While speaking on a panel at the Women’s Foodservice Forum a few years ago, I was asked if mentors had played a large role in my development of a leader. I struggled with the answer because, honestly, I wasn’t sure that I had been mentored. But I certainly remember wishing that I had been mentored.
First a definition: a mentor is a trusted counselor or guide, according to Merriam-Webster dictionary. I particularly like the word guide. A guide is someone who shows the way to others. There were many moments in my career I would have valued a guide to show me the way.
Perhaps it was because I started my career before there were many women in leadership roles, but whatever the reason, I didn’t have any long lasting mentor relationships that guided me through my career. Instead, I had what I would call mentor moments where I learned something invaluable from a great leader that would shape my career and my approach to leadership.
Lou Gerstner, CEO of RJR Nabisco, and then IBM, taught me that the marketplace is the driving force behind everything we do. That made sense to me and it reminded me to never lose sight of the customer. That statement is the beginning of every strategic conversation – what does the marketplace need?
Dolph Von Arx, CEO of Planters LifeSavers, taught me that innovation was essential to success. He offered me a new idea just about every week and asked me if I had a better one. Dolph also guided me in leadership by suggesting I lead with strong conviction for my ideas but with a bit less emotion. The subtle points of leadership.
Aylwin Lewis, former COO of Yum Brands and current CEO of Potbelly’s was probably the best mentor of my career. Interestingly, he didn’t ever tell me what to do, but he often asked me Is there anything I can do to help you? This led to meaningful conversations that guided my leadership growth.
As I reflect on these mentor moments, I can see a consistent thread with these three leaders. While they did not formally mentor me over a long period of time, they used every time that we met as an opportunity to guide me and develop me as a leader. Their method was not lecturing but instead they asked me the crucial questions that would guide me to the answers. They were strategic, successful leaders, but when you were with them, they were not distracted or too busy. You had their full attention. They wanted to help.
Doug Conant, former CEO of Campbell’s Soup and author of Touchpoints, reminds us that in this chaotic, high tech world we live in today, every four minutes we have an opportunity to touch people’s lives. Listen carefully to them. Help them frame up an issue. Advance their capability as a leader. Wow! That is a lot of mentoring moments.
My career experience persuaded me that developing the next generation of leaders is the most important work we do. And that has become my central purpose today. I am formally mentoring two leaders. But perhaps more importantly, I aim to make every contact with a leader a mentor moment that might help them grow in capability. This perspective has led to many opportunities for mentorship. And using the 4-minute rule, many missed opportunities as well.
Consider your role as a mentor of future leaders. Are you formally mentoring leaders? Are you finding mentor moments at every turn? Does your purpose include growing leader capability? Someone out there is hoping for you to guide them along the way. Maybe in the next four minutes? I hope you’ll be there for them.