Mentors Help Launch Executive Careers

Behind many great business executives are mentors who helped them along the way. They’re people like Ed Roberts, Rajeev Matwoni and Ben Graham, who were mentors to some of the most brilliant business minds in America. The benefits of mentoring aren’t easy to pin down, but research shows that executives who have had mentors earned more money at a younger age and are often happier in their careers.

A Helping Hand Once only for career newbies, mentors can help you — no matter your pay grade —  along the path to business success By Lilly Rockwell Ed Roberts. Rajeev Matwoni. Ben Graham.

Never heard of them? They may not be household names, but their contributions to business are extremely significant.

These men were all mentors to some of the most brilliant business minds in America.

Roberts, who created the first personal computer, allowed a 20-year-old Bill Gates to write software for that computer. That job, and Roberts’ advice, helped launch Microsoft.

Matwoni was a Stanford professor who mentored college students Sergey Brin and Larry Page on their ambitious project to catalogue web pages, which morphed into Google.

Graham hired a 24-year-old Warren Buffett to work as an analyst for his firm and taught Buffett his value investing philosophy, which investor Buffett credits for his success.

The lesson is simple. Behind many great businesses are great mentors.

But the benefits of mentorship aren’t easy to pin down, like, say, the return on investment after a shoe retailer begins offering online shopping to customers.

Gerard Roche of recruiting firm Heidrick and Struggles told Forbes magazine that executives who have had mentors earned more money at a younger age, and that his research shows people who had mentors are happier in their careers.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that supports the value of having a mentor.

“Mentoring, in my opinion, is one of the most undervalued assets that are available to entrepreneurs and business people,” said Jerry Oster­young, the director of outreach for the Jim Moran Institute for Global Entrepreneurship at Florida State University. “By undervalued, I mean in terms of cost and entrepreneurs not appreciating the value.”

A Mentor Is …

The definition of a mentor varies. For some, a mentor is simply someone to turn to for advice about their job or career, either within or outside their company.

For others, it is a more formal arrangement done within the parameters of a company-sponsored program with a prescribed number of meetings.

And for some businesses, the term mentor is used interchangeably with consultant and refers to people who are brought in to help guide the founder or CEO.

Those who have been a mentor or protégé speak enthusiastically about how it has provided tangible benefits to their career. Some credit their mentors with helping them land their first jobs, obtain raises or learn a new skill. Others say their mentors have acted like work therapists, dispensing advice and providing encouragement.

Many young professionals say it was a mentor that helped them launch their careers.

Krystin Olinski was a 23-year-old Florida State University student getting a master’s degree in integrated marketing communications who needed work experience and guidance if she had any hope of landing a full-time job in the worst economic recession in her lifetime. So she applied for, and got, an internship at Moore Consulting Group, a public relations and marketing firm in Tallahassee that has clients such as Coca-Cola Co. and the American Lung Association.

That single internship made a huge impact on her burgeoning public relations career, Olinski said, thanks to her boss and mentor, Fernando Senra.

A former high school teacher, Senra says he loves guiding young public relations professionals as they begin their careers and insists on challenging them with tough assignments. A few weeks into her job, Olinski was writing opinion editorials for Moore clients that were eventually published in major daily newspapers.

“I didn’t know if I was doing it right, I had never done one before,” Olinski said. “I thought it was way beyond my skill level.”

Senra also helped Olinski think about her long-term career plans.

“I went into his office six or seven times to ask for his opinion on my résumé,” Olinski said. When she applied to work at Tampa-based Tango Marketing after her graduation, Senra helped her secure glowing references.


“(Senra) is the best mentor because when I had doubts about myself, when I was figuring out where to apply for jobs upon graduation, when I had boyfriend trouble, he was there for me,” Olinski said. Like many successful protégés, Olinski wants to pay it forward by starting an internship program at her current job. This time, she’ll be the mentor.

Long Term Benefits

Some businesses have formal mentorship programs that match young hires with senior managers in the company. Many business organizations, like the Chamber of Commerce, also offer mentorship programs that match mentors with protégés.

At Pensacola accounting firm Saltmarsh, Cleveland and Gun, newly hired employees are paired with employees that have worked at the firm for longer than five years.

“We had some people here that had moved up in the firm and are very successful, and we wanted to transfer that knowledge to some of our younger folks and help them be successful,” said Ron Jackson, president of Saltmarsh, Cleveland and Gun.

New hires tend to have the technical skills to do their job, Jackson said, but do not know how to market the firm or themselves and had never worked in teams before.

“Those are some of the things that aren’t particularly taught in college,” Jackson said.

Even though their mentorship program is just two years old, Jackson said it has yielded results. “It has allowed our older folks to talk to our younger folks about the history of the firm, our culture, why we do what we do,” Jackson said. “That transfer of knowledge is really important.” He believes their mentorship program will help improve retention.

The Walton Area Chamber of Commerce matches mentors and protégés through its leadership program. A mentor and protégé must meet at least once a month for a year.

Lane Rees is a Santa Rosa Beach-based human resources consultant who frequently mentors through the Walton Area Chamber of Commerce’s leadership program.

He’s passionate about the topic because of a mentor that helped him in his own career. In the early 1980s, Rees worked for an oil and gas company called ARCO. His boss urged him to move to Alaska to further his career. “It was taking a risk,” Rees said, in part because his Florida-born wife wasn’t thrilled with the idea of moving to such a cold climate.

But that single career change allowed him to move quickly up the ladder at ARCO, enabling him to retire early in 1999 and move to Florida.

“A mentor is a person who can challenge you and help you dream bigger,” Rees said.

Toby Williams, the principal for special services at Rocky Bayou Christian School, is Rees’s protégé through the Chamber’s leadership program.

“I love what I am doing. I see the difference it makes in children’s lives,” Williams said. “With having a big family of my own, I got my eighth grandchild this year, I wanted to make sure I was keeping my priorities right.”

She said Rees urged her to think about her long-term goals in her career and in life, even 10 years out. They discussed what steps needed to happen to reach those goals.

“To be able to mentor (faculty) I need to have a mentor,” Williams said.

”I am growing in my leadership abilities, and you can’t give what you are not receiving.”

John Russell, president of Sandestin Investments, remembers how valuable a mentor was to him early in his career. At 23, Russell was working at his first hotel, a Hyatt. The director of human resources took Russell under his wing.

“I had never worked for a large corporation before,” Russell said. “I had to go on corporate travel trips, and he would coach me — ‘This is what you wear and how you behave and watch out for the guys who want to stay out all night.’ ”

Russell said he could have easily stumbled and damaged his reputation but instead he rose quickly in the hospitality industry and became a general manager of his first hotel at age 32. He has since worked for Ritz Carlton and other major hotel chains.

Now Russell has decided to give back by participating in the Walton Chamber’s mentorship program. For a year, he has mentored Wendy Radke, the director of marketing and communications for the Chamber.

“I’ve learned a lot from him so far in identifying my strengths and weaknesses,” Radke said. Russell has encouraged Radke to be more aggressive in pursuing projects she is passionate about. He also urges her to discuss with him her long-term career goals.

Radke said Russell helped her conquer a fear of public speaking.

“The first time I stood up in front of 300 people I could not tell you one thing I said because of the roar of my head.” He told her, “You didn’t look nervous, I couldn’t even tell.” She said he also isn’t afraid to be honest about areas of improvement.


Sometimes mentors are brought in to help guide a company through a transition or troubled time.

Nolia Brandt and her husband Bill Brandt had reached a critical point in the life of their Tallahassee-based information technology company, Brandt Information Services, 10 years ago.

Their industry was dramatically changing and in order to stay competitive, the company had to diversify its client base beyond state government agencies. The company needed to secure federal contracts and obtain more private sector clients. To cope, the firm itself had to expand, from 10 to 60 employees, in a short period of time.

“We knew nothing about doing business with the federal government,” Nolia Brandt said. “We had never asked our employees to travel to do business from other locations.”

The Brandts turned to Osteryoung at Florida State University. Osteryoung is one of the godfathers of mentorship in Tallahassee, along with Steve Evans, a retired IBM executive. Osteryoung has likely mentored, at one time or another, half the businesses in Tallahassee as part of his duties at the Jim Moran Institute.

“He’s brilliant,” Nolia Brandt said of Osteryoung. “Not only is he one of the best financial analysts I know, but he is so humane and passionate. What a lot of people don’t know when they are looking for a mentor is you really need someone who listens well and is compassionate, because sometimes all you really need is moral support.”

Osteryoung also had plenty of practical advice. He told the Brandts how to structure their company so that it could handle a quadrupling of its workforce. He urged Nolia Brandt to outsource several key functions, such as human resources and accounting, rather than hiring someone dedicated to that task. He also told the Brandts to develop an advisory group of diverse mentors who could help guide them through their growth phase.

Osteryoung’s advice worked. The Brandts went from $500,000 in annual revenue to $5 million in annual revenue in just a few years. They were able to sell the company in 2007 for an undisclosed sum and retire, which had been their goal all along.

Another Osteryoung mentee is Pam Butler, co-owner and CEO of Tallahassee-based Aegis Business Technologies, which helps small businesses outsource their information technology departments. “When I started my company, I did it all by myself and made a tremendous amount of mistakes,” Butler said. She was reticent to approach someone for help because she didn’t want to reveal the tricks of her trade.

Finally, she got up the nerve to ask for Osteryoung’s help.

“He kept asking me all these financial questions and I was being evasive,” Butler said. “He asked if he could take a look at my Quickbooks, and I thought, ‘That is like asking somebody if they can look in your underwear drawer.’ ”

Osteryoung did eventually coax Butler into showing him Aegis’ profit and loss statements and from there he made suggestions on how to spend less money, such as eliminating costly and unnecessary insurance.

“He would take my (profit and loss statement) and look at it and in two seconds point and say, ‘This one is not right and this one is not right. When I come back, I want this to be taken care of.’ ”

Having a mentor like Osteryoung provided the accountability Butler said she was lacking because she had no boss. He also introduced her to other entrepreneurs who could share their own struggles. She began working with Evans, the retired IBM executive, who helped her restructure the company and add seven new positions.

Osteryoung could also be remarkably prescient. “Jerry came to me in early 2007 and said ‘Clean up your expenses. Get them down to the bottom line because I see something bad coming.’ ” Butler did and she said it helped her survive the economic crisis. “I believe in mentors. I would never be without one.”

Sometimes a mentor is also your boss, though experts usually caution against such an arrangement. In Tallahassee, 26-year-old Nate Long found a mentor in his boss, Jay Schleuning, at Visit Florida. It was Long’s first full-time job in public relations.

“(Schleuning) gave me unusually large and challenging projects and responsibilities that allowed me to grow a lot more than my position would have warranted,” Long said. “Within my first few months he allowed me to lead some of our media missions.”

This meant traveling to a city like Birmingham or Chicago and pitching magazines and newspapers as to why they should do travel stories on Florida.

Besides giving Long challenging assignments, Schleuning gave him tips on how to dress and behave. “He taught me to be early for everything,” Long said.

Long said he could be candid with Schleuning about his long-term career goals, which include opening his own public relations firm.

“You don’t always feel comfortable with everyone you work with,” Long said. “Not everyone can be a mentor. Some of the qualities that set mentors apart have to do with forcing you out of your comfort zone and finding skills you can’t see.”

Though Schleuning has left Visit Florida for the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Long stays in touch. Meanwhile, Long’s career is on a fast track. He’s already been promoted to industry relations manager and has become a mentor himself to college interns.



How to Pick a Mentor

Determine what you are looking for in a mentor. Do you want someone within your company to act as your advocate, or someone outside your company who can guide you toward your long-term career or business goals? Experts say, ideally, you want both. When seeking a mentor, look for:

Prior experience. Ask your colleagues and business associates if they have a mentor and whether they enjoyed working with him or her.

A person you admire that seems to do his or her job well.

The job you want someday. Someone who has the job you want will have great advice about how to end up in his or her shoes.

A nurturing attitude and willingness to answer questions.

Trust. Whether that person is inside or outside your industry, you must feel comfortable spilling your ambitions and business secrets.

Skills. Look for someone that understands a skill that you would like to learn.

A person who provides support but also challenges you to learn new things or find areas of improvement. You want someone who can provide critical feedback.

So how does one go about finding a mentor?

  • If you own a company, try the Jim Moran Institute at Florida State University. Not only is Jerry Osteryoung, its outreach director, a great resource, but he can suggest appropriate mentors for you, both inside and outside of Tallahassee.
    Go to your accountant, banker or other professionals and ask for recommendations.
  • If your company has a mentoring program, sign up. If not, consider starting one, or join programs that organizations like the Chamber of Commerce sponsor.
  • Attend networking events and don’t hesitate to approach someone there you click with.
  • Online. MicroMentor matches mentors with protégés online for free. Most advice is given through email, the phone, Skype and occasionally in person.