Let’s all count our blessings and thank our mentors; this should be a meme, it really should

A few weeks back I read an essay by my old friend John Bailey, president of JB&A in Detroit. I worked with John from ’77-’81, as a copywriter, AAE and AE for the Franco firm, then Motown’s largest PR shop.

jb_headshot_2005.jpgWe were good friends, too, and I regret not doing more to maintain the connection with John over the years. Still, I like to brag that his first hire at JBA in 1995 was a new Kent State grad I sent his way.

Connecting to John’s essay in Strategist Online got me thinking about the critical role of mentors in our lives and careers. John was a mentor of mine, but more on that in sec.

When students seek advice about internships or entry-level positions, I tell them to shop not for a job, but for a mentor. Forget the paycheck. Forget the business niche or the kinds of accounts you’ll work on. Find a boss who who cares about your professional growth — someone who’s willing to teach you and maybe take you for beers once in a while.

Here are the mentors of my professional life:

1207cvr.gifBill Whitney. An extraordinary writer and editor, I worked under Bill at an obscure trade publication called Tire Review back in the mid-70s. One day, during my first month on the job, Bill handed me a 3×5 sheet on which he’d typed 5 words. He left hastily and without comment. Puzzled, I passed the note to my officemate, who burst into laughter.

Turns out, all 5 of the words were misspellings I’d made in the story submitted that morning. (They looked OK to me!) It was hardly my first lesson in precise writing, but it’s one that stayed with me for 32 years.

In my two years with Bill, I wore out a dictionary and I learned the value, if not the skill, of compulsive proofreading. Bill was a fine writer and did more to influence my “voice” than anyone before or since. Outside the office, Bill taught me the value of a Bloody Mary breakfast after a long night of partying on the road. No one said a great mentor had to be a role model, and Bill never claimed to be one.

images2.jpgJohn Bailey. In my four years at the Franco firm, John was my primary mentor. I learned a good bit from other Franco vets like Gabe Werba, Joe Bennett, Gerry Lundy and Tony Franco himself. But John was my “main man” from the day he chose me to work on the firm’s largest account, the Stroh Brewery.

John is a talented professional to be sure, but it was his work ethic that made him so effective. He got to the office at 7 a.m. while the rest of us rolled in at 9. A file never gathered dust on John’s desk. He moved projects along quickly and was obsessive in his follow up. His clients loved him because he got results and never dropped a ball.

What I learned most from John was to stay on strategy and to be creative in the process. He kept in his desk a list called “1001 PR Ideas” (As I recall, he got it from a mail-order house for $3.), and after I’d drafted a plan, he’d insist I review that list to make sure I hadn’t “forgotten anything.” John stood by me when I screwed up, which I did often back in those days. A good mentor has your back.

Jerry Brown. Jerry was more of a colleague than a mentor, even though he was 10 years my senior. You learned from Jerry simply by being around him — you know, osmosis. I met him in ’76, and we stayed in touch on and off until his death in the late 90s.

Jerry was among the most creative and insightful professionals I’ve ever met. He was an impatient man who didn’t suffer fools well, and believe me when I tell you, he worked for a few. Jerry and I met briefly at Tire Review and were reunited some years later at a large ad/marketing shop where he was creative director. Jerry was about the only one in that shop who understood PR, so he included me in creative meetings and promoted me to the top brass. His support kept me from being fired more than once. Even back then I didn’t get along with the marketing types. Don’t tell me you’re surprised!

Zoe McCathrin. Zoe preceded me as head of the PR Sequence at Kent State. She liked me, and we had a common bond in our association with Tony Franco. I worked for Tony; Zoe served on the PRSA national board with him back in the 80s. In addition, we were both disciples of Pat Jackson, and that cemented the bond.

Zoe advised me through the transition from PR practice to PR classroom. She also showed me how to negotiate and at times ignore the trivial politics of academe. But most important, she cared deeply about her students and she knew that I did, too. “This isn’t a job for you,” she’d tell me. “It’s a calling.” I hope I’ve lived up her expectations.

Zoe had a loyal following among our alumni group and sometimes, when we all gather at Ray’s Place for a cool one, Zoe’s students raise a glass in her memory and eyes get misty. Zoe died in 2004 at 67, but not before she saw her alums help to endow a scholarship in her memory.

This should really be a meme — one that challenges other bloggers to share stories about their mentors. But since I’ve criticized those online chain letters in the past, I dare not start one today.

So I’ll simply say thank you to John Bailey. And to my departed mentors Bill, Jerry and Zoe, well, we’ll all be together soon enough, won’t we? Save me a seat at the bar.

# # #

Special thanks to Ike Pigott for his post today titled “Timeless.” It inspired me to finish this one, which has been sitting in the queue for 3 weeks. Thanks, also, to Judy Gombita for reminding me of the importance of positive dialog.

12 Responses to Let’s all count our blessings and thank our mentors; this should be a meme, it really should

  1. Laura says:

    Ah, mentors.

    My career is still young, but I know the value of mentors and, damnit, I want one!

    Of course, I’ve learned from everyone I’ve worked with, but no one has been what I would consider a mentor. There have been very few people who showed interest in helping me learn and advance my career (at least in the office). People always SAY they’re helping me “learn.” But sending me a revised news release with tracked changes (most of them subjective) via email, isn’t teaching me anything except how to remain composed when I’m frustrated.

    The lack of a mentor has really hurt my confidence in my abilities. After my experience at PR Kent and my internship at Goodyear, I was in a good place. I was confident in my chosen profession and convinced that I could contribute to the world as a communicator. But my first few years in the biz have shaken that confidence to the point where I often find myself wishing I wasn’t grossed out by bodily functions so I could be a doctor or nurse. Getting laid off twice in three years hasn’t helped either.

    I’m hoping that this is an agency phenomenon, and that in the corporate and non-profit worlds people want to see you succeed and make a conscious effort to mentor those who are eager to learn.

    As with many things, I use my experience in IABC to fill my mentor void. But that’s a different situation. We’re not in the office where things really matter. I know a lot of great people in the business — I just wish I worked with some of them. Maybe I will one day soon. Until then, I’ll just keep plugging away and accepting the boss’s tracked changes.

  2. Judy Gombita says:

    Indeed, positive dialog(ue). I read the whole thing and enjoyed it immensely. Can’t decide whether I like John Bailey’s 1001 PR Ideas (bought for $3) best or (thank the gods there was one female) Zoe McCathrin’s, “This isn’t a job for you, it’s a calling.” (Susan Reisler at the CPRS Toronto panel on “Earning a voice at the C-level table” said much the same thing, “It’s not a job, it’s a way of life.”)

    Interesting concept, that Prof. Tough Sledding appears (at least in part) to be the professional he is today because of a series of mentors and influencers. Do you ever wonder the shape and direction your career would have taken if you hadn’t met and worked with even one of them? (I’m envisioning a film: The PR Jigsaw Man).

    Quality post, Bill. Bravo Zulu!

  3. Ike Pigott says:

    Hey Bill – inspiration feeds on itself. I stumbled into your post from last week, and it dovetailed perfectly with the comment from my mother.

    You reap what you sow with karma.

  4. Bill Sledzik says:

    Laura, hang in there. And lean on those professional contacts. They may eventually lead you to a mentor, but there’s no guarantee. Fact is, I never took a job because I saw a great mentor in waiting. I found those mentors once I arrived, then I worked to support them and learn from them.

    Judy, I really haven’t thought of what life might be like had I not met these four people. And now that you bring it up, it’s a nightmare to consider. Each of them was critical to my getting to the next level, both personally and professionally. I became a writer under Bill, a manager and strategist under John, a survivor under Jerry and a teacher under Zoe. I should probably mention that I drank a lot of beer with all of them, too. We were friends.

    And Ike, you are so correct about karma. My mentors inspired me over the years, but it took your post this morning to get my thoughts published today. I’ll be stopping back to Occam’s RazR more often.

  5. Blair Boone says:

    Bill, since your vision of the hereafter already admits one ad man, I’ll presume there’s room for another. First round’s on me. Jerry Brown was the best first boss I could have had in this biz, and in many ways he was the best boss I’ve had, period. A good friend and a true mentor.

    Laura, I haven’t seen your work, but I’ll venture to mentor you on one point — something I’ve shared with other young writers. You should worry only if they stop changing your copy. If they don’t change it, that means you’re finally writing badly enough to please everyone.

  6. Bill Sledzik says:

    Blair,

    I should probably mention to others who join this thread that you, like our mentor Jerry Brown, do not suffer fools well. And you, like Jerry, have dealt with your share of them. Fools sort of come with the territory when you work in or around ad agencies — or at least they did back then. I was proud to be one of the “suits” Jerry never threw out of his office. I took pity on the others, but they had it coming.

  7. Stacy Wessels says:

    Zoe was definitely a mentor to me. She cared enough to listen and she was ballsy enough to tell me when I was wrong. I tried to carry those traits with me into the classroom – when I was the teacher. Mentors can pop up at the most surprising times – and usually when you’re not expecting it at all.

  8. Blair Boone says:

    Bill, don’t know if that was a compliment or a warning label. Certainly Jerry didn’t suffer fools at all, though he made many suffer. Me? For some reason, fools just never feel comfortable around me.

    As for “suit” thing, back in the day you certainly wore some nice ones. But I’ve never known anyone in PR or advertising who thought you were one. Anything but, in fact.

  9. Kait says:

    Bill…
    Wonder how many times you’d be tagged in this meme as a rockin mentor? Once at least! (Aside: I never kissed ass to get an A, and since Bill doesn’t write my paycheck, you can be sure I’m not blowing smoke.🙂

    I’ve said it before and I’ll most likely say it forever…the collective PRKent has proven to be a mentor beyond my college years! Thanks for that…

    -Kait

  10. […] Sledzik, a public relations professor at my alma mater, Kent State University, recently posted an ode to his mentors and threw down the gauntlet to others to follow. I earned a Master’s degree in History at […]

  11. Hi Bill,

    Great post! I followed your lead and put up my own ode to mentors:

    http://pr-bridge.com/2008/02/18/lets-count-our-blessings-and-thank-our-mentors/

    Thanks,
    Bob

  12. […] Restoring public trust: Today’s headlines have me wondering if it’s possible I was part of this conversation on Facebook yesterday, triggered by a status update by my old friend and mentor: […]

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