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Mentoring: Lessons Learned

June 29, 2020
Want to take your career to a new level? These eight tips offer some new ideas on how mentoring can supercharge your career skills.

In last month’s Speaking Out, “The Power of Mentoring,” (page 32), Kathy Jo Van, KJ Company, (www.KJCompany.net) explored how sales, marketing and management professionals of all ages can work with mentors to enhance their career skills, and how electrical industry executives can help others in various stages of their careers. This article will offer additional insight into the lessons Kathy Jo and several other industry executives learned about mentoring.

#1. Mentors don’t have to just be supervisors or the “greybeards” at your company. Mentors often can be family members, college professors, co-workers and others who take an interest in your career.

Kathy Jo Van says she “lucked” into several valuable mentoring relationships early in her career because it wasn’t really part of any overall career strategy on her part. She grew up in the electrical industry. Her family owned Midwest Electric Supply Co., a distributorship based in Owensboro, KY, that eventually became part of Southland Electric Supply and Bluegrass Electric Supply, which were sold to Rexel in 1995. While working at the family business, she got an early taste of mentoring from her two brothers and father, although being family, she didn’t quite realized back then that they acting as mentors. When most people think about mentoring, they think first about the kids coming out of college. But you are never too old to need a mentor, she says.

Tammy Livers, recently promoted to senior VP of sales enablement and customer experience for Sonepar USA, says she was introduced to mentoring in college. “I had a professor who was interested in who I was as a person and what I might go out and do in the world,” she says. “I was fortunate.  A lot of people aren’t as fortunate and don’t understand what mentoring is. I think over the past few years, with people like Kathy Jo coming out with these more formalized programs, it takes the fear out of mentoring.

“Because I benefited and knew how to seek out mentors, it has been a passion of mine to make sure other people are equipped to do the same. Whether it’s an acquaintance in the office or someone that’s a part of the organization, every single person I can influence to be a mentor or get a mentor, I do it.”

#2. Look for people with passion for the electrical business or expertise in some specific business skills to be your mentors. Livers says her first mentor in the electrical wholesaling industry got her very excited about how this industry touched everyone’s lives.  While working at B-Line, Mark Reinders (now VP of channel sales for Eaton) never talked in terms of selling pieces and parts, but instead how the company was part of a solution for electrical contractors and other customers.  “It was, ‘We are part of upgrading the grid,’ or how when people came home to their neighborhoods, the streetlights were on because we had the right stuff for the right people in the right place,’” she recalls. “When I heard how he framed up his passion for the industry, I kind of took that and ran with it.

“Wherever you are in the supply chain, we touch every single life on this planet, and that is kind of cool to think about. That’s part of my message, especially for early career talent.  We touch everyone in the whole world one way or another. It’s an amazing industry, but we kind of fly under the radar.”

She says mentors can relay the passion they have for the electrical industry or their company through storytelling. “When you tell the story of how someone impacted your life, helped you through a particular situation or was a good sounding board for you, people get excited,” she says. “They either want to be a mentor themselves or want to find one to help them on their journey.”

#3. You get out of mentoring what you put into it. Eva Jelezova, director of electronic sensors, Littelfuse, says she sometimes learns as from being a mentor as when she is the mentee. “Being a mentor, there’s so many benefits,” she says. “For me it’s very fulfilling.  Also, it pushes me to learn as well.  It’s usually a two-way street. When you are a mentor, you learn from that person and get some good ideas. You end up having this collaborative relationship.

“As a mentee, sometimes people can be intimidated. I would suggest they approach it the same way as when you develop a friendship with someone. You start slower. If I am going to be a mentee, I try to make it easy for my mentor. I do all of the administrative things, getting the meeting set up, telling them what topics I want to talk about. Take all of the guesswork out of it.  Over time, you build up the relationship.”

#4. Before entering into a mentoring relationship, both the mentee and mentor should outline what they want to accomplish. Livers advises mentees to be very specific in their expectations. “Before you go out and seek a mentor, be sure you understand what you want out of the relationship,” she says. “Is it a skill? Do you want to have a mentor who is really good at finance because you want to learn how a P&L works? If that’s the case, set up the guidelines around that relationship so that once you gain that skill, you will probably move on. That’s the other thing with mentoring that some people don’t understand. You can have a one-minute mentor, or you can have a lifetime mentor.”

#5. Mentoring comes in many different flavors. Sometimes a co-worker or supervisor can end up being a mentor on an informal basis while you are working together, or even after one or both of you move on to another company. After getting her MBA at Northwestern University, Van landed a job as the marketing director for Englewood Electric Supply. She met John Burke there, a well-known industry executive who over the years has become a regular sounding board for her. Her network of mentors has grown to include Bill Marshall, recently retired from Leviton; CED’s Joe Huffman; Tammy Livers; Desiree Grace of Panduit; and Deb Huttenberg of Mersen.

#6. Mentoring is a commitment. Make sure you are willing to carve out the proper amount of time to be a mentor, cautions Livers. If you have to miss a meeting or can’t be available when your mentee needs you, be ready to ‘overcommunicate’ in those situations, she says. “People can get discouraged easily. If you are a mentor, you really have to be serious about the commitment in time. If you say you want to be a mentor and you disappoint the mentee by not showing up for meetings or not making it a priority, that person may not ever go out and try to find a mentor again.”

#7. The discipline of a formalized mentoring program can help you keep your goals in sight. While none of the industry executives EW interviewed for this article said you need a super-formal program to make mentoring work, they all saw the benefits of a customized mentoring program. Tim Speno runs the E2E Summit (www.e2esummit.biz), an executive networking program now in its seventh year. Speno used his years of experience working with power tool manufacturers like DeWalt and Milwaukee Tool and his familiarity with contractor trade groups like the National Electrical Contractor Association (NECA) to develop a program where top executives at electrical contractors, manufacturers and distributors can learn from each other.

“When top executives at top brands meet and strategize with select contractors and trade organizations, really cool things start to happen,” he says.

Kathy Jo Van developed a customized mentoring program for last year’s E2E meeting, where a select group of executives from the meeting’s 130 attendees had the opportunity to meet a mentor and start their mentoring relationship.  She is designing another mentoring program for this year’s conference. Speno says mentoring has become a lost art because people have gotten so busy and any free time is precious.  He believes the E2E meeting is a good format to bring together executives who want to launch a mentoring process.

“We matched up mentors and mentees right there and she created a short-term mentor scheduling program that lasted six meetings,” he says. “No major crazy commitment on time. There was a start date and end date, which helps. Feedback was beyond what I expected. There was very little if any drop-off on who continued with the program.

“We matched them based on their needs, and a set of attributes that we thought would be good for a mentee-mentor relationship. Sometimes, seller organizations mentored buyer organizations because they were a good fit. Other times, it was two contractors operating in different regions. Kathy Jo’s program was the secret sauce.”

#8. Consider mentoring as a way of giving back to the industry. After she retired from a 30-plus year career in the electrical market, Kathy Jo Van has found that mentoring offers a way for her to give back to the industry and to stay connected. During her years in the industry, she found that many people thought of mentoring as a “nice to have,” something they never quite made time for. Through KJ Company, she markets a simple four-step approach that includes mentoring tips, guidebooks and a two-page assessment that helps mentees look at their personal and professional goals, time management skills and industry knowledge, while helping them identify two or three areas that they want to work on.

The mentee and mentor meet in six one-hour meetings, either in-person, through videoconferences or on phone calls. “Six meetings seems to be the magic number,” she says. “It takes a little time to get to know someone to the point to confide in them. After six meetings, if it ends, that’s okay. But a lot of them go on.

“For people who want to give back or pay it forward, who can’t do six one-hour meetings? No prep work or homework is required. I teach the mentees to ask insightful questions to get the mentors to share their life experience.”

The executives interviewed for the article agreed that both parties should go into any mentorship with a simple game planned with clearly identifiable goals. So many times, companies and individuals want to do a mentorship, but they overcomplicate things, says Van. “It doesn’t have to be. You don’t need to boil the ocean.”    

The Empowering Women Mentorship Program: A New Industry Resource

With her involvement in mentoring for electrical industry executives, Kathy Jo Van has a good sense of when there’s a need for additional mentoring resources. By volunteering in NAED’s Women in Industry Forum and the Women in Industry (Wii) networking group, she knew women in the electrical industry had some specific needs in mentoring arena. To meet those needs, she and Stacey Felzer, owner of Chord Marketing Services (www.chordmarketingservices.com), recently launched the Empowering Women Mentorship Program to help women find mentors in the electrical industry.

They have a database of qualified mentors in the electrical industry and are offering companies the opportunity to sponsor candidates for the program through early July. The early response has been good, says Kathy Jo. She sent out invitations to 10 of her contacts to sponsor up-and-coming women at their businesses for the program and got four sponsorships right away. For more info on the Empowering Women Mentorship program, contact Kathy Jo at [email protected] or Stacey at [email protected].