Lessons from Mentors
The people - and their lessons - who helped me find success.
I recently recorded a PromoKitchen podcast about the mentorship program – something I fervently believe is the lasting legacy of the organization. During the discussion, I was asked about my mentors and why they were (and still are) important to me. My answer was simple – that I wouldn’t have achieved whatever level of success I’ve attained without caring and supportive mentors and peers who helped me along the way.
However, that doesn’t do much more than acknowledge the mentorship, and for this blog, I want to go a bit deeper and share more than just the people but the specific lessons I’ve learned from each one. To keep knowledge like this to myself would be flat-out disrespectful to the very people who have been so generous with their time and assistance. Before you jump ahead, I want to be clear: by no means is this list exhaustive of the people who have been kind enough to help and support me in the promotional products industry – not by a long shot. I’ve been aided by so many it would be damn near impossible for any list like this to be complete.
That being said, these are the lessons that have stuck with me and become part of who I am today. My sense is much, if not all, of the teachings will resonate with you as well. These were written in no particular order other than how they popped into my mind.
The Lesson of Red vs. Green (Josh Robbins) – I recently wrote a blog about this which you can read here. In short, when running a business, every second can – and should – be categorized as either red or green. Green activities are those that move the organization forward to achieve financial goals. In contrast, the red ones tend to be activities that may (or may not) have value, but they aren't monetized. As Josh recently told me when I mentioned an activity being “red,” he created a monster. Perhaps so, but through this I’ve learned where and when to spend my time to make brandivate profitable.
The Lesson of Kindness in Business (Danny Rosin) – Not that I’ve gone through life being a jerk in business (although I know I’ve had my moments), but it wasn’t until I really got to know Danny and his heart that I started to LEAD with kindness. It’s a very different perspective and one I’ve fully embraced. Through Danny, I’ve realized that one can build a business and have a huge, giving heart.
The Lesson of Asking the Right Questions (Dan Weil) – No longer in the promotional products industry, Dan interviewed me at Summit Group in 2008 for the Vice President of Sales position. It was one of those interviews that felt like two friends speaking instead of a hard-nosed question-and-answer session. Not surprisingly, I got the gig. About three weeks into my employment, however, I was frustrated with some of the people I was hired to manage. Dan listened politely to my concerns and I ended my soliloquy by joking, “You didn’t tell me about this in the interview.” Dan laughed and said, “Well, you didn’t ask the right questions in the interview.” Of course, he was 100% correct because I was so focused on landing the job I didn’t ask the right questions about what the position would be like if I did get employed. From that moment on, I’ve always taken the time to prepare to ask the right questions regardless of the situation by looking at it from all sides and not just the fleeting moment.
The Lesson of Listening (Michele Bell) – If you don’t know Michele, you’re missing out. As the Vice President of Editorial, Education & Special Events at ASI, she’s one of the good ones. Going a bit further, she is the most intentional listener of people I’ve ever met. Perhaps it’s her journalism background, but she recalls the most minute details from conversations that happened months ago. She clearly doesn’t multitask during any discussion and is fully invested. Since getting to know her better, I’ve stopped trying to do things during phone conversations and instead endeavor to give my entire attention to the person on the other end. It may seem like a small thing, but it’s not.
The Lesson of Winning (Kirby Hasseman) – If you know Kirby, you likely know he has a list of rules he lives by. One of them is to ask yourself a question when provoked by someone: “What do I win by winning?” Far too often, we get drawn into arguments – many of them online – because we have this insatiable appetite for victory. However, we rarely pause to ask ourselves what we gain if we do “win.” By employing this lesson, I’ve learned that sometimes all you win by winning is frustration and irritation.
The Lesson of Accountability (Mark and Catherine Graham) – Most don’t realize it, but when I first started thinking about going out on my own, Mark and Catherine Graham were the first to volunteer to counsel me as I navigated a new career path. Very early on, Mark told me, “You best be serious because we are going to hold you accountable and kick your ass.” Boy, was he ever underselling because they asked me VERY tough questions and, rightfully so, expected answers. Through building a business plan, I learned to hold myself accountable because Mark and Catherine insisted I be accountable.
The Lesson of Language (Michael Stoll) – Michael Stoll hired me into the promotional products industry in 2000. Just writing that year out makes me feel old, but I digress. As I was training with him and learning the industry, he made one thing crystal clear: we don’t sell “items”; we sell solutions. You see, Michael was passionate about his loathing of the word “items” as he felt it cheapened the industry as a whole, and I immediately agreed with him. I’ve applied this lesson throughout my career as I fully understand that words have meaning. Even the slightest word modification will augment or detract from the overall message. This lesson is also why I constantly railed against the word “swag” when it was popular a few years ago. If you disagreed with my stance on “swag,” at least you know I’m not entirely to blame.
The Lesson of Grace (Dana Geiger) – Like most people, I can be very direct when passionate about a subject. If you don’t believe me, just try and convince me that Van Halen isn’t the greatest American rock band in history. Dana was the staff liaison during my time on the Regional Association Council (RAC) Board. When I became chair of the RAC Board, Dana and I worked closely on countless initiatives. There were times – more than I care to admit – when my direct nature came across as frustration, annoyance, and even bitterness at the pace of change. Dana bore the brunt of that vitriol, which could have damaged our friendship beyond repair. It could have, but it didn’t, and the reason we remained great friends was due to her grace with me. While she knew I cared about the work the RAC Board was doing, my approach was hurtful, and she shared that with me. I apologized fully and honestly, and here’s where the grace comes in, she accepted it and moved on. She didn’t dwell on it, bring up the fact that I came across the way I did, or hold it against me. That, friends of this blog, is grace and something I aspire to daily.
The Lesson of Personal Branding (Dana Zezzo) – As the Godfather of Social Media in the promotional products industry, Dana was at the forefront of building a personal brand. He even coined a term for pointing at the camera in pictures called the “zoint.” Frankly, I still have no idea what a zoint is, but that doesn’t matter. As I started getting involved on social media, I asked Dana whether I should have one profile for business and one for personal or simply one single profile that would blend everything. At the time, I was convinced that social media profiles should be like the government: separation of church and state. Dana accurately pointed (or zointed) out that my brand HAD to be an amalgamation of personal and professional as it was the only way to paint a complete portrait and leverage the power of social media. Clearly, Dana changed my mind, and I owe a lot of my success on social media to him.
The Lesson of the Pause Button (Kelsey Cunningham) – I am neither the smartest nor the most creative, but no one will ever outwork me. Few know this better than my former business partner in brandivate. During the initial stages of building the business, my answer to any obstacle was to put in more hours. Honestly, that’s not a bad thing until it is. The truth is I pushed myself so hard that the signs of burnout were evident. Kelsey was instrumental in reminding me that if I wanted to go faster, I first had to slow down. In other words, if clients were to get the best out of me, I needed to pause and recharge once in a while. Through Kelsey, I learned to overcome any guilt I felt if I wasn’t spending hour after hour at my computer, WILLING the business to grow. It’s made me a stronger business partner to brandivate clients and a better human to those around me.
These are just a few people who have taught me some of the most important lessons of my business life – and I can’t thank them enough. We are indeed the sum of the people we surround ourselves with, and looking back at this list, I’ve been incredibly fortunate. So, again, thank you to each of my mentors and the knowledge you’ve bestowed upon me.
As I was writing this blog, I realized it was much longer than I anticipated. I’d apologize, but I wouldn’t mean it as these lessons are worth their weight in gold. However, in the words of Andy Dufresne in the movie The Shawshank Redemption, if you’ve gone this far, perhaps you’re willing to go a bit further. Take a few minutes and think about all the people that have helped you in your career, the lessons they have shared with you, and the support that has elevated you. Then, thank them.
It will fill your heart, as well as theirs, with joy.