someone in their industry they may already know. “It should be someone that possesses attributes you aspire to have.”
Ms. Ito currently has three mentors, two of which she chose at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. She was transitioning her business to an online model and wanted advice on how to use technology to her best advantage. She meets with each of these mentors weekly and still relies on their guidance, she says.
Her third mentor was chosen in order to challenge her unconscious bias.
“I’m surrounded by strong women and I wanted to address my blind spots, so I chose a male mentor, someone who is not in the same industry and not the same generation,” she says.
His perspectives have been invaluable, explains Ms. Ito, as he’s there to support her successes and question her choices.
“I went outside my comfort zone, but the reward has been a much richer relationship.”
Set the ground rules
For a mentorship to flourish, it’s best to start with clear rules, Ms. Ito says. Establish a goal and the time commitment to achieve that goal.
As an instructor at Royal Roads University in Victoria, Ms. Ito was inundated with requests to be a mentor. To accommodate more students, she created a group meeting – a mentor breakout session – which met regularly.
During the pandemic, she offered free professional development sessions for clients and colleagues in the hard-hit hospitality industry, in order to help them make connections.
“I had never hosted a Zoom session, but I did it,” she says. “Our sessions were always inclusive, everyone on camera and unmuted. I wanted everyone to contribute and learn from one another.”
As someone who’s been on both sides of the relationship, Ms. Ito says there’s one last key to a successful mentorship.
“Ask for their honesty. A mentor isn’t just there to listen,” she says. “If I wanted a cheerleader, I’d call my Mum.”
Interested in more perspectives about women in the workplace? Find all stories on the hub here, and subscribe to the new Women and Work newsletter here. Have feedback on the series? E-mail us at GWC@globeandmail.com.