THE BLOG

Former CEO Inspires Change and Gives Back in Retirement

02/16/2015 09:36 am ET | Updated Apr 15, 2015

"Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others."

- Jack Welch, former Chairman and CEO of General Electric

Last summer, I received a call asking if I would be interested in being mentored by a former CEO of a Fortune 500 Company. A trusted colleague of mine had a friend who was starting a business called My Next Season, designed to transition executives and CEOs out of their corporate positions and into a meaningful retirement phase. Part of their holistic approach includes mentoring a nonprofit CEO/ED, allowing the transitioning CEO the opportunity to give back, participate in an on-going exchange with their mentee, and strengthen the nonprofit community by creating bridges between sectors. We would be the first match, a case study for founders, Mark Linsz and Leslie Braksick, providing feedback and a framework so future participants might have a positive and hopefully even transformative experience.

I read about my soon to be mentor, Liam McGee, and his remarkable turnaround of the Hartford Insurance Group, including the $7 million, five-year investment he spearheaded in the local community to attack blight, rebuild homes, nurture and educate children, support families, and encourage independence. The silver lining of this gift, I soon learned, was that Liam wanted this experience and our relationship to be a priority and to become a part of his legacy. Those were big words and ones that weigh on me in a way I cannot put into words. From his monumental contributions to the corporate world such as building healthy working environments, to holding multiple board seats across sectors (and chairing many), his civic involvement has strengthened so many worthwhile organizations and inspired peers and fellow executives. Knowing Liam, I can only imagine what an incredible experience it must be to serve on a board with him. He is every nonprofit leader's dream board member (let alone Chair), providing access to C-level executives and inspiring others to follow his lead, setting a tone for genuine, authentic service. This husband, father and community man is grounded in his values, ethics, and passion.

A conversation with Liam is like drinking an Old Fashioned: his counsel always strong and simple and his delivery impeccably smooth with just the right bit of sweetness for good measure. At 6'3 inches, Liam towers over most, yet his air is of approachability and utter coolness. Talking about my shortcomings, failures, challenges, and all of the things that keep me up at night isn't easy to do, but Liam has a magical knack for keeping the conversations comfortable. He offers personal experiences from his career, helps problem-solve in real time, and dishes out counsel that inspires me to lead more authentically. As I think about our past conversations, whether they were about building out my leadership team, big hairy audacious goal setting or driving a culture of performance, Liam always put me first. Every story shared was told for a reason and every opinion on best practices came from real experience. These conversations and our shared brain trust have impacted me personally and professionally.

While each relationship is unique, mentor/mentee relationships can be impactful for both individuals. Here are a few ideas to maximize the opportunity:

1. This is a dialogue and an opportunity to get real-time feedback; be real, honest, humble and willing to grow.

Be very honest with yourself about what you want to get out of the mentor/mentee relationship. Be up front. Let your mentor know what your goals are and what you hope to take away from the relationship. According to an article on Fortune.com, asking for help that is too general is a common mistake many mentees make, so be specific (Fortune.com, Mentor Mistakes to Avoid). Make a wish list of what you want to accomplish in your role, what qualities you wish you possessed that would make you a better leader, what you are doing really well, and where there is room for improvement in your career or at home. Believe in the process and in your mentor's capability to be a thought partner for you. Sitting in a leadership chair is lonely. That was the first thing I said to Liam and he immediately finished my sentence as if reading my mind. Your mentor has likely been through everything you are going through or will go through in your professional and even personal life. Request that your mentor (and you) create a relationship that will afford you a safe place to discuss roadblocks, opportunities for growth and learning. Appreciate where your mentor is in his or her life and what he or she has been through to get there. You are in a position to learn. Opening up and genuinely feeling understood by someone you look up to is meaningful in a way that is hard to describe. Having someone of Liam's magnitude in my corner has undoubtedly influenced my path in ways that would have otherwise not opened up to me.

Continued growth throughout the partnership is critical. As things move forward you will become more and more comfortable asking both big and little questions. Keep a list as thoughts arise so that you can efficiently utilize the time you have together. Be adaptable and mindful; this is a process and could take unexpected turns. Be honest about the feedback you are receiving from your board and staff and share that information. Seeking feedback can be daunting, but your mentor can advise you on how to go about gaining insight that can be beneficial for your growth without being detrimental to your progress or career.

2. Authenticity is the Little Blue Engine.

Sheryl Sandberg, author of "Lean In: Women, Work and the Will To Succeed," is a strong believer in mentorship and credits many of her opportunities to her mentors. Sandberg stresses that no one should simply ask someone to be his or her mentor, not because she is not in favor of mentorship, but because that is not how the relationship should work. Sandberg says that "If someone has to ask the question, the answer is probably no" (Business Insider, Sandberg Interview). According to her, the relationship, just as any other relationship, should grow and develop organically and must be reciprocal (HBR, Sandberg Interview). Another article suggests going about it in a natural way. If there is someone you would like to learn from, express how much you enjoyed the meeting/relationship and ask if you can reach back to him or her sometime soon and see where the relationship goes (Fortune.com, Mentor Mistakes to Avoid). Relationships take time and both people need to play an active role for success. It is not a one-sided relationship and it cannot be forced (Fortune.com, Mentor Mistakes to Avoid). According to the article, mentors learn from these relationships as well. Mentees can often bring a new energy, the latest trends in technology, and more to share with their experienced partner. Mentees must do their part, be prepared, be honest and respect the time and position of his or her mentor. In person meetings tend to breed deeper connections than phone calls. For me, meeting face to face with Liam allowed me to feel comfortable sharing my flaws. I was better equipped to discover the areas I needed to improve upon.

The fastest way to gain trust is to be brutally frank. If you are willing to be vulnerable, you open yourself to more opportunity for growth. Be honest about your blind spots, your anxiety and stress level. Reflect upon your career and make a list of disappointments, situations you wish you could do over, patterns of mistakes, work/life balance, your impact zone and ability to build relationships internally and externally. Ask that person to be completely honest about what he or she sees as areas for growth. Being organized and thoughtful about this will give your mentor the ability to cut to the chase and provide meaningful feedback and advice.

3. Provide the framework for your mentor to weigh-in.

For me, it was critical that Liam understood what I was trying to accomplish with regard to scaling our organization nationally, decentralizing operations from one region and building stronger hubs in other existing markets. Providing him with our strategic plan and forecasting budgets allowed him to make certain assumptions, ask important questions, and offer key insights to help me accelerate impact, change and growth. Truly involving him and giving him the context to have a real dialogue is a key part of ensuring a successful relationship. Through his guidance, I have already made significant progress in areas I was looking to grow and focus on.

4. Run through the fire (another Liam-ism).

Make a list of the big decisions you need to make (the ones keeping you up at night), the challenging situations you need to navigate, and other important issues to discuss. Ask your mentor for examples and best practices in handling similar situations. The more your mentor gets to know you and your blind spots, the easier he or she can problem solve with you and provide counsel to help you navigate change. Be ready to act on advice. The only way we grow is to have the guts to fail forward. Act outside of your comfort zone and take calculated chances. There is a reason that you are seeking counsel from someone you admire and someone who is not too similar to you. Your mentor might have a different approach than you would take. In my case, I was provided a unique opportunity to learn from someone I greatly admire in so many ways. Make it count.

5. Listen.

Paying attention and listening is the doorway to everything that matters; hearing your mentor's life experiences deepens your relationship. We all have flaws, failings, weakness; it is the wisdom gained from these experiences that enables transformation and gets us closer to the person and leader we want to be. Ask your mentor what he or she is really proud of, what things they worked on improving during their career. Keep an open mind and learn from his or her lessons. Be aware of your mentor's style and approach, some different approaches could be beneficial and encourage you to think of things you might not have otherwise. I gained a lot from this conversation and walked away with a clear vision of the kind of leader and management style I wanted to have and work towards.

6. Stay in touch.

Keep your mentor apprised of progress on your part regarding topics you discussed or action items. Don't be afraid to ask for help when you need it. Some questions require strategy discussions and planning some can be handled by email. Be clear and direct with your questions and what you are trying to accomplish and how you think your mentor can help. Following up with your mentor is a critical part of the mentee role, whether you took his or her advice or not. They are likely invested in the relationship and your progress and genuinely want to know how you are doing.

Most people will likely have various mentorship relationships throughout their career. Sandberg believes that as you move forward and advance in your career, opportunities for mentorship will present themselves (HBR, Sandberg Interview). Seize those opportunities when they come around. Keeping these things in mind can create a chance for genuine collaboration and growth. Relationships deepen over time. As my partnership with Liam took shape, I was able to ask the questions that would help me progress. My learning opportunities have been defined by what I am going through at the time; I feel lucky to have had several teachers and mentors in my life. Each relationship has helped me to think bigger, see the trees through the forest, zero in on a few key players and relationships that could help me fast-track towards my goals and conquer a few battles that were keeping me up at night; ultimately preparing me for the next phase of growth spiritually, professionally, emotionally and mentally. My relationship with Liam continues to play a significant role in my development and has inspired me to want more from myself; I have a refreshed view of what greatness looks like and I am going for it.

It is hard to narrow it down, but here are my top 10 lessons from Liam:

• Strive for greatness.

• Build a team of lieutenants, people you would want to go to war with.

• Be firm and always predictably calm .

• Never underestimate that people take you literally.

• Be genuine, more patient and always humble.

• Spend time on talent development. If you have people that have great potential, tell them and support them.

• Keep a bottle of something hidden away somewhere to break into with key teammates to celebrate wins and to take a pause before putting out a fire.

• Learn from your mistakes and constantly try to get better.

• Always take invisible factors into consideration.

• Share your values, passion and ethics.


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