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In search of the right mentor

WS talks to top executive Lawrence J. Stupski

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in Admins,Leaders & Managers,Management Training,Office Management

Larry Stupski served as vice chairman of Charles Schwab & Co., a discount brokerage firm known for its innovative products and service. Now retired, Stupski is chairman of Jobs for California Graduates, a nonprofit mentoring program for disadvantaged youth. Stupski is living proof that it pays to find a wise, insightful guide to help you sharpen your skills and chart a successful career path.

WS: You’ve been involved in mentoring programs for a long time. Did you ever have a mentor early in your career?

My wife and I just had lunch with my mentor. I met him 27 years ago when I was just starting out. He was my boss at the time. In fact, he’s only three or four years older than me. He helped me set boundaries. He was always there to describe potential personal pitfalls and career insights.

WS: Can you give us an example of something he told you?

I’ll never forget when he said, “Stop complaining. Don’t do it to me or to anyone else.” That really hit home with me. I realized that I’d have to solve problems, not let them get to me. A simple statement like that coming from someone whom you trust and respect can really make a difference.

WS: What advice would you give someone who’s looking for a mentor?

I have a 27-year-old daughter, and I’d advise her to find someone who’s knowledgeable and a good listener. It’s also important that a mentor uses that ‘parental’ element of his or her personality, which is really the ability to teach almost naturally.

WS: How do you assess whether someone has that special teaching quality?

I’d say about one-quarter to one-third of all business people have this gift to teach their peers and employees in an effective, supportive and lasting way. You assess that by getting to know someone and observing how they communicate. If they seem open and they like to converse with you, that’s a good sign. You also want to observe their behavior in meetings. Ideally, they should not allow themselves to get distracted by reading their mail or doing something else. And they’re flexible— they’re willing to come in early to help, for instance.

WS: Are there any other traits you think a great mentor should have?

They’re able to stay on point, fully concentrating on something for that moment in time. Before you choose a mentor, ask yourself, “Can they focus for 15 minutes on one topic and shut everything else out?”

WS: From your experience climbing the corporate ladder, what separates leaders from also-rans?

My experience is that people who persist and develop a mastery of something tend to advance higher. It may be a mastery of some financial process or marketing campaigns or administrative skills or whatever. But it must be a total mastery based on very hard work, education and practice.

That’s the difference between a middle manager who packs and unpacks information up and down the chain of command and a rising executive who leads. The executive can treat setbacks differently because he can fall back on a mastery of skills. That breeds confidence.

WS: Do you think most go-getters understand this concept? Do they routinely try to develop mastery in something?

Stupski: Not really. When I talk to young people about their careers, they might say, “Well, I’m making all this money and I’ve got all these stock options.” Then they explain the terms of their compensation in some detail. I ask, “But what can you do?” And that tends to stop some people cold!

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