Lessons Learned

Here's why you should make sure your company has a great mentoring program

April 07, 2015

It was my first journalism job and the publisher, an old, gruff, and very intimidating man, half yelled, “Write me a column about backyard trends!”

This was pre-Internet, so I went to the library, read up on the topic, and put together what I thought was a pretty good piece.

I was wrong.

“You know what this is?” the publisher asked, poking a finger at my column, now covered with his scrawled notes.

“Well … I don’t—”

“It’s gibberish!” He picked up the page and shook it vigorously, as if trying to make the gibberish fly off onto the floor.

“Tell me the lead in your own words.” The publisher looked at me intently. He had light gray eyes like unprocessed metal, straight from the mine.

“Umm ...” Half-panicked now, I glanced around the room. “Recent statistics show that backyards are—”

“Give me a lead, not a government report.”

“Oh. Yeah … uh … Today’s homeowners are thinking about their backyards—”

“Stop. What are you saying?” He leaned forward excitedly. “Be clear.” His voice was gentler now. “Be simple. Grab me.”

At that moment, I had an almost physical sensation of something passing between us. It was knowledge moving from him to me, a live presence, humming with electrical energy. “The American backyard is changing,” I said.

 “Yes!” His smile was proud. “That’s a good lead.”

I worked for that man for less than a year before he sold the magazine, but those months were some of the most valuable of my professional life. No one would ever describe him as patient, but he knew his stuff and he mentored me with unfailing generosity and commitment. Under his guidance, I became a better writer and also learned what an honor it is when someone values you enough to pass on their expertise.

In the years since, I’ve tried to return the favor, and acting as a mentor for others has brought me profound pleasure. It has also provided real benefit, and more than one journalism award, to a variety of companies.

Yet today, mentorship has often become a challenge. It seems like we’re always either too busy, stressed, or distracted to create a culture of mentorship in our workplaces. That’s a problem. Not only does it take an incredibly rich experience off the table, but mentorships also can provide a reason for a younger person to stay with a company—no small thing in a field like remodeling, which suffers from a shortage of Millennials entering the industry.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but we’re taking a real step toward discussing the questions. “Creating a Culture of Mentorship” will be a big topic at the Women in Residential Construction conference slated for this fall in Phoenix. The event is sponsored by Professional Remodeler and Professional Builder magazines. We will also publish accompanying features on the subject in print and online. Click here to find out more.

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