Both Sides Now… a Life of Mentoring and Being Mentored
October 10th, 2012
Last week, while making the drive from my New York office up to my Vermont office, coming up Route 22A where it enters VT, I was suddenly and vividly reminded of why I chose VT as my escape route out of the metropolitan suburbs of the 60’s. Three things struck me: 1) the vast open sky that seems to stretch out forever, though it’s nicely framed by the Adirondacks on one side and the Green mountains on the other; 2) the unobstructed landscape below – gracefully assisted by the lack of billboards, thanks to the foresight of VT’s Legislature in the 60’s, and, 3) the small number of houses, and consequently a landscape that not only allowed for but actively promoted long, slow, deep breathing.
So what does any of this have to do w/ mentoring? Well, while I did have some very significant mentors growing up outside of NYC, my most memorable and meaningful mentors have mostly been here in VT. Starting with my first career as an educator, Sandra Wyner, a strikingly beautiful South African woman who studied Montessori with Maria’s son Mario, in Bergamo, Italy, the way it was meant to be taught; with the focus on the student, the teacher a mere facilitator and resource provider. Sandra and I started a modified-Montessori, parent-cooperative elementary school in 1976 that is still going strong today. She mentored me in the art of individualized education, collaborative process and transactional analysis (a system for personal growth and personal change.)
The 80’s led me out of teaching and into the realm of business, where I had the good fortune to work side-by-side with many amazingly bright and talented individuals. My most memorable mentor was a scrappy old codger named Hank Adams, who hired me to serve as General Manager at his thriving mechanical services business, and was a mentor to me in ways I’m still learning from. Although Hank had to leave high school to help his father run his business, he had the kind of business savvy that just can’t be learned pursuing an MBA. For example, when considering recruiting for key positions as we were growing the business, he would challenge my pedigreed aspirants, shiny resumes and all, with the phrase “someone we know, even if they’re only a middle-of-the-road leader, is always preferable to the unknown know-it-all.” Understanding and developing leaders takes time and commitment. Short cuts should be few and far between.
By the time the 90’s came around I realized that I needed to cultivate my leadership capabilities both inside and outside the workplace. I ran for our local school board and had the good fortune to initially serve on the board with the superintendent, Fred Tuttle. Fred was not only a kind, intelligent, humble, compassionate leader, with over forty years of experience in the field, he knew that the business of education was really the business of people. He had the ability to connect with people, all kinds of people – directly, deeply and most importantly, meaningfully. He taught me, by example, more about how great leaders can build connections, than any other leader I’ve had the good fortune to mentor under.
Around the turn of the millennium, I met, and mentored under, a colleague, Dean Lea, who is a Renaissance man extraordinaire. Although he hadn’t practiced as a pharmacologist for years, Dean understood the essence of that field, part alchemist, part researcher, facilitator, advocate, life -long learner. As an arborist, he brought some of those same skills to his apple orchards. As an organizational development consultant and executive coach, he used all of those and more. And on top of all that, he has taught me that one’s quirkiness (and Dean can be quite quirky) is to be cherished, not suppressed.
And, of course, mentoring is at its best when it goes both ways. For years now I’ve considered it an honor to provide the mitzvah of mentoring, particularly to young people between jobs and/or careers. My way of giving back, paying it forward. So what an added bonus when I had the opportunity to begin formally mentoring my daughter, Alexa, when she agreed to come to work for me earlier this year. She’s always had an affinity for coaching work, the ‘go-to girl’ not only with her friends but also folks of all ages and backgrounds. A great listener, compassionate to the core and always ready, willing and able to lend a hand to help get things done. Together, we have studied the art of effective communication, creative business problem solving and how to lead by example.
Giving and getting.
It doesn’t get much better than that.