THE BLOG
03/26/2012 10:58 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2012

The Mentor's Mentor

I have what I refer to as "farsighted memory": I can recall the red carpet from my family's apartment in Brooklyn when I was less than 2 years old; I remember all my childhood friends' telephone numbers; and I can even cite how much money I made shoveling snow for the first time when I was 10 ($79.50, mostly in quarters, which weighed my snow pants down to my knees). In spite of all this, I sometimes can't remember the most obvious things, like when I drew a blank at a doctor's office the other day when prompted for my age. Either I'm getting old or my brain needs memory glasses.

When it comes to work, however, I pride myself on being detail-oriented and rarely forget a thing. Many work memories and details are as vivid to me as those previously mentioned from my childhood. The one that stands out most is my first day as an editorial assistant at Facts on File publishing company. Gerry Helferich, my boss, who was then VP and Editorial Director, said these words: "Feel free take on whatever responsibility you can handle. Anything you see you want to do, just ask. You can manage my books, edit books, acquire books -- anything you want."

At the time I had no idea how rare it was for assistants in the book business -- or in any business -- to hear those words from a supervisor. I've since heard horror stories of assistants who waited years to even be able touch a manuscript (which was possible then, because it was still paper), much less be able to put red ink on an author's copy. Yet there I was, 21 years old with very little experience, and the man in charge had trusted me with the responsibility of managing all his books. Gerry's word was good: I handled all 50 of his projects through production, several of which became award winners and great sellers; he gave me a few manuscripts to edit; and, incredible as it may seem, helped (or, more accurately, spoon-fed) my first book acquisition, less than three months into joining the company.

I had found a lifelong mentor. There isn't a thing I know about the business that can't be traced back to Gerry: he showed me how to choose the right trim size (format) for a book; how to run (and manipulate) a P&L (profit/loss statement); how to pitch a book to a room full of people; how to negotiate; how to write great copy; and on and on. Gerry never raised his voice, made a crack when I asked a dumb question, or dismissed my crazy ideas (in fact, he welcomed them). The only time I ever remember seeing him disappointed was when he asked me to water his office plants while he was away on vacation. In my zealousness, I overwatered and killed them all; I still feel guilty about that, two decades later.

I was distraught when Gerry left Facts on File for a better opportunity: how could I possibly survive without him? To my astonishment, although he had moved on to much larger organizations, he always returned my calls and spent time with me when I needed his advice. He came to my aid on numerous occasions -- helping me figure out job challenges, offering me references, and even counseling me on terms for my book deal.

When I became a leader myself in the industry, Gerry continued to be a significant influence, even though our schedules rarely matched up. For years the most we could arrange was the two-minute catch-up at his company's booth at Book Expo (the largest book convention in the U.S.). On one such occasion, I was drowning in employee issues, author problems, and overbooked meetings, and babbled to him in an over-caffeinated way that probably suggested I was about to implode. He stopped me mid-sentence, floated his hands up and down, looked me in the eyes, and said, "Calm down." Those two words not only got me through that event, but they have guided me many times since: I just hear Gerry's voice in my head, and I know everything will be OK.

I felt more than just a tinge of grief a few years later when Gerry told me he was leaving the industry and moving to Mexico with his wife so that they could become full-time authors themselves. What a loss for the industry, I thought, but on a more selfish note, I knew there was no replacing him as my mentor. I would have to fend for myself during crises. No matter the situation, I would ask myself the question: "What would Gerry do?" Just imagining the answer got me through many complex challenges. I even made a list of the top six attributes that made his leadership style so effective:

  1. Empower others: Gerry let you run with the ball. He was never threatened by anyone else's success.
  2. Stay calm under pressure: He didn't overreact to anything. The worst problems were figured out in the same laid-back style as the easy ones.
  3. Don't piss anyone off: He never yelled at anyone, burned a bridge, or insulted anyone. He knew that even the most difficult colleague has the potential to become an ally.
  4. Make time for people: He assisted everyone -- direct reports, indirect reports, colleagues in other departments, and even people who threw axes at his back. He always stopped to listen and didn't offer an opinion unless asked.
  5. Take the chance: Gerry was collegiate and agreeable, but not to the point where nothing got done. Sometimes a leader needs to push an idea or innovation through, even if there are naysayers. It's as brave to take a positive stand on someone else's project as it is a negative one -- especially when it means disagreeing with the hierarchy, spending money, or implementing a change.
  6. Admit to mistakes: Gerry had no qualms about saying when he did something wrong. It made the team admire him all the more.

Over the years, I've had the remarkable opportunity to give back some of the above wisdom to quite a few talented professionals. Many of these individuals are now successful editors, agents, entrepreneurs, and even leaders themselves. At my last company, I was privileged to become a corporate mentor to a star employee in the U.K. office. "Uh oh," I thought. "This guy is so much smarter than I am -- what could I possibly hope to impart to him as his mentor?"

It turns out that my mentee did have some challenges, and I think on a small scale I was able to support him by listening, sharing my experiences, and steering him toward decisions when he was straddling the fence. I couldn't have been prouder when he earned a well-deserved promotion. I found that I may have gotten as much out of that relationship as he did; not only did we exchange work advice on both sides, but we even shared our scripts (he's a talented playwright).

The book I'm now delighted to read is The Stone of Kings: In Search of the Lost Jade of the Maya, by Gerard Helferich. Not only is my mentor the author, but the book was published by Lyons Press (Globe Pequot) -- my former company.

As I turned the pages, it was difficult for me to avoid being reflective and another memory hit me: Gerry's last day at Facts on File. At his farewell party, his peers made teary-eyed speeches and wished him well. I couldn't hold back any longer and stepped forward. It didn't occur to me how ridiculous it must have seemed; I was his assistant -- a mere 23-year-old, wet-behind-the-ears kid -- making a speech in front of a whole room full of people about the company's most revered leader. But I stood up and thanked him for everything he taught me and for all of his support. I closed by proclaiming, "You're the best manager I ever had!" Gerry burst into laughter and remarked, "Of course I am -- I'm the only boss you've ever had!"

Well, I've had a few bosses since -- some wonderful, some pretty awful -- but Gerry is still #1. Someday I hope to have another leadership opportunity where I can create those magical memories with a new staff...