Want to Grow as a Leader? Get a Mentor!

Even top executives need mentors — and sometimes the best mentors work elsewhere.

When it comes to understanding the fine points of a balance sheet, Mack Tilling is no rookie. The cofounder and CEO of Instill Corp., a business-to-business technology company for the food-service industry, founded the Redwood City - based outfit in 1993 — long before b2b became the flavor of the month.

So why does Tilling, 36, get so fired up when he talks about his monthly breakfasts with his mentor, David Garrison, CEO of Verestar Communications and former head of Netcom? Because, Tilling says, being able to talk about your work with an experienced executive can help anyone — even a CEO — make better decisions. "Mentors help you see things in a way that you might not have thought about," he says. "They've all been there many times before, often under diverse and challenging circumstances."

It's no news flash, of course, that there is value in the relationship between a mentor and a "mentee." But finding a mentor is usually an informal affair. And often, mentorships develop between junior- and senior-level employees at the same company. At Instill, however, this isn't just an ad hoc process; it's part of an innovative plan for leadership development. All senior executives are asked to choose a mentor whom they admire, usually an executive at another company who is in the same functional area. Mentors must be approved by the Instill board, must sign confidentiality and no-conflict agreements, and are asked to meet with their mentees at least once a quarter. In exchange for their commitment, they are offered a small amount of stock in Instill.

By all reports, the program has been a rousing success. So far, five of Instill's nine executives have mentors, and all say that the relationships have had a huge impact on their effectiveness as managers. That is due in no small part to the fact that their mentors are high-level people with impressive track records: Rocky Pimentel, for example, senior vice president of WebTV Networks Inc., mentors Eric Ludwig, Instill's VP of finance and administration; Andy Cohen, Instill's VP of marketing, has teamed up with Mohanbir Sawhney, professor of e-commerce and technology at Northwestern University's Kellogg Graduate School of Management and a member of five corporate boards; and Dan Dorosin, Instill's VP of corporate development, is mentored by Paul Lego, president and CEO of Virage Inc.

Clearly, Instill is onto something: In the roughly 30 months since the program was started, no mentor approached by an Instill executive has refused the opportunity to participate. The stock offer is arguably a significant factor in that success rate. But since Instill has no immediate plans to go public, it seems equally clear that the promise of a huge financial reward is not what is persuading mentors to sign on.

In fact, Virage's Lego, 42, says that he would have agreed to mentor Dorosin even without the stock offer. "I enjoy mentoring," he says. "Why do people teach? It's not for the money." Structure also makes a difference to Lego: "The program makes me more conscious of the relationship and of keeping up my end of the obligation."

Despite going after folks with multiple board positions and demanding day jobs, all Instill executives have gotten their first choice. But that hasn't happened by accident. The Instill search process — equal parts matchmaking and due diligence — works because the would-be mentees are approaching people with whom they can cultivate a personal and professional chemistry.

"I have developed an affinity for Eric," says WebTV's Pimentel, 45, of Ludwig. "The driving factor is my sense of responsibility to him."

Similarly, Verestar's Garrison says that it was his fundamental respect for Tilling's company — coupled with his own sense of been there, done that, could have used that — that made him decide to say yes when Tilling popped the question. "As a CEO, in many ways, you live in a bubble," says Garrison, 45. "It's difficult to find someone in whom you can have complete confidence and confidentiality."

And the rewards for the Instill executives are palpable. In addition to helping Andy Cohen, 37, develop a more strategic marketing plan, Mohanbir Sawhney has used his clout to introduce his mentee to such food-industry big shots as Jack Greenberg, chairman and CEO of McDonald's. "The board is usually beating up on you, not coaching you," says Cohen. "This is a nice bonus that I've never had at another company."

Contact Mack Tilling by email (info@instill.com).

Sidebar: What's In It For Me?

Is being a mentor simply a labor of love, or can you get something back in the process? Verestar Communications CEO David Garrison discusses his relationship with Mack Tilling, CEO of Instill Corp. — and how to make being a mentor work for you.

Believe in the Business

One of the reasons that Garrison agreed to become Tilling's mentor was because he appreciated Instill's business model. "You have to believe in the business. Otherwise, you're helping to train an athlete in a race that goes nowhere."

Make Sure You Share Values

Garrison has been surprised and pleased to become friends with Tilling. "We have connected on a personal level, and he is a delight. He's a great human being, very smart and fun to be with." Although Garrison doesn't think that mentors need to be best friends with their mentees, he does think that both partners should feel simpatico on some level. So if there's not a basic understanding, don't try to be a mentor. You won't do a good job.

Understand the Rewards

As a CEO and a board member at two other companies, Garrison is a busy guy. But he says that being a mentor to Tilling has been deeply rewarding. "If you can help people develop a skill set, then you can take immense personal satisfaction when they do a good job. In a board setting, you are one of 7 to 10 people, as opposed to being in a one-on-one situation." In a mentoring situation, he says, the question is, "How can I help this person train himself to be even more of a winner?"

Contact David Garrison by email (david_garrison@verestar.com).

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