Mentoring: Pass It On

by Theresa Cogswell
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When I started my career in the 1980s, the male-dominated baking industry was not big on the “soft” skills of mentoring. As a research baker for an ingredient company, learning from your mistakes and not making the same mistake tomorrow that you did today were key parts of your training program. You made your way and built your reputation one learning experience at a time.

Since R&D labs were dominated by women of similar age in those days, we were all working hard to advance our careers. Not the type of work environment that embraced mentoring. But there were people in the company who would sing your praises to people outside the company. I remember several times running into college friends who said, “I hear you are doing very well.” My first response would be, “Where did you hear that?” During the early days of my career, the answer was always the same: “Lyle Woods.” Lyle did more for my reputation and career with positive and kind words about my work life and ability than he could have ever imagined.

So was Lyle a mentor? Probably not by today’s standards for formal corporate mentoring programs, but if you look up “mentor” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, it defines a mentor as a loyal friend or advisor. Given the definition, there should have been a photo of Lyle included in the dictionary. Lyle was a wise, knowledgeable and respected member of the baking industry. A good word from Lyle was like a shot of adrenaline for your self-esteem and your career in the baking industry. Never underestimate the value of a positive word about a colleague, supplier or competitor. You may never know the true effect on someone’s personal and professional life.

IT TAKES ALL KINDS.

There are different types of mentors. Most of us can remember the first person who helped shortened our learning curve and provided guidance in our professional development as we started our careers. For some of us, the memory of someone who takes a personal interest in our career will be remembered no matter how many years pass. In my case, that person was Dr. Lou Wollerman. Lou was the vice-president of R&D at the Paniplus Co. in the 1980s.

Over the years, I wondered if Lou missed his calling as an educator. It was not uncommon for him to bring colleagues into the lab library and begin drawing on the whiteboard. Lou wanted better time use, something we now call decreasing time from concept to consumer. In his PhD style, he would draw his rendition of a factorial experimental design on the board. Lou would then provide insight as to how to use experimental design to achieve successful product development results in a more professional and timely manner. This brings me to the second and third definitions of mentor found in Webster: 2) a wise, loyal advisor and 3) a teacher or coach. Dr. Lou Wollerman definitely fit these definitions of mentor to a T!

PAYING IT FORWARD.

Now fast-forward 20 years, and it is my turn to repay the mentoring gift from Lyle and Lou. They set great examples of how to train and promote your colleagues, employees, suppliers and competitors. During that time, I was also blessed with two beautiful daughters of my own. Having girls brought the desire close to home to assist and mentor young women. Helping women get ahead and manage their careers in the man’s world of the baking industry was a way to give back. While I also help men entering the industry, my focus has been on women.

My friend, who I will call Rae, seeks out her mentors with a purpose. She looks for people who are highly respected by their peers, does her best to get to know them at business functions and trade shows and then works to develop a personal relationship. “I do nothing to let them down or make them anything less than proud to be associated with me,” Rae said. “I think this is key to getting and keeping a mentor.” Rae realizes that mentoring is a 2-way street. It has to be beneficial and rewarding for both parties for long-term relationship building and mentoring success.

“I have been blessed with or sought out mentors in all areas of expertise within the many aspects of the baking industry. The amount of knowledge I have been able to garner from more experienced and wiser colleagues has enabled my career in many ways.” While this is a quote from Rae, these words could have easily been a quote from me as well. The people who touched my life by caring enough to share their experience and lessons learned have made me a better person, baker and mentor. Thank you, Lou and Lyle, and all of the other informal mentors too numerous to mention!


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