Finding Mentors in Unlikely Places

Last week I attended the Small Business Association of Michigan (SBAM) annual meeting and luncheon, courtesy of my colleague Cynthia Kay, who is the incoming SBAM board chairperson.  As part of the keynote address, six gubernatorial candidates for the state of Michigan gave brief speeches on how, if elected, they would address issues key to small business owners. Being a small business owner myself, I listened very carefully to what they had to say.

During lunch, in addition to the official meeting agenda, there was lively table conversation as well. For me, this is where the action really took place because I was seated next to an entrepreneur with far more life’s experience than any of the political candidates on stage: Cynthia’s mother. Throughout the meal, I was treated to stories, observations and advice from a woman nearly four decades my senior.  Cynthia’s mother (“Mrs. A.”) is the matriarch to a family well-known for running several successful businesses. So when she engaged me in conversation, I listened up.

Mrs. A. did not disappoint. Her stories were part personal life history, part sage business wisdom. Our conversation covered the gamut. Her relatives fought in World War II.  She remembers when her uncle’s business was surrounded by fruit orchards.  She recalled that when Cynthia first got a job in broadcast TV, she was advised to ditch her family’s Greek surname because it was “too long and no one would be able to pronounce it.” She also dispensed motherly advice while dishing on her kids.  Evidently, Cynthia’s brother got a bit uppity and called Mrs. A. a “witch” when he was 6 years old – bet you can figure who came out on top of that mother/son exchange. Mrs. A. told me, “Don’t be afraid to be called a ‘witch’ now and then, Jennifer. There are worse things that could happen. Plus, you’ve got to stand up for yourself and make your opinions known. You’ve got to demand respect to get respect.”

Early on in my career, I may not have seen my placement next to an octogenarian as having all that much benefit.  Fortunately, I’ve grown; I now quietly accept the wisdom of those who’ve gone before me.  In the business world, this is called mentoring. It is accepted wisdom that mentors can help people succeed in business. Mentors help aspiring professionals navigate the unspoken rules of an organization.  Women-focused organizations such as The Hot Mommas Project and the National Association of Business Women Owners are a testament to the fact that women want to make connections that will help advance their careers. To be sure, these forms of mentoring are necessary to foster business relationships.  By the same token, this definition of mentoring limits our notion of mentoring opportunities. Few in the business world would call my exchange with Mrs. A. “mentoring”. Yet, in just 20 brief minutes, I was able to glean advice from an unexpected, yet valuable source.  Call it a sort of “speed mentoring,” but mentoring nonetheless. The key was being able to see the opportunity and seize upon it. I came away from our exchange feeling energized, thoughtful and even a bit provoked.

As the luncheon came to a close, Mrs. A. leaned in close to me, put her hand on my arm and with a gleam in her eye said, “So, go out and be a ‘witch’ once in awhile, OK?”

Sure thing, Mrs. A. Now, if I can just figure out where I stored my broom. . . .

About the Author

Jennifer Miller

For 20+ years, Jennifer V. Miller has been helping professionals “master the people equation” to maximize their personal influence. A former HR generalist and training manager, she now advises executives on how to create positive, productive workplace environments. She is the founder and Managing Partner of SkillSource and blogs at The People Equation. You can connect with Jennifer on Twitter @JenniferVMiller.


Andrea Ballard

What a great story! it’s so nice to hear from someone who has fought all the way through and can look back on things from the other side. What a wonderful perspective. Thanks for sharing Mrs. A’s story with us!


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