What’s the Secret Behind Most Great Leaders? Great Mentors.

May 5, 2021

By Frank Chellew, for Eleven Canterbury

I have invested my entire career in the retail management world of department stores. It’s been a long and rocky road, but I have grown exponentially both personally and professionally. Innate drive and strong mentors have guided me through endless challenges and unknowns. I am now proud to call myself a mentor and motivated to give back to the next generation of leaders.

I began my journey with a 10-store-chain in Philadelphia. I grew to lead a highly engaged 74-person-team operating in 700 locations of Macy’s Inc. The men’s apparel and footwear division that I led was a top corporate profit generator responsible for $2b in annual sales, frequently leading corporate performance results. I’ve been able to successfully land on my feet through more than ten whirlwind corporate mergers. Had I not had a handful of strategic mentors on my journey, I wouldn’t have fulfilled my potential.

It may have been fortuitous that I restarted my career in New York with Gimbels East after its UK parent BATUS (also Saks owner), announced a novel merger consolidation of 4 US divisions. The announcement came on my first day as an Assistant Buyer. As a result of the organizational changes, my new prized promotion was instantly toast through an immediate job elimination! While the early 1980s Gimbel’s consolidation was a colossal failure, it foreshadowed so much department store M & A activity to come. In the 1980s and 1990s, I would develop new strengths and insights while navigating active mergers and unprecedented sales and market share growth. I was lucky to be navigating all of this with incredible, tenacious forward-thinking merchants. Being challenged by leaders that I looked up to was instrumental to my development in these early years.

Thoughtful mentorship drove me to be my best self in tumultuous times. My blind drive could have easily short-changed me had it not been for special people who coached and supported me in my career journey. Mentors can spot a spark and a talent and cultivate it even without the mentee being aware in the beginning. I have been fortunate to receive this gift. As a mentee, I learned things about myself that I didn’t expect. One learning was not always to have a quick and ready answer to a question or challenge. Yikes – that was a surprise! I believed that I was always expected to have answers. A mentor revealed that quick responses might unintentionally convey a lack of open-mindedness instead of diligent preparation. It’s important to simply take a moment to consider another idea, even if the next course of action seems clear. Listening is a powerful skill that leads to positive engagement. Another meaningful mentee learning was that performance results don’t always speak for themselves. I learned to deliver my best performance results and communicate and share my successful strategies with the leadership team.

The mentee experience was not always instantly clarifying or necessarily joyful. I asked trusted leaders for candid feedback to begin professional relationships. I would also ask respected attendees of my speaking presentations for comments. The responses were sometimes painful to receive, yet I knew that it was necessary to hear them in order to evolve, grow and improve. Mentors are the cornerstones of the development that builds leaders. I’ll add that personal and professional development are arguably the same. After all, we are only one person. The idea of separating the personal and professional self is misguided. As a Gemini, I know! When we acknowledge who we are to ourselves, our successes, and our vulnerabilities, and in turn share our genuine self with our teams, inclusive of leading upward, we are living engagement through example in every interaction of every day. I have gained this insight as I’ve begun to mentor others.

As I became more comfortable and confident in myself, I found I wanted to continue learning and growing, and I wanted to reach out and bring my team along to share my experiences. I made it my mission to give back and mentor. Mentorship is about candid communication. One cannot grow without direct feedback. In some cases, I have realized that I was the first leader to be giving honest feedback to some individuals, some not so early in their careers. Sometimes curt conversations or aggressive email exchanges are justified as communicating with passion. But this kind of communication needs to be called out thoughtfully as a teaching moment. It is possible to be assertive and confident in your approach while behaving respectfully, whether in a conversation or via email. Giving candid feedback regarding performance issues is not the fun part of leading, but it is critical to address them as close to the moment as is appropriate. Candor and listening are skills. When feedback is direct and sincere but never personal or judgemental, it’s an art.

As a senior manager, I learned that junior team members appreciate more “leader listening” and sharing back in a safe environment with less topical speeches or “lessons.” I have found that more growth happens in deemed safe environments. When you create a secure space, people open up, and genuine exchange happens. This process combines several techniques, including active listening, discussing shared goals, and supporting an individual’s growth opportunities. Creating a welcoming space can be as simple as sharing some warm Brooklyn bagels before a meeting. Suddenly, the business gathering feels more comfortable and open. Breaking bread and chatting about some personal topics around the table before getting into the team’s important agenda should not be underestimated as a way to build long-term team engagement. I also use humor as an engagement tool and am frequently the subject of my own jokes.

My new favorite dual-learning concept is “reverse mentoring.” I readily give of myself and my time while asking others to teach me new tricks and technologies that will keep me relevant. This is a symbiotic relationship – the win is on both sides. The junior mentor gets one-on-one leadership time with someone who has a breadth of experience and wisdom. At the same time, the leader mentee learns about new social media, what junior members are streaming, and how junior team members are shopping.

I am eternally a student of the business, my peers, and life’s journey. In hindsight, I chose a career in the retail industry that has changed more in the past ten years than it did in the prior 100 years. But then that is why it was so exciting, so edge-of-the-seat engaging. That’s how I experienced so much growth. Through open dialogues, I evolved from mentee to mentor. And whether you are teaching or absorbing, I’ll emphasize that mentoring is not about telling anyone what or how to do something. Listening is the key.

Learn more about Eleven Canterbury’s Mentoring Initiative.

Frank Chellew is a member of the Eleven Canterbury network. He was the VP/DMM, Men’s, and Kid’s at Lord & Taylor. Prior to that, he was the GVP, Omni Channel DMM, Men’s Tailored Clothing, Footwear, Furnishing, & Accessories at Macy’s.

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