Who’s Guiding Your Career?

It used to be if you wanted to get ahead in the corporate world and learn the ropes that you would find a mentor. Some (mostly larger) companies have formal mentoring programs, with detailed roles and responsibilities, programs and processes. You might be in a management training program. Or just new to a company. And if a formal mentoring program was in place, you might be assigned a mentor.

Or you might be a member of an organization where more senior members of your industry offer to mentor you (i.e., help you navigate your way up the corporate ladder).

For myself, when I first started in the produce business working for my mom, there were no formal mentors. My mom, who was my boss, was too busy running her company to formally mentor me. I watched how she handled things and followed suit.

A few years after I joined the company, I was fortunate that one of my clients took a special interest in me. He decided he was going to be my mentor. Dick was an executive with a large retailer and had a huge span of responsibility. In fact, he was one of my biggest clients and we talked every day.

I’m not sure how it happened, but he started to mentor me. I would ask his opinion or advice on certain situations. Sometimes I didn’t even ask for his advice—he would just give it. I feel very fortunate that he was there to help me navigate the produce industry. And over the years, as it turns out, both Dick and I have continued to mentor young people coming up in the business.

As I was sitting at a produce conference in Berlin, Germany, last week, I realized that mentoring has changed. It no longer makes sense to me to have a single mentor. Instead, what you really need is a personal board of directors.

Think about it. Does it make sense to rely on one person to give you advice about your entire career path?

Or is it more logical to think about those areas in which you want to grow and the variety of contacts you have available or need to meet in order to make progress?

For example, in the produce industry, there are so many things to learn. If I were a young person just entering it, I would want to have a “kitchen cabinet” of advisors, friends and mentors to share their expertise and opinions with me. I would not want to meet with them all at once, but I would want to check in with them periodically.

And I wouldn’t ask someone, “Will you be my mentor?” Instead I would say: “I am putting together a personal board of directors to help hold me accountable to my commitments and progress. You have expertise in XX, and I would like to touch base with you periodically to share my goals, ask you questions and get your insights.”

In my own company, I’ve had team members periodically schedule time with me (usually about 20 to 30 minutes) to get insights into ways they can grow professionally. I let them drive the agenda and it’s not usually about their current role. They are looking for suggestions on how they can make a difference, both in their personal and professional lives.

So next time you are thinking about looking for a mentor or being a mentor, try using the phrase “personal board of directors” and see if it changes the conversation.


refuse to be ordinary

Thoughts and writings from our CEO Karen Caplan