I've been thinking a lot about mentoring lately, what with January being National Mentoring Month and February honoring two great leaders — George Washington and Abraham Lincoln — who were arguably among our nation's most important mentors.
As I recalled important mentors in my life, I developed a sort of "thank you roll of honor," of six who taught and encouraged me at critical times in my 40-plus year career, the last 25 of which I've spent in my own firm.
Some are no longer with us, and others I am no longer tapping for guidance, though much of what they taught me remains valuable.
Invest, ask others
It was Dayton Hudson's Ken Dayton, one of the five brothers behind the now $73 billion Target Corp., who impressed me early in the 1970s.
He explained that the full mission of a successful business included pioneering programs that invested in employees and community to build the kind of environment that could sustain workers and their families. He always asked with sincerity about how I was doing, regardless of the nature of our encounter, and cautioned me about excessive partisanship being counter productive. He died 13 years ago, one day shy of his 81st birthday.
Rhodes Scholar and engineer Ed Spencer, the former Minnesota-based Honeywell's onetime CEO (1974-87) who took a chance and hired me after my years of political organizing, taught me that I did not have to know it all to succeed.
I learned to resource myself on company projects I oversaw, asking others who were in the know to help sort out our potential new business strategies. He was a leader who insisted we carefully list the opportunities and threats of each new deal, and to do so succinctly, without wasting time. Ed "got" things quickly and could make decisions rapidly. He died on March 25, 2012, at age 85.
Listen, serve with character
The former Minnesota-based First Bank System CEO George Dixon, a Harvard MBA who once worked under President Gerald Ford as deputy U.S. Treasury secretary, oversaw my work at the Minnesota Business Partnership.
He insisted we listen to those most affected by a decision, check and double check to get the facts right, assemble relevant data and decide. He died on June 28, 2013, at the age of 92.
In early 2015, we said goodbye to David Koch, 84, a former Notre Dame football scholarship athlete who became the president and CEO of Graco from 1962 to 1996, retiring in 2001 as chairman of the board. Over his tenure, Graco grew from a niche manufacturer with $33 million in revenue to a half billion in sales.
An unassuming, behind-the-scenes leader, he taught me (and many others) the value of serving with character. Working with Dayton, he founded the 5 Percent Club for corporate philanthropy now known as the Center for Ethical Business Cultures. Dave also quietly invested in an Endowed Chair in Business Ethics at the University of St. Thomas and was a founder of the Center for Catholic Studies there.
Clear the decks
Bruce Atwater spent his business career at General Mills, serving as the president and then CEO for five years.
An excellent marketer, he taught me the importance of focusing on the important things by clearing the deck of the less important. Before Bruce, our business partnership efforts had been too often ineffective due to trying to do too much resulting in accomplishing very little. I have never witnessed a more effective one-on-one lobbyist than Bruce, especially during a tense 1985 discussion with Gov. Rudy Perpich about long-term state tax policy.
I learned a great deal about being a business leader and the required multiple skill sets from Mike Wright, a north Minneapolis kid who played football for the Gophers and as a professional in Canada (as he completed the U's law school) before joining the Dorsey & Whitney firm in Minneapolis. Recruited to join Supervalu in 1977, the next year he was named president. By 1981, Mike had begun a 20-year career as CEO. Simply put, Mike could do it all. A quick study on strategy and options, he could articulate and present the important details in convincing ways. When he reviewed my job performance, it was not a slam-dunk thing.
I found that there are lifelong benefits and little downside to entering a mentoring relationship, most notably access to seasoned knowledge about how best to address both life and work situations, advice on avoiding certain pitfalls, and, introductions to others who can also be helpful; thanks to the business leaders mentioned and many others who have helped me along the way.