NEW YORK, United States — Earlier this month, my mentor, former boss and business partner, Marvin Traub, passed away at the age of 87. Marvin was a defining figure in the American retail industry and the man who, in his longtime role as president and CEO of Bloomingdale’s, pioneered the concept of bringing entertainment to retail. With his out-of-the-box ideas and ability to rally people around his vision, Marvin put an indelible stamp on the way the industry operates today. And even in his later years, possessed of a rare energy and passion for life, Marvin worked harder than anyone I have known. I was extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to work closely with him, learn from his vast experience and meet many of the industry contacts that he nurtured over half a century of work.
Marvin’s passing got me thinking about the extraordinary importance of good mentors. In life, in general, we often rely upon select people — parents, teachers, spouses — to help mold us into who we are. The business world is no different: we need bosses to grow us into successful business people. And, in turn, we need to mentor those who are looking to become the same. Marvin was a boss and mentor who greatly shaped my career. And now, with him gone, he has inspired me to do the same for others.
Not all bosses are Marvins. Sometimes a boss is and will always be nothing more than somebody you work for. But even in a more favourable scenario, mentoring and being mentored isn’t easy. We don’t always like to be shaped and it’s not always fun doing the shaping. Indeed, many of my most important learnings from bosses like Marvin came during bumpy moments when we did not see eye to eye on a particular issue. Similarly, the process of mentoring some of the people of whom I am most proud was almost as painful childbirth. The fact is, great mentors and mentees are not necessarily great friends. With that said, here are some words of advice on how to mentor and be mentored effectively.
HOW TO BE A GOOD BOSS AND MENTOR:
1. Lead by example — and stick to it.
Good bosses and mentors take a stand on how they want things done, which sets the standard for the organisation at large. No manager’s style will make everybody happy. The key is to be consistent, so that employees learn how to operate within your particular approach.
While at McKinsey, I worked on a project for a manager with incredible attention to detail. His reports were premeditated and polished to a tee: the structure of the document, the choice of words, the rigour of the analysis, even the labeling and placement of the footnotes. At first, I grumbled about his “anal-retentiveness.” But I soon learned that his painstaking approach drove real results and I benefited greatly from employing it throughout my time at the company.
In my next job, I made investments for a billionaire entrepreneur who was a risk taker, unbound by process, structure and other norms. At first, this was chaotic and confusing. But he, too, was incredibly successful and he taught me to be comfortable operating in an environment in constant flux. I learned how to anticipate the unpredictable. And without this guidance, launching and running an internet start-up would have been a daunting task indeed.
The key is: whatever your style, teach it and bring others onboard. They may not love your approach, but they will adopt it. Nobody respects a flip-flopper.
2. Inspire through conviction.
The best mentors and bosses are those who inspire through passion and conviction. Marvin was a master at getting people to do things they normally wouldn’t do because he believed in his ideas so strongly. He got Diane von Furstenberg to ride an elephant to a Bloomingdale’s store opening event. He convinced the city of New York to change the direction of traffic on a major avenue so that the Queen of England could visit Bloomingdale’s. For Marvin, the sky was the limit and his passion inspired those around him to dream big. Whatever you believe in, whatever you stand for, broadcast it with all of your heart. Conviction is infectious — demonstrate it and your people will dream big with you.
3. Give honest feedback frequently.
You need to be extraordinarily honest and forthcoming about the feedback you give your mentees, positive and negative. Your people can’t be proud of what they don’t know they’ve done right and they can’t fix what they don’t know is broken. A month into my job at McKinsey, I was shocked by a performance review from the partner leading my first project, detailing my need for improvement in several areas. But I sucked it up, made changes and came to really appreciate granular criticism on a regular basis as critical to my growth. I probably would not have progressed at the company without the constant, tell-it-like-it-is feedback loop.
Last month, when M’O completed its latest round of financing, I received a message, out of the blue, from that same partner who gave me my first performance review. “I am so proud of you,” it said. So the cycle of feedback continues. Be honest, be critical, be forthright.
4. Share yourself
Have the confidence and willingness to share your experiences and relationships with your people. That’s half of what they are looking for.
Marvin Traub went out of his way to share with me his vast network of contacts. Over daily breakfasts at the Regency and lunches at the Four Seasons, Marvin and his business partner, Morty Singer, introduced me to hundreds of colleagues and associates — including my co-founder, Lauren Santo Domingo. Many of these introductions have formed the basis of my professional community. And Marvin’s generosity in this regard motivated me to work even harder for him. The point: be generous with your network of knowledge and contacts and your mentees will bend over backwards for you. Hoarding only slows their growth and fosters resentment.
5. Encourage debate
Just because you are the boss, it doesn’t mean you have all the answers. Sure, you know that, but you really have to believe and show it. Encourage debate among your people. Get them to speak up and voice their opinions, even if they’re unpopular opinions, particularly with you. Let feisty people tell you your idea is stupid. Help timid people articulate their support for your idea. Good mentors listen and learn and develop outcomes that take into account different personalities and all sides of the argument. To be clear: this is not about letting people be rude — it’s about enabling people to say whatever they think about the idea at hand.
HOW TO BE A GOOD EMPLOYEE AND MENTEE:
1. Debate respectfully
In keeping with the previous point, when your mentor encourages debate, be vocal in expressing your opinions. Articulate your point and provide evidence to back it up. But don’t get out of line if your boss doesn’t see it your way. Your boss is usually your boss for a reason. Pattern recognition and concern for other factors may influence the final decision, even if the outcome seems counter-intuitive to you.
2. Learn from the good and the bad
Nobody is perfect. All bosses and mentors have good and bad qualities, just like you do. Don’t lose sight of the good because you are preoccupied with the bad. And try to learn from what you don’t like: make a note of what you don’t agree with, so that you might do differently when you find yourself in a similar situation. If you’re not also a mentor already, you will be one day and you’ll want to draw on all of these notes.
Make sure you share the work you are doing. Your mentor isn’t psychic. So share loudly and share often. Provide regular updates and schedule frequent one-on-ones. Pick up the phone, pop into the office. Do not wait until a mentor or boss has to ask about something. Indeed, if he or she has to ask, it’s a clear sign that you are undercommunicating.
4. Ask for help
Always ask your boss or mentor for help when you need it. Whether you don’t fully understand a task or feel stretched by your workload, it’s your obligation to ask for back-up. If you think you might need help, then you need help. Said differently: it’s unacceptable to not ask for help and then miss a deadline. That’s a sure fire way to get fired. No boss should be upset with you for asking for help. A boss will, however, look at you critically if you overpromise and underdeliver. Don’t mess this one up.
5. Your boss is human too
Just as you want your mentor to take a genuine interest in what you are doing, take a genuine interest in return. It can be lonely at the top and there is often a lot of good that comes from trying to get your boss to open up in an appropriate but personal way. Having a relaxed human dialogue with a boss or mentor is often the best way to strengthen your relationship and make the most of your learning. But be honest and respectful about how you reach out. Idle chatter or kissing-up is interpreted as just that and may do more harm than good. Better to pick a topic of common interest and dive deep, batting stuff around over a period of time, like an extended chess game. Bosses need love, too, and sometimes the best form of love is a conversation with about something where both parties temporarily put business aside and lose yourselves in something personal or even frivolous.
Previous articles in the Finding Your MO series:
Áslaug Magnúsdóttir is co-founder and former CEO of Moda Operandi.