Mentoring and Guidance Should Span an Entire Career

We don't stop needing help

The historic roots for modern-day mentoring can be found in Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus, king of Ithaca, went to fight in the Trojan War and entrusted the care of his household to Mentor, who served as teacher and overseer of Odysseus’ son Telemachus.

Three tier blue bird house with a red bird flying above the top, light blue bird on second perch and yellow bird on bottom perch.

Illustration: Sam Kalda

Nearly 3,000 years later, the need for guidance persists, and those who have acquired expertise and wisdom should share their wisdom with the next generation of leaders—especially in this age of digital transformation and disruption.

Usually this supportive outreach is reserved for young people, often those entering the workforce. I look back to my mentors when I first started. They made me cry, doubt myself and then picked me up and got me back in the game. I appreciated their honesty and faith. A good mentor will be brutally honest. But they’ll also be your biggest champions.

One of my favorite aspects of being an ecd is that I get to live above the daily fray of creative duties. It’s given me the space to see the potential in our talent and help them move forward in their career.

But just because you’ve advanced in your career doesn’t mean you stop needing help. So with that in mind, last October I attended the first 3% Conference in San Francisco. The basic premise is that only 3 percent of creative directors are women. I went with a bit of a mixed heart. I’ve worked hard to stay above the “female creative” fray. But that stark 3 percent figure is staggering and worthy of exploration. While the discussions were varied, and intense, it was reassuring and refreshing to see successful creative directors underscore the importance of having a mentor, and not at the start of careers, but at their peak too.

While at the conference, I was able to spend a few minutes with Susan Hoffman, executive creative director at Wieden + Kennedy, during which I asked if I could write to her from time to time for advice. She agreed. On the plane ride home, all I could think about was how cool and interesting it would be to spend a day with her, to watch her work, make decisions, juggle meetings.

It took me a while to get on her schedule, but two months later, I was on a plane to Portland, Ore. Her wisdom, counsel and grounding were inspiring. On a very human level, Hoffman shared the challenges of leading one of the best creative departments in the world. I learned what would have taken years in that day and was inspired to organize a mentorship program for people at that midcareer stage.

Working at an independent agency in a smaller market has its advantages, but there aren’t a lot of people around who understand exactly what you do. It’s not like New York where similarly minded people can commiserate over drinks. I figured if that’s how I felt, there were probably others in smaller markets who had the same need.

So I approached the One Club with the idea of doing a small format retreat with mentors from noteworthy shops and those running departments in smaller secondary markets or smaller agencies in bigger markets. It turned out they’d been talking about something like this for a while, so I provided the nudge and the Creative Leaders Retreat—scheduled to be held in Tucson, Ariz., Feb. 21-22—was born. The response from the people who have agreed to be mentors has been overwhelming.

In some ways, the people who attend will be brave because they’ll be admitting they need guidance. For those of us who freely acknowledge we don’t have all the answers, it’ll be an opportunity to get access to the minds and perspectives of people who we’ve followed our entire careers. We know the work they’ve done, but we don’t necessarily know the work it took to get there.

I hope it will be valuable for the mentors, too. The leaders of our industry don’t always have the time to share what they’ve learned. Legacy, in some ways, feels like an antiquated concept today, but in so many important ways, it is the foundation of future success.

As mentoring and organizational behavior expert and author Gordon Shea so aptly put it, “History and legend record the deeds of princes and kings, but each of us has a birthright to actualize our potential. Through their deeds and work, mentors help us to move toward that actualization.”

Carolyn Hadlock (@chadlock) is ecd at Young & Laramore.