Forum: Keys to a Successful Mentorship/Partnership


The following is an excerpt of a speech that Marva Smalls,executive vice president, public affairs and chief of staff for Nickelodeon, delivered atthe National Association of Minorities in Communications' Mentoring Breakfast lastmonth.

I know how far you have come. My journey may have taken asomewhat different road than yours, but I know that we've hit many of the samepotholes and unexpected turns.

I also know how far you have to go, and how that sometimesseems like an impossible destination.

But what matters most is not the distance that you travel:It's the direction that counts.

How do you choose the right direction? Often, it involvesthe choice of mentors.

It's up to you to seek a mentor. It's up to youto make yourself noticed by a mentor. It's up to you to market yourself to thatmentor. It's up to you to prove to that mentor why he or she should take the time andtrouble to help you.

Now finding a mentor is not entirely a matter of choice.Those of us who are lucky found our first mentors in our parents. My mother was my firstand most influential mentor. It seemed that I was always traveling, and every time I left,she would say, 'Have me as proud of you when you return as I am when you walk out thedoor.'

In everything that I have done and everywhere I havetraveled since then, I have always sought to be true to my mother's words. I make apoint of seeking out the right mentors every step of the way.

These mentors have helped to take me in the rightdirection, and often, the destination has been where I least expected to wind up.

I want to tell you the story about how I came toNickelodeon. For those of you who don't know me or my history, I started in thecivil-rights movement through my work with the NAACP (National Association for theAdvancement of Colored People) in South Carolina. There, other South Carolinians,including the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Bill Gibson, served as early mentors. And they taughtme lessons that have guided my life.

That's how I moved into politics. I worked for SouthCarolina Gov. Richard Riley, who is now the secretary of education, and I was chief ofstaff to Congressman Robin Tallon for 10 years.

Then, Geraldine Laybourne, who was then the CEO ofNickelodeon, contacted me on several occasions about going to work for her. I had a hardtime understanding why. Three times I was offered the job, and three times I turned itdown.

Finally, she convinced me to come to New York and attend astaff meeting. Let me tell you, I may as well have been on Mars for all that place had incommon with the Capitol.

That's when Gerry decided to be a mentor to me, andthat's when I decided to choose Gerry as my mentor.

Gerry knew that I felt out of place in this strange newworld, so she went to work on opening my mind to the possibilities of Nickelodeon and thecable industry. She said Nickelodeon was committed to diversity not only because it'sthe right thing to do, but because it's good for business. She made the point thatdiversity was not just about color and gender, but that it was about bringing in peoplewith different experiences.

She and I made a pact: If I would help her and Nickelodeonto learn how to navigate the larger world out there, she would help me to learn how tonavigate the cable and entertainment industries.

But I was still skeptical about the long haul. I toldGerry, 'I'll do it for a year, but I can't commit beyond that.'

Well, here it is, five years later. I'm still atNickelodeon, and Capitol Hill is but a distant memory.

Why did it work?

Because Gerry and I formed a true partnership. And that isthe operative word when it comes to the relationship between a mentor and student.

So, as you seek mentors, ask yourself: 'What do I haveto teach? How can I help my mentor do his or her job better? How can I create a mutuallyrewarding partnership?

Everything that we do at Nickelodeon is guided by thefollowing basic axioms. While these apply to our work in programming and communications,they fit perfectly as lessons for a mentor-student partnership.

Lesson One: What's good for kids is good forbusiness, and that means doing the right thing. In the end, it's substance thatcounts, and not style or spin. The same applies to your relationship with a mentor.

In this context, what is doing the right thing?

It means telling people not what they want to hear, butwhat they need to know. It means being honest. Trust is the most important bond that youhave. Don't mess with it.

And it means adhering to the highest ethical standards,making sure that your behavior within the company and toward the outside world upholds ourbroader responsibilities to each other and to the betterment of society.

Lesson Two: Know your audience and listen to them.

Lesson Three: Partner and teamwork -- it's not amentorship if it's not a partnership.

And it cannot be a successful business if it isn't allabout teamwork.

Lesson Four: Be creative. That's certainly anaxiom for this business. But it's also every bit as much a guiding principle for amentor partnership.

Lesson Five: If it ain't broke, fix it anyway!

Success can lull you into failing, both in terms ofone's job responsibilities and in terms of keeping your mentor partnership fresh andmutually rewarding.

Once you become complacent, you are condemned to failure.Once you get in a comfort zone, it's time for a kick in the you-know-where.

Lesson Six: You are what you eat. Garbage in, garbageout.

If you don't have a passion for your product, yourcustomers and constituents won't have it either.

Similarly, if you want your mentor to feel passionate aboutyour success, to show you respect and to give you your due, then you damn well better feelpassionate about his or her success, too. Treat your mentor the way you want to betreated.

Lesson Seven: Underpromise and overdeliver. This isself-evident. But in my experience, I find that most people promise the moon and deliverSwiss cheese.

Know yourself. Don't fall into the trap of trying toimpress people by what you promise. Let your performance do the talking.

Lesson Eight: Network, network, network! You shouldcultivate relationships with your colleagues and then stay in touch, no matter where yougo and what you do. You never know where your next big break will come from.

Lesson Nine: Don't burn bridges. Stay connected tothose who bring value to your life. If you leave an employer, even if it's to workfor a competitor, do it on good terms. Remember that if you try to impress your newcolleagues with negative stories about your old employer, they're going to wonder ifsomeday, you'll air their dirty laundry somewhere else, too.

Lesson 10: You are not a charity case -- you are goodfor business. Understand this, and adopt this mind-set.

As African Americans, we face bias every day. We face mythsand stereotypes about our abilities. We face cultural insensitivity.

But you will not find a good mentor and advance along thecareer ladder if you view this as being about affirmative action. Rather, it's aboutacting affirmatively on your own behalf.

Now, don't get me wrong: I support affirmative action.I believe that colleges and employers -- all of the institutions of society -- have aresponsibility to correct racism and inequality of opportunity. There is no doubt that ourindustry can go a lot further and do a lot more.

We've all got to be true to ourselves. And we cannever look the other way, or sit in stony silence, whenever prejudice or injustice raisetheir ugly heads.

Unlike our white counterparts, we have two missions in ourwork: One is to break through the barriers and succeed for ourselves, and the other is tobreak through the barriers for all African-Americans and people of color.

But it's hard to accomplish one of these goals, muchless both.

Understand that those of us who have traveled the furthestin this industry recognize our responsibility to create a better and more nurturingclimate for you -- one with fewer hurdles and barriers, more sensitivity and moreappreciation for the value of diversity.

But don't assume that just because our skin is thesame color, we will automatically choose to mentor you. You must still show the passionfor partnership that makes mentor-student relationships succeed.