9 Thanksgiving lessons from early mentors

These writers, editors and communicators got us started in our careers. Let’s raise a toast to them on this national celebration of gratitude.

Thanksgiving mentor advice

It was my first job at a daily newspaper, and one copy editor had taken to bawling me out in a voice heard up and down the Lower Columbia River Valley.

An English major, I had talked my way into an internship at The Daily News of Longview, Washington, which had won a Pulitzer Prize the previous year for its coverage of the eruption of Mount St. Helens.

My city editor, David Connolly—unlike the volcanic deskman—did not blow up when I turned in a prolix feature on banjo musician Grandpa Jones. He called me over and patiently diagrammed the classic Wall Street Journal lede. “Do it like that,” he said.

Perhaps most of us had a mentor early in our career. With Thanksgiving upon us, let us offer a toast in gratitude for those bosses and senior professionals who gave of their time and wisdom when we most needed it.

Who were these people? And what did we learn from them? I hit up a few communicators for their recollections:

1. The Senate manager: Advise and consent

Lindsey Gilbride is one of several mentors recalled by Luke Kintigh, who works with Intel HR marketing. She was his manager in the U.S. Senate, in his first job out of college.

“She taught me the value of simplicity and resonance in communication,” he says. “Her guidance enabled me to distill and discover the core essence of what connects and motivates people to understand and act. Regardless of my future job, this skill was immensely valuable in my future career development and advancement.”

2. The PR pro: ‘Our very best advice’

Jay Baer, founder of Convince & Convert, says his first boss was Robert Robb, who ran the public relations and public affairs firm at which Baer interned while in college.

Baer recalls, “In my very first week at my first-ever real job, he told me something that has served me very well as a consultant: ‘It’s our job to give our clients our very best advice. It’s their job to take it.’”

3. The author: Sharing the stage

Janet Wong—an attorney-turned-award-winning-poet—generously shared her knowledge, stage and platform to launch the career of story strategist Justina Chen, co-founder of Chen & Cragen and author of the novel “Lovely, Dark, and Deep.”

“More than that, she showed me how powerful and freeing it is to create our own way,” Chen says, “whether that was her forming her own poetry press or encouraging me to launch my own boutique communications agency for leaders.”

4. The tech boss: ‘Challenge the status quo’

Kintigh also recalls Bryan Rhoads, his first mentor at Intel, who taught him to challenge the status quo while learning from others and offering a viewpoint that adds value.

“Bryan instilled in me not to default to others on the future of my career,” Kintigh says. “Instead, take ownership, even if it means it’s the road less traveled, and it will pay off in the long run. I can say in my later years that he was so right.”

5. The communications publisher: ‘Call it like you see it’

Rob Friedman, principal at Whitewater Communications and former senior director of Global Executive Communications for Eli Lilly and Co., fondly recalls Larry Ragan, founder of Ragan Communications. Ragan gave Friedman his first job—other than waiting tables.

“Larry taught me many things, but two made a difference in my writing and throughout my career,” Friedman says. “One, take a stance—call it like you see it. And two, aim for clarity in your writing. Cut the jargon and pomposity, put your readers (or listeners) first, and, to quote Larry’s hero, George Orwell, ‘Never use a long word where a short word will do.’”

6. The executive: Be generous with credit

Another Friedman mentor was Ted Planje Jr., his former boss at Lilly.

“He accepted blame when things went wrong and gave others credit when things went well,” Friedman says. “My prior boss did the opposite, so this was both a revelation and a godsend.

“He also taught me to set high standards and give colleagues honest feedback—even when it was hard. I didn’t always succeed, but these were lessons that stayed with me.”

7. The VP: Empower your team

Christopher Barger, senior director or communications at SME, recalls working at IBM for Ed Barbini, now vice president of external relations. Barbini took an active interest in Barger’s career and volunteered to mentor him, instilling in him his philosophy of communication.

When Barger left IBM to take an executive position at General Motors, Barbini told him: “You’ve entered the stage of your career where the biggest value you can offer your organization is no longer your own work or what you can do yourself.  A leader’s greatest contribution is what you can guide and empower your team to do.”

Barger notes that many leaders make the mistake of trying to shine brightly even at the expense of their team’s growth. Or, our egos can get in the way and we behave in ways that elevate our own profile. “Don’t ever forget that a leader is best when his or her people look great and do great work,” Barbini said.

8. The PR director: Cultivate media skills

Former Field Museum PR director Nancy O’Shea gave Orly Telisman her first PR break, recalls the founder of Orly Telisman Public Relations.

“I was a journalist looking to leave media,” Telisman says. “She told me point blank, ‘I would only hire a journalist for this media relations job.’ She saw how useful my media and journalism skills were to further the museum’s media engagements. Not every potential PR employer saw those skills as being particularly useful. She did, and it really paid off for us both.”

9. The book editor: Be good, be generous, be wise

When I published my first collection of short fiction three decades years ago, I was isolated from the literary world, reporting at a small-town paper in Oregon. The late Bill Decker, a retired editor from Viking, lived nearby. He saw a review of my book in The New York Times and phoned me at my desk.

In a thematic echo of The Daily News, Decker wanted to know if I’d read Malcolm Lowry’s “Under the Volcano.”

Decker ended up a friend, reading and critiquing two (frankly awful) novel manuscripts I had written. He would invite me to sit in his living room, hand me a yellow legal pad and tell me, “Take notes.” Then he paged through the typewritten pages, mercilessly shredding my work—a gift, even if I squirmed. Eventually, he recommended me to an agent.

Decker, who had grown up out west around ranches and horses, loved to spin yarns about the authors he had known. He recalled how the Bronx-born E.L. Doctorow once wrote a Western in which a character drove a team into town while “standing on the traces”—traces being the straps of the harness attaching the horses to the wagon.

Decker recalled asking Doctorow, “Well, how’d he manage to stand on the traces?”

Doctorow sheepishly admitted that he didn’t know what traces were.

Decker likewise caught me abusing words, as when I wrote “doff” when I meant “don.”

“You can remember it like this,” he said. “When you doff, you do-off your hat.”

This Thanksgiving, Bill, I do-off my hat to you (and to Dave Connolly). Death takes us all, even the good, even the generous, even the most giving of mentors. Even Bill, years ago.

Tell them thanks, these mentors of ours, while they’re still around to hear what they meant to us.

Readers, here’s your chance to do just that, in the comments section.

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