yoda.jpgIs there someone you respect in your field or industry, someone you feel you can learn from? If so, call that person, or walk over to their office today and ask if you can take them out for a cup of coffee. If she or he says, “go away” then consider yourself lucky. You only want to learn from people who are willing to teach you.

I’m continuing to include excerpts of my book “From the Sandbox to the Corner Office” for all you aspiring leaders and entrepreneurs out there. This time we turn to mentors.

“A man only learns in two ways, one by reading, and the other by association with smarter people.” Will Rogers

Many of the head honchos in this book have taken a two-pronged approach to learning about the ins and outs of leadership and the industries they found themselves in — dive in head first no matter your knowledge or background, but make sure a lifeguard is at the edge of the pool.

Dynamic leaders typically plunge into managerial assignments throughout their careers with little knowledge about what it means to be the boss, hoping their moxie and stamina will help them ride the wave up the corporate ranks. However, they also keep a look out for bosses, colleagues, family members, and in some cases long-deceased authors who might become their own personal Yodas. Without the help of a formal mentoring program, they forge relationships, either real or metaphoric, that they say propelled them to where they are today.

“I’ve found the great leaders seek out individuals who they believe are smart, deep thinkers with lots of experience,” says Albert A. Vicere, executive education professor of Strategic Leadership at the Smeal College of Business at Penn State University.

While corporations of all kinds are scrambling these days to develop formal mentoring programs, even using virtual, web-based products to bring together mentor and mentee, it is often the accidental relationships, the ones formed on the fly, that do the most good. Structured programs, Vicere adds, work best when an individual first gets to a new organization but then fall apart once careers start to move along.

Some executives in the book say they threw caution to the wind early in their careers and approached possible mentors who showed no previous interest to be a teacher or advocate to the aspiring managers. In one scenario, an executive approached his business hero at a fancy restaurant despite his fear of rejection. Another focused on asking questions, lots of questions, from a manager she respected and hoped he wouldn’t send her packing.

One key phrase that keeps coming up among leaders is that their mentors “believed in me.” Over and over again, that plays a pivotal role, they say, in their success.

Terry Lundgren, CEO, President and Chairman of Federated Department Stores Inc.

lundgren.jpgAt 35, Terry Lundgren took a job as executive vice president at Neiman Marcus department stores, becoming the number two guy behind the chairman and CEO. He was in charge of supervising all the stores, including store planning, design, construction, and selling merchandise.

About a week after he took the post he was heading out for dinner at a posh restaurant in downtown Dallas where on his way in he saw the fashion icon himself, Stanley Marcus, walking out with his wife. “I just froze. I thought, ‘oh my God. There goes Stanley Marcus,”’ he recalls. At that point, Marcus had not been connected with the retail empire his family started, having left after a falling out at the company. But to Lundgren he was the Elvis Presley of fashion and here he was right in front of him.

Lundgren decided to approach Marcus but says he was very nervous given that to him the fashion guru was larger than life. “But I said to myself ‘what do I have to lose?’ If he says, ‘go away kid,’ so I have a bruised ego for a minute. If he acknowledged me or has a meeting with me, I thought, ‘how great would that be?’ I weighed the pros and cons and quickly concluded I should go for it.”

So Lundgren walked up to Marcus and introduced himself and “before I could finish my last name he said, ‘I know exactly who you are and always wanted to meet you.’ I said, ‘I’d like to call you some time and pick your brain.’ He said, ‘why not tomorrow.’”

That chance encounter led to what would become a close friendship, with Marcus offering guidance and support to the younger Lundgren during his five-year tenure at Neiman Marcus.

Their first meeting was lunch at Marcus’ office where he showed Lundgren his retail memorabilia, and collections of pieces he had collected on various buying trips. “I was just listening to this guy, enamored, and from that point forward I met with Stanley every month.”

During one of their lunches, Marcus’ fashion insights led to sales for Lundgren’s stores. The two were dining in the posh Neiman Marcus restaurant in the downtown Dallas store, called Zodiac, and Marcus, who would always bring a new thought to the pair’s meetings, talked about a recent visit he made to Europe where he saw a designer who used a lot of boucle materials in women’s suits. Marcus surmised there was a market for suits in the U.S. that wasn’t being satisfied for upscale consumers. The right fabric, he claimed, would translate well for the designer customer. “I thought that was a good idea. We had it made and the product sold very well.”

As time went on Lundgren began inviting his executive team to the Marcus lunches, and he also started inviting Marcus to town hall meetings he held with the department store’s staff. The meetings started with 100 people and swelled to 1,000 employees with Marcus as the main draw. Given Marcus’ history with the retailer, his input gave Lundgren much needed credibility when he took on the job of CEO for Neiman Marcus at age 37.

When Lundgren pondered the idea of going after a younger clientele, 25 to 35, he talked to Marcus about his idea. After the meeting Marcus stopped at Lundgren’s office door, turned around and said: “my father and my aunt and I would talk about business every night at dinner and I remember my father said to me ‘we have to learn to carry water on both shoulders.’” And then Marcus proceeded to leave. Lundgren stopped him and asked him what he meant by that and he added, “You have to have a strategy for your core customer but alter that for you next customer.”

It was important that Marcus embrace Lundgren’s strategy and Lundgren himself. “It was one thing for me to propose these strategies to the people at Neiman Marcus but when I had him next to me saying these things, the team signed up and was ready to charge up the hill with me.”

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