Thursday, January 22, 2009

My first mentor

One of the things I've struggled with is how to generate a lot of content in a single month. We have a Fast Company Blog that needs to be fed weekly, an ABI Blog that should be fed weekly, a newsletter with 10 articles monthly, plus articles for columns in a variety of publications. So right now I'm implementing themes and this month's theme is Mentoring. Mentors are people who provide you feedback and guidance as you move through your career. Mentors can be long and short term, inside your company and outside, high level or peers. So I've been reflecting on who my mentors have been throughout my career in Marketing and my fondest memory is of my first real mentor.

Her name was Mary Randall. Mary was on vacation when I took my first job out of grad school with the telephone company. She was gone for a whole month which was unheard of to me - but as a 20+ year employee she had the vacation time to do it. When she came back she found me ensconced at her desk since my predecessor steadfastly refused to give up the cube I was supposed to sit in. And while my first boss was a woman known for her yelling and cutting remarks (at least amongst the people unfortunate enough to sit anywhere near her office) Mary was a bastion of calm competence and got me a cube.

So what did Mary, who's job was to manage the white pages and yellow page listings in the phone book teach me about Marketing?

1. To be responsible and make sure the job gets done correctly. Never assume anyone else is going to double and triple check - because often they don't - so it is up to me to make sure that item a and item b are where they are supposed to be. And that is doubly true of vendors - never assume they know what's going on. This is a lesson I'm reminded of whenever I ship something - it is amazing how off track shipments can go.

2. To treat everyone as an equal. I watched a relatively new MBA in marketing talk down to Mary in a meeting one day- and did he ever find out that it was a mistake. She was universally liked and respected and he needed her to get his job done - and since she didn't report to him she made things very difficult simply by being unavailable for his meetings. I finally told him he needed her on his side - in fact you need everyone you can get on your side to make marketing happen. It took a lot of work for him to rebuild that relationship.

3. Work/Life Balance. Mary was the queen of work/life balance. She left each day at 5 p.m. and took a bus home. In the summers she'd drive to Canandaigua Lake, one of the Finger Lakes in Upstate New York, to the campsite where she and her husband parked their RV and kept their boat. Several times I was lucky enough to go along for an evening of cruising the lake in the boat and having a cookout over an open fire. It seemed surreal that she literally got to go on vacation every night. Mary taught me that you need to have that work/life balance so to this day I try to make time for my life no matter how busy I get - even if it's just reading a novel over breakfast or knitting for half an hour before bed.

4. Always do the math. When it came time for Mary to consider retirement she walked me through how she did the math. What did coming to work cost her every day? Once she added up gas, bus fare, work clothes, lunches, coffees, etc she and her husband came to the conclusion that retirement was actually more profitable than working. Years before we'd done a massive financial analysis together and she taught me how to look at the numbers many different ways and with a cynical eye. To this day I look at forecasting differently thanks to Mary.

5. Look for the hidden agenda. It that same financial analysis Mary and I rapidly came to the conclusion that changing yellow page companies would be more costly to our firm than any "new profits" other companies talked to us about could bring. We'd lose money no matter what. We went into the first meeting with our VP loaded with data to explain this. And at the end of our very very thorough presentation he looked us right in the eye and said "wrong answer". And off we skulked. So we started doing some asking around and found out that there were things our CEO wanted that our current company just couldn't do. And even if it cost the company a couple of million we were going to change. And change we did. It was heartwrenching for us and it cost dozens of people their jobs but from that we learned to always try and find a hidden agenda in any executive level project. And to make it happen.

So Mary was my first Mentor and a great one.

No comments: