Leading And Feeding Tomorrow's Leaders - She Runs It
Thought Leadership

Leading And Feeding Tomorrow’s Leaders

By She Runs It

By Jenny Rooney, Editor CMO Network, Forbes (This article was originally a keynote speech at our 2018 Impact Awards).

It’s so great to see so many familiar faces and come together to celebrate something so vital in this day and age: the mutual support and motivation that comes from the unique relationships between mentors and mentees.

Personally, I have benefitted from having some very important people in my life who have served as my mentors: Pat Westfall, my professor in grad school. John O’Connor, my boss at my first job. And reclusive Vietnam War correspondent Michael Herr, about whom I was writing my Master’s thesis, who granted me his first interview in 10 years because, he later told me, simply, he “liked my letter.” A teaching moment, I’ve never since taken for granted the power of writing.

Though some of the relationships go back more than 20 years, I could pick up the phone tomorrow and they’d have time for me—and that’s also not something I take for granted. The consistent thread has been this: selflessness and trust.

Selflessness, because these people simply and genuinely wanted to see me succeed. And trust, because I was able to quickly realize that unlike many business relationships, I could get candid and honest about challenges, questions, my lack of knowledge—without fear of judgment.

But I was always cognizant of how I needed to be giving back too—so that my mentors would find value in their relationships with me. My perspective could inform their leadership, my candor could shed light on others’ challenges.

I think we’ve seen similar consistencies among mentors and mentees in our industry. Indeed, good mentors inform and educate, use experience and expertise to buffer and build up, to strengthen and inspire.

And as you all know so well, mentor relationships are arguably important for women in our industry now more than ever. They are a critical link in their path to senior leadership roles, something the marketing and media industry still lacks. Women need more role models and mentors, both men and women, can work to fill that void.

Mentorships are also increasingly critical as new people to the industry, particularly agencies, work to navigate the rapid changes taking place in how marketing and advertising work, and seek to understand why a career in the media and marketing industry can be so exciting and so fulfilling. Mentors can act as good PR for an industry that’s under the gun to attract and retain the next generation of marketers—as competitors in the form of everything from Google to Facebook to startups and entertainment companies work to lure them away.

Indeed, CMOs I interview regularly put the talent imperative tops on their list of priorities, the thing that is most keeping them up at night. Think about it: Fewer young people are choosing marketing and advertising as a career, not realizing the very new and myriad opportunities available to them to apply a diverse set of skills. Indeed, marketing has a marketing problem. Just attracting talent is hard enough; keeping them and keeping them engaged and inspired can be harder still.

That’s because, as we all know, the younger generations thrive on feedback and continual challenge, the chance to try and explore and experiment with new and different responsibilities. Enter mentors.

I think good mentors provide mentees with not just exposure to the way to do a job, the how of it, but the why of doing a job, context, their individual perspectives on the work from their unique, and often diverse, vantage points.

For their part, mentees have obligations too. They must be active in their relationships with mentors. They must act as journalists, with themselves as the story they’re writing: They must ask questions. Really ask questions. Even seemingly silly questions. Every minute with a mentor is a chance to ask what can’t or isn’t asked in other business situations. Missing the opportunity to ask any and all questions is not maximizing the mentor-mentee relationship. And they must actively listen to and synthesize the answers.

Some people don’t like the idea of “programmed” mentoring relationships, saying they often put together two people who can’t relate to one another. But that’s the whole point. While a mentorship can create a safe, nurturing and inspiring environment, getting out of one’s comfort zone to experience work through the eyes of another who may have vastly different experience, responsibilities and perspective is exactly what is going to challenge one another to learn and grow—and what is so needed in the industry right now.

And of course, reverse mentoring has become equally critical—and embraced by the savviest executives, who know that for them to have the best perspective on innovation and tech and consumer insights, they need to engage with and learn from the people who will be driving the future of business with new and unique media-consumption, social-media and brand-engagement habits and approaches. There’s so much knowledge exchange that is happening now among people at all levels of organizations.

I know many CMOs who have benefitted from reverse mentoring, making it a point to regularly meet with and learn from younger team members. Our Forbes 30 Under 30 franchise has been a huge success, an effort through which we seek to identify the brightest minds driving industry change, in part, because I think there’s a huge thirst for the kind of knowledge entrepreneurs and change makers can share. And my participation in the She Runs It GenNext Awards has similarly been so gratifying: I know I’ve learned a tremendous amount from their perspective, even as I interview countless industry veterans.

I’m very excited about the new ways of work, how cross-functional and un-siloed everything is becoming, and how so many new opportunities exist for leading and building the foundation of this industry. And it is in this new environment that mentors are needed now more than ever.