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Great Guidance

Every day across Central Minnesota, someone brings out a cake. Colleagues laugh and share memories. Photos are snapped while handshakes and hugs mark the fact that another Baby Boomer is heading into retirement.

By Lisa Meyers McClintick | Photography by John Linn

An estimated 10,000 Baby Boomers retire each day in the United States. In less than 20 years, according to the Minnesota State Demographic Center, more than half a million people in the state will be age 65 or older. At the same time, the population that’s working age will continue to drop. The region also is facing gaps in community leadership and service. 

Great-Guides_Q3_2017These are daunting challenges, but regional development experts, including the Initiative Foundation, believe that creating opportunities for future leaders to get practical advice and guidance from those who have been there and done that is part of the solution. “Mentorship is and continues to be key to building a future generation of leaders,” said Elk River attorney David Monroy, a member of the Initiative Foundation’s Board of Trustees and chair of the Elk River Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors.

As technology has revolutionized our workplaces, mentorships have evolved. When Thomas Anderson, chief executive officer of Integrated Retirement in Baxter, started his career, much of what he learned came from observing workplace leaders, getting job reviews and working side-by-side with colleagues.

Fast-forward a few decades, and a bustling workplace isn’t necessarily the norm.

That can create challenges and opportunities. Young entrepreneurs brimming with ideas and innovations can find a world of advice and research online while carving out their own business niche. But working solo can also leave them isolated from a face-to-face mentor—someone to whom they can float ideas, go to for resources and seek out for support.

As the demographic shift and its effects became apparent, the Initiative Foundation stepped up to help fill the gap and nurture future business and community leaders through its Emerging Leaders program and its Initiators Fellowship program, which began in 2016. It matches four motivated social entrepreneurs with financial backing, training and a mentor to take their ideas and skills to the next level. 

“Having a mentor to support you, be your partner and keep you on track is worth its weight in gold,” said Andrea Davila, past deputy director for fellowship programs at Echoing Green, the program upon which the Initiators Fellowship is modeled. Davila now lives in Minnesota and serves as a consultant to develop and guide the Foundation’s program. “I think the fellowship program is critically important. It’s really an innovative way to promote leadership and grow leadership in the region.”

1. Create a Good Match

Like any great partnership, it’s important to match up mentors and mentees who feel a connection. “I think it’s really critical that you get the right mentor for the person,” Anderson said. That involves a spark of chemistry, a shared enthusiasm and a mentor whose career experience will be beneficial to the mentee.

They don’t need to be from the same culture or same line of business. Anderson, who is mentoring diabetes advocate and Baxter City Councilwoman Quinn Nystrom, one of the Foundation’s Initiators Fellows, said his mentee has a good handle on her business. He focuses on being a skilled listener and using his experience to offer Nystrom advice on everything from marketing and finances to working with employees as she builds her business.

“I find it challenging and fun to work with someone who has the energy and ideas Quinn has,” he said.

2. Build a Relationship

Monroy counts coaches, parents, family members and professors among his mentors, and becoming a mentor himself has given him a chance to pass along the wisdom he’s gleaned over the years.

Having taught university courses in a classroom and online, he said students frequently prefer in-person classes for the better rapport and lasting relationships they can more easily build with teachers and fellow students.

The same goes for being a mentor. Face-to-face connection is crucial, said Monroy, who is mentoring Annie Deckert, an economic development consultant and Initiators Fellow who helps new and growing manufacturers expand and find the right Central Minnesota home. 

“There is something about that one-on-one relationship that cannot be reproduced in our information age,” said Monroy.

He says it’s important to know what motivates a mentee beyond their work. What are their passions? What are their strengths? How do they balance work with their personal life? What are their dreams? How can all those elements come together cohesively, and how can a mentor help guide them in that direction? 

Monroy and Deckert meet at least once a month, more if needed. Sometimes their meetings are casual and happen over breakfast or lunch, or they meet in one of their offices to discuss more confidential matters. “Mentors serve. They don’t lead,” Monroy said. “I come alongside or underneath to help lift them up.”

3. Set Priorities

In some ways, the digital generation is more connected than any before, yet they can be equally disconnected: Many don’t like to make phone calls or may prefer an exchange of text messages rather than an in-person conversation.

The demand to keep up on social media, the changing landscape for marketing and countless online distractions can also mean it’s easier than ever for young business people to get off-task. Add in the  responsibilities of raising young children, attending school activities and fulfilling other obligations, and launching a business or keeping the career momentum going can feel like swimming upstream.

“They’re pulled in so many directions,” Anderson said. A strong and engaged mentor can help them define and stick to their priorities. They also can help them address challenges by offering resources, helping to set goals and offering advice on everything from promoting their business to finding employees.

“Make sure they’re addressing the challenges they need to face—not avoiding them,” Anderson said.

4. Offer Honest Feedback

Being a mentor, much like a boss or supervisor, requires asking hard questions and giving sometimes uncomfortable feedback. But honest observations can illuminate a blind spot or an overlooked speed bump in a business plan. It can help transform a mentee’s weakness or challenge into a strength.

“Be honest. Offer constructive feedback, but don’t deliver it hurtfully,” said Traci Tapani, co-president of Wyoming Machine in Stacy and the mentor for Initiators Fellow Rod Greder, who is developing advanced neurofeedback eyewear to help easily distracted students stay focused.

“If all you do is encourage, you’re not mentoring,” added Joanne Kudrna, the director of strategy services at Granite Equity Partners in St. Cloud. Kudrna is mentoring Initiators Fellow Hudda Ibrahim, a faculty member at St. Cloud Technical and Community College who wants to help businesses better connect with new immigrants. Family, friends and others can be the full-on cheerleaders, but a wise mentor listens keenly and tailors their advice.

Mentors certainly do help mentees build confidence, Kudrna said, adding that the best mentors she had were the ones who nudged her to take risks. They encouraged her to trust her skill set as she reached for new goals.

5. Enjoy Successes

Seasoned community and business leaders say it’s worth it to carve out the time to be a mentor.

Monroy discovered learning always goes both ways. While he has the expertise, he said it’s refreshing and freeing to work 

with someone new and remember early career years when he focused first and foremost on the basics. Helping someone think about how to smartly develop their business or career also makes him think about how he approaches his business.

“Being a mentor helps me be a better manager,” Monroy said. “It can renew your energy and thoughts.”

For Tapani, a member of the Foundation’s Board of Trustees, workplace mentoring has helped her shape motivated employees into skilled manufacturers, including several young women who have found success in an industry where they are the minority.

Tapani once hired a woman who was working at McDonald’s. She thrived in manufacturing and continued to improve her education and skills until she was ultimately hired away by a bigger company. “It was life-changing for her,” Tapani said. “A lot of people need encouragement and support, someone to say, ‘You can do it!’ Mentoring is a worthwhile investment. It can make a difference in Central Minnesota.”

Kudrna agrees. “Each person you work with brings their own strengths—a way in which they approach the world,” she said, noting that she has learned about Somali-American culture and has gained new perspective as a result of her relationship with Ibrahim.

“I share her passion and excitement for what she’s trying to accomplish,” she said. “It’s important to businesses and the community.”

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