Growing up I was fortunate to have two mentors in my life. Although they had vastly different life experiences, both my parents taught me valuable lessons, shaping me into the person I am today.
My mother had a stable upbringing in a middle-class family. She went on to become an educator and eventually a public-school administrator. My father, on the other hand, experienced financial insecurity when my grandfather passed away at a young age. Despite significant obstacles in his life, my father put himself through college and became a successful retail industry executive who today owns and operates an international health and beauty aids business.
My mom taught me the importance of education and the need to create good habits. My “never quit” attitude—I call it perseverance, he calls it grit—however, is entirely from my dad. Collectively, my parents taught me how to build lasting relationships, helped me develop a strong work ethic, and gave me the tools to achieve financial independence. They each served as the first example of mentorship in my life and set the bar high for what I would seek in others. As I quickly realized, to thrive in my professional career I would need to seek other mentors to build on the foundation my parents provided. I want to acknowledge some who have made a significant impact.
Mentoring by Any Other Name
My first mentorship experience in the real world wasn’t a formal mentorship. In fact, it wasn’t even called “mentoring,” at least not in the sense we know it today. It was one colleague recognizing another’s ambition and believing in working together to meet shared goals.
While at work, I identified tenured, successful people who were accomplishing what I hoped to one day, and I made it my mission to learn from them. I didn’t shy away. I asked questions and I took notes. The first person to recognize that and take me under his wing was a colleague named Brian Kelley.
Although this was a time in which the financial services industry was predominantly male, it didn’t stop a male colleague from teaching me some very valuable lessons that have stood the test of time, across industries, and within a myriad of circumstances. Just by doing his job he taught me to:
- Do my day job better than anyone else;
- Take care of my team and they will take care of me; and
- Be humble, stay hungry.
Whether he knows it or not, outside of my parents, Brian has had the single greatest impact on my life.
Seek Someone You Want to Emulate
Later in life, I followed in my father’s footsteps and entered the retail industry. I started my career as an individual contributor, learned the business from the ground up, and through a series of promotions I transitioned into management. As a new manager I found myself with more responsibility and a larger team than I probably deserved. I was grateful the leaders in my organization trusted me and believed in my abilities. That said, I felt like an imposter, which only added to the immense pressure I felt to exceed their expectations.
Sure, I was self-motivated, but I wasn’t sure how to motivate others. Yes, I produced high-quality work, but I wasn’t sure how to maintain quality through delegation. And, what about mistakes? Making an error as an individual contributor has far less risk than as a leader of an entire team. I wasn’t sure how to ensure my team delivered results. It was clear I wasn’t working with a full toolbox and that had to change.
During my transition into management I found a leader who exemplified mastery in all the areas where I had insecurities. She was successful in motivating others, producing quality work, and delivering consistent results. Robin Shawver taught me many lessons. The ones I am most grateful for and continue to rely on today are:
- How to effectively set expectations at every level of an organization;
- How to plan my work and work my plan; and
- How saying yes to the right things makes saying no to everything else a lot easier.
To her credit, Robin was the first female leader who purposefully spoke with me about the significance of knowing my own worth, something I was doubting up until that point. Without her, I know the last seven years of my life would have been very different and far less rewarding.
Teamwork Is Mentorship Multiplied
As I settled into my role as a data leader inside my own organization, it became abundantly clear that my success was in large part owed to the well-respected data strategists and thought leaders who so graciously mentored me. Over the past four years, two people rise to the top of the list: David Woods and Tina Rosario. They are not only mentors, but friends, too.
They have been influential on my journey to join in their ranks as a thought leader. David instilled in me a lesson that reaches far beyond the business of data: Success is enabled by the pursuit of progress, not perfection. He also taught me two other valuable lessons:
- Know your numbers and let them tell the story; and
- Work with what you have; it’s far more important to start today than wait for the perfect time or perfect technology.
Tina reinforced how important it is to build and maintain a professional network. She is an absolute master of networking and does it with complete authenticity. Tina has taught me how critical it is to never lose sight of the human side of data. This is especially true when you believe in the value of a business-led, IT-enabled data program, like I do. Tina is an advocate for and has brought three particularly important topics to the forefront of our data community. She challenges me to be better and do better. Those vitally important topics are:
- Ethics, data, and the customer experience;
- The impact of unconscious bias on advanced analytics; and
- Women’s leadership in big data.
By working with me, both David and Tina have taught me the importance of teamwork.
Support Comes in Different Shades
When I first began my career, I was told to leave my emotions at the door. I received the “there’s no crying in baseball” speech. One time, I remember being told, “never check your luggage.” Now, for the record, this is a quintessential road warrior rule to live by. All those years ago, however, the advice I received was because no businessman would want to wait for me, a woman.
I continued to carry so many foolish and, quite frankly, antiquated rules with me through the years. It wasn’t until last year that a man had the courage to tell me that my emotion and passion just might be my superpower. That man is Ralph Haffenden. I am not sure that I have the words to express the gratitude I feel for the time and effort he puts into mentoring me. Ralph and I were brought together though our company’s formal mentorship program. His guidance is helping me do really tough work—work that goes beyond the boundaries of my daily job. He believes by being my authentic self, I’ll become an effective servant leader.
Admittedly, I have a long road of self-discovery and self-improvement ahead of me; it is a journey I know that never ends. As I am taking the first steps on my journey, Ralph is teaching me to:
- Unlearn years of negative self-talk; and
- Learn how to harness and successfully use my “superpower” in the pursuit of bringing empathy to the workplace.
Be a Mentor: It Will Change Someone’s Life
I am an avid supporter of mentoring programs. Mentoring has given me new skills (professionally and personally), helped me make consistently better decisions, and has unlocked opportunities that I would have otherwise never received. Mentoring has brought immeasurable value to my life, which is why it’s shocking to learn that one in three young people are without a mentor, according to mentoring.org. That accounts for 9 million children and young adults. As one of today’s leaders, my hope is that we feel compelled to answer the call to pay it forward and close the mentoring gap.
Do you have a mentor? Do they know how they’ve affected your life or career? Tell them. Jan. 30, 2020 is “Thank Your Mentor Day.” To Brian, Robin, David, Tina, and Ralph—thank you. I would not be me without you. For all those now thinking about being mentors, thank you too.
If you or someone you know has something to say about the work you’re doing, your accomplishments, or how other women have helped you on your journey, submit your idea or reach out to ASUGNews@asug.com. ASUG members can visit the ASUG Women Connect page to view upcoming events and related content.
Kimberly Sharp will host a Women Connect webcast discussing, “Life Lessons Learned on the Journey to Finding Purpose at Work,” on July 23, 2020. Register today to save your seat at the table.