Advice

How to Find and Keep Mentors, According to Philly Business Leaders

The benefits of cultivating a relationship with the right mentor cannot be overstated. These local powerhouses tell all about the people who have enriched their lives behind the scenes.


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At different points in your career, the right mentor can help you make big, life-altering decisions. Yet, the process of finding and keeping mentors is anything but direct. Should you reach out to someone and be clear that you’re looking for a mentor? Or should things happen more organically? And should your mentors always be older than you? We asked Philly business leaders to give us their best tips on how to discover and navigate these crucial relationships. They also tell all about the pivotal moments when a mentor’s guidance basically saved them. One business leader, however, explains what to do when mentor relationship just isn’t right.

Know What You Want and Be Curious

I’ve always rejected the conventional idea that a mentor has to be some wizened old-timer. My definition of a mentor is anyone –young, old, superior, subordinate— who can offer you access to their talent. If I have one skill that has served me well over the years, it’s a knack for putting myself in the presence of talent. If you develop that ability, and combine it with a humble willingness to learn, you can find and benefit from mentors anywhere. – Ajay Raju, chairman & CEO, Dilworth Paxson LLP

First, you need to take inventory of who you are and what you would like to become. Identify your driving purpose or mission when seeking someone out to be a mentor. I believe there is a difference between mentors and role models: mentors should be identified from people who you feel comfortable interacting with. I urge you to seek out mentors but also to pay it back – be a mentor for others. As you are looking for an effective mentor, clarify your goals in connection with the relationship, but be willing to bend. I think that you can use social and professional alliances for support and counsel as well, and a mentoring relationship can emerge. Finally, believe in yourself and understand that when these kinds of relationships work, it is the result of strategy not (merely) serendipity. – Phoebe A. Haddon, chancellor, Rutgers University-Camden

The larger your network, the more opportunity you will have to find the right mentor, or at least the right person to help you get connected to the right mentor. Finding the right mentor goes beyond industry alignment (with your own) or title-chasing. You should feel inspired and curious by how this person is branded, how they communicate and how they present themselves to the world, no matter where they are in their career.  Tiffany Tavarez, vice president of Community Relations, Wells Fargo

Imagine your network as a bullseye with three circles: close contacts you speak to regularly or your “circle of trust,” a second circle of people you speak to somewhat regularly and the third as people you will lean on for certain types of support. After you’ve done this exercise, it’s easier to identify what types of people you need to work on building relationships with. When it comes to a mentor, choose people at each level, especially the ones who satisfy certain areas of your life that you need to work on. -Antoinette Marie Johnson, founder & CEO, Cohere

Complex decision making in business, particularly when it’s clouded or complicated by emotion, is very difficult. Even to this day, I find it valuable to lean on both mentors and contemporaries to help me remove emotion and bias from a situation and help me arrive at the best decision for me and my company. – Douglas J. Green, managing principal, MSC Retail

Recognize That There Are Different Kinds of Mentors

Generally, I identify three broad categories of mentors in my own life: next gen mentors –those who are younger than I am, but have a keener grasp of the phenomena that are shaping our future; peer mentors –those who have traveled roads similar to mine, but who can serve as sounding boards and offer reality checks; and finally, senior mentors – those who have gained the benefit of hindsight and have earned the wisdom born of experience.

And I see no reason to impose an arbitrary maximum on the number of mentors in your life. When nearly everyone you encounter has the potential to become a mentor, why limit yourself. The only abiding question to ask yourself is whether you’re learning something of value, however you define it. – Ajay Raju

Relationships are infrequently balanced, often a relationship is more valued by one party, and what one receives from each relationship is always different. A variety of mentorship relationships, like friendships, is healthier. – Erica Windisch, founder & CTO, IOpipe

Having a diverse mix of mentors is incredibly important. Building a business, whether it’s your own personal book or actually your own company, can really benefit from having guidance outside of your network. Hearing the perspective of someone who is not inside your world can help add ideas and suggestions that aren’t colored by industry status quos. – Douglas J. Green

Having mentors in and outside of my field was imperative to gaining insight into how I was perceived, by myself and others. Additionally, make efforts to secure mentors who are different from you – in race, age, ethnicity, etc. The variety of your personal relationships and how you manage them is directly correlated to how well you can manage and be open to professional ones. It is more than ok to be intentional in curating the relationships you want in your life because you currently don’t have them. – Tiffany Tavarez

Seek Mentors But Don’t Be Desperate

I never went looking, I was involved in charity events and some awards, those two things resulted in me meeting some seriously awesome mentors that I still have today. Put yourself in the circles where you are meeting people who might be able to mentor you, but don’t go around looking for mentors. To me, when I hear that, it sounds desperate. – Wil Reynolds, founder & director of Strategy, SEER Interactive

Aside from being vocal about who you are – which requires confidence – civic engagement has been one of the most successful ways I have found my mentors. A number of companies, like Wells Fargo, have employee resource groups that allow you to build connections and take on volunteer leadership roles internally. The Philadelphia region has one of the richest nonprofit landscapes for civic opportunity – they are all seeking individuals to take on leadership roles to support their mission and make impact. Nonprofit executive teams, board of directors, fellow volunteers, staff and their constituencies are all accessible to you – you just need to find the right fit. – Tiffany Tavarez

If you’re looking for a mentor in a specific field, say unicycling, then it makes perfect sense to seek out a preeminent unicyclist and simply approach him or her with humility, honesty and an openness to receiving whatever insights you can. – Ajay Raju

Play It Cool

Once the relationship begins it should expand organically. Forcing yourself or your agenda on a mentor can be the easiest way to reduce the benefit of the relationship. Understand that one of the reasons you have found this individual is their expertise and experience, and unfortunately sometimes that will mean that they are unavailable to respond as quickly as you may need. – James Burnett, executive director, West Philadelphia Financial Services Institution

Ask for advice. People like to feel valued and like their opinion can be helpful. Advice on how to handle a work negotiation, a challenging professional relationship, the best time for a job change. Share information. If you know, hear or read something that aligns with what your mentor is interested in personally or professionally, share it. There’s so much information out there and it’s helpful if people share what they come across because you can’t keep track of it all. Know your mentor’s obligations and commitments outside work before you try to make an appointment. Do they have small kids and have to get home right after work? Then don’t suggest an after-work drink as a meet up time. Are you both going to a work-related event? See if you can meet up before or after that. – Deborah Diamond, president, Campus Philly

Never tell a mentor they’re your mentor, especially in the beginning. It suddenly builds pressure to formalize it and both the mentee and mentor overthink things and the likelihood of success significantly decreases. Treat it like a great person to lean on when you have a few points of discussion that are relevant to their experiences, gather your thoughts and then ask them to coffee. Be respectful of their time and most importantly, focus on questions, not talking all about yourself. – Antoinette Marie Johnson


That Time My Mentor Was Most Impactful

One of the most important moments in my company’s history was a time when I had to structure a buyout from my former business partner. The process was emotionally draining and there were parts where I felt disconnected from my value system and what I would normally do in these scenarios. So leaning on mentors was super important to getting back to the goals and leaning on their abilities to make rational decisions during a time when I was not my best self. One mentor whom I credit a huge majority of my success to, was helpful in coming up with a long-term plan that was the main reason for success in the process. There was a moment when he slammed his fist on the table to get my attention to finally listen to him without the usual “but, but…you don’t understand” responses. That moment stands out as one of the single times in my life where I was taught how to separate my feelings from the reality of the situation and grow up to make the hard choices once and for all. That’s the thing about mentorship: you need to listen to make it the most productive use of everyone’s time. – Antoinette Marie Johnson

One of the most valuable things a mentor has ever done for me is promise they would be willing to let me learn by asking them any question – professional or otherwise. It was remarkable. I learn through context which means I had to get comfortable asking why. This mentor always answered my why; many people aren’t comfortable asking why because it directly admits you “have no idea.” Your mentor should make you feel comfortable about not always having an answer and even more comfortable with your efforts to fix that. – Tiffany Tavarez

I had a challenging work situation that I thought I could muddle my way through and I shared it with a mentor. His feedback and reaction was that the situation I was dealing with was truly untenable and that really got me to see that I couldn’t be passive about the situation, but had to deal with it head on. I did. It was difficult, but the situation improved tremendously and I was able to move on to bigger and better challenges. The reality check he provided was invaluable. – Deborah Diamond

During her lifetime, my mother’s sister, Rachel Bassette Noel, was both a role model and mentor. In the city of Denver she became active in parent-teacher associations and through that work became deeply committed to uncovering the inequality of education in Denver. She ran for and won a position on the Denver school board and became chair of that board, challenging the school board’s intentional school district line-drawing to keep Chicanos and Blacks from quality schools that were available to whites of the city. In her capacity as a school board leader, she was able to create the record that formed the basis for equal protection judicial challenges to racialized districting in Denver.

She later headed the University of Colorado Regents, served on the national Girl Scouts board, and spent a lifetime working for equality in higher education. Although she was not a lawyer, she was a respected educator and used the law effectively for change. I have used her work and inspiration for a lot of the scholarly and more civic activity with which I have been involved. In this work, I have identified good public education as potentially transformative, and an important tool for addressing inequality. And from my interaction over 30 years with law schools I also view the law as a public calling and one that can promote change. – Phoebe A. Haddon

My most impactful mentor was a journalist that had a really great understanding of people. I was just beginning an executive position and was very unsure about not being able to get everyone to buy into my vision for the organization. He was able to reassure me that it was not important to have everyone onboard initially but if I was authentic, focused on the best interests of the organization and worked the plan, eventually as I had consistent success, they would buy in. This thinking got me through many challenges with individuals within the company and our exterior stakeholders. – James Burnett

I’ve had the good fortune to develop a strong friendship, a mutual mentorship you might call it, with Jitish Kallat, the renowned contemporary artist. Jitish lives in Mumbai, but we make it a point to talk on a regular basis on a range of topics from physics to astronomy to art to politics and social issues. He never ceases to offer me a new, nuanced way to look at the things I’ve always taken for granted. Not long ago, Jitish was diagnosed with a severe thyroid disorder. His doctors urged him immediately to begin an intensive drug regimen, but he refused and instead committed himself to ayurvedic and stress reduction therapies. Within months, doctors were astounded to discover he was entirely healed. As much as I would love to learn and absorb Jitish’s skill for self-awareness and discipline, I was even more fascinated by the way he had found a path to healing that eschewed conventional medical intervention. Exploring these cross-connections and balances between western and eastern medicine, and the way those connections are manifesting in our own health care sector, has become a passion of mine. And it’s a passion I wouldn’t have discovered without the trust, intimacy and honesty of the mentoring relationship that Jitish and I have cultivated. – Ajay Raju

That Time I Had to Walk Away

I’d rather talk about a time when a mentor wasn’t. I had a mentor who one day told me about “plop factor.” In other words, creating reports with lots of pages in them to show the client “how much work you did.” Today, yeah that sounds stupid, but at the time I was small. I knew nothing and this guy had build (what seemed) like a successful business. After sleeping on it, I decided that he wasn’t the right mentor for me. So the lesson there is listen to your gut and stay true to your values. Mentors sometimes give bad advice or advice that worked for them in their business but might not work for yours. Don’t blindly follow their advice because you somehow think they are smarter than you. – Wil Reynolds