The Magic Of Mentors

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We’re really excited to kick off a new blog category titled “The Magic of Mentors.” Mentors can make an enormous difference in workplace success. Over the course of the next few months, we’ll be sharing stories from those who have mentored, as well as those who have been mentored.

Like most people, I cite my first official mentors as my parents, Janet and Mike. In hindsight (and as a parent), one of my biggest concerns today is that parents don’t fully grasp the lasting impact they have on their children.   When I was growing up, my mom was a nurse and my dad was a New York City Firefighter. Back then, I thought it was incredibly cool to have a father who drove a big red fire truck in New York City and who let me eat Yodels and Hostess cupcakes while I visited him at work. And a mother who had the capacity to work, raise three kids, translate books into Braille and mastered the Royal Canadian Air Force exercises. The lasting lessons learned from their influence were far more profound: stay centered, as you’ll never know what each day will bring; find activities in your life that you want to do to balance what you have to do; and oftentimes your own life’s purpose is best achieved by serving others.

My second mentor emerged very early in my full-time career. A holocaust survivor, his name was Mordecai Topel and there was absolutely no reason for him to take an interest in me. He ran a printing and typography business in New York City and I was a frustrated recent college graduate who had to work in sales because the economy wasn’t great and the profession for which I’d trained in college wasn’t a viable option. As a result, I wound up taking a job with a vendor selling to the printing industry. Days were spent hearing things like “I have ink under my nails older than you, girlie.” It was disheartening to be young and optimistic, surrounded by people who obviously hated their jobs and hated their lives. Yet every time I visited with Mr. Topel, a totally different experience ensued. He was kind, he was compassionate and he was a great listener. He helped me understand that an entry level job wasn’t going to be my life’s work but that I should “own” it at that point in time. He proactively wrote me a letter of recommendation so I would have one on hand when new career opportunities arose – I still have the letter to this day.

Thanks to that great letter of recommendation, I left that job but chose to remain in a sales role. My new boss was a great mentor and role model. She was petite, blonde, adorable and as tough as nails. From her I learned how to dissect a problem and come up with solutions, build and present a business case, drive above quota results, and never be afraid to fight for what’s needed. Observing her over the course of one day was equal to a full year of MBA studies.

In the early stages of my career, my last mentor was the president of the division of Allied Signal that I worked for. After completing my stint in sales, I was promoted to manage a product line. For a 20-something marketing hot shot, there was no transition, no preparation – it was strictly sink or swim. Most days I swam but on the days that I sunk, there was no bottom to the tragedy. I was thrust into a role of giving product design work direction to engineers who delighted in torturing me, represented the U.S. company in meetings in countries where businesswomen weren’t welcome, and was called out on the carpet in front of hundreds of sales reps for whom I was their product line support when questions couldn’t be answered. It wasn’t pretty but John Peterson could always put things in perspective. When I giggled during a meeting, he bellowed, “And what are you laughing at?” When the marketing department was left unattended and I had the misfortune of being the first staffer to call the office, he commanded that I fly back from California immediately. After I delivered what I thought was an Academy Award winning presentation, he said, “Who was that? Next time, be yourself.” Now you’re probably wondering how this could be a positive mentoring experience? It was invaluable. From John, I learned to always be fully prepared by doing my research; the positive impact one can impart by being authentic; and the cadence of when to shut up and when to state my case. I also learned the value of a sincere compliment because when he gave you one, it really meant something.

The net is whether you mentor or are mentored, almost every interaction can be a teachable moment. Mentors don’t need to coddle you or even like you. They need to challenge, coach, and drive you to be the best you can be. And hopefully, if you’ve had the good fortune I’ve had, you’ll pay it forward by creating lasting impact through mentoring.

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Ten Minutes with Brian Sommer - Industry Expert