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I tell this story often: I mentor because I had a mentor.
As a 23 year-old copywriter at a small in-house creative agency in Charlotte, NC, I met Cynthia. Cynthia was a creative manager who sparked something in me. She put me under her wing, showed me the ropes, then kicked me out of the nest every chance she got. At the time, I’m not sure I even realized it was “mentoring”. I just knew she was my go-to, my teacher, sage, sounding board, a second Mom. She shaped my trajectory in more ways than she’ll ever know: I got into software marketing because of an introduction she made. I stayed in software marketing because of the counsel she offered.
While at the agency, she introduced me to a friend who was looking for freelance support. Suddenly, I had a second job working nights for the VP of Marketing for a manufacturing software and services company. Within six months she brought me on full-time and so began my career in technology marketing.
The VP was gone in less than a year; suddenly, I was the sole marketing resource and in over my head. What I didn’t have in know-how I made up for with a million calls to Cynthia – and lots of elbow grease. After several years of 50-60-70 hour weeks (I compensated my lack of experience with a ferocious work ethic), I was burnt out and ready for a change. I needed to choose my next move: a corporate communications position at a major bank or a channel marketing role at small supply chain software company. The cache of the big brand name was enticing; finally, a logo on a business card that would actually mean something to my family and friends! The bank job was narrower in scope, but had a slight edge in salary. I had a mortgage. More money sounded good.
In the end, I chose to build a career in software. Today, it’s clear that was a turning-point for me, a decision that shaped my entire career as a marketer, which has been in the tech space. Cynthia helped me evaluate the opportunities with a “future state” mindset: which role would put me in the best position to learn, earn and grow?
Learn: Discover something new (about yourself and your business) every day.
After three years in a small, high growth software and services company, I was used to having my hands in all things marketing. My contributions felt vital. Startups (and small companies in general) are fantastic proving grounds. Resources are scarce, teams are lean. By necessity, there is opportunity to take on projects above your pay grade. I did it all: telemarketing, event coordination, printing, layout, promotions and PR. Once I began running my own marketing team I would often reflect with gratitude, recognizing that my exposure to so many different disciplines made me a stronger manager. I knew firsthand what it took to get the job done. That knowledge helped me set the right expectations with my employees and management. In each role, at every level, I was learning something new almost every day. Cynthia knew – before I did – that without that constant stimulation, I’d quickly become bored.
Earn: Decide for the long-term, not just a short-term payday
The leap from advertising agency to software company had been good for my earnings, but I wasn’t on Easy Street. The bank salary would be even higher and at that point, the difference of a few thousand dollars in annual salary was a big deal. Cynthia helped me look beyond the current offer and consider long-term earning potential. Sure, the bank was offering more cash now, but financial services firms (remember, this was a back office role) were known for annual increase percentages in the low single digits and highly structured compensation policies offering little upside. Already, my short time in tech had showed me that effort and talent combined could yield more generous recognition. Cynthia asked a question I’d never even considered: which role would be best for my W2 in two years? Or five?
Grow: Put yourself on a path to promotion.
The bank job represented stability and success. It also sounded a bit stifling. Cynthia’s gentle inquiry revealed an important truth: I feared obscurity. I was used to operating at startup speed and there was a youthful pride that came with being a big fish in a small pond. The idea of being a cog in a much larger machine, didn’t appeal. Sure, ego was helping to drive this decision, but in the end, it was the right one for me. I was promoted within six months of joining the startup and then promoted again a few months later…and so on. I hit my goal of becoming Vice President of Marketing just a few months shy of my 30th birthday.
I haven’t thought about this pivotal decision in a long time. When I chaired the recent AWNY Impact Awards, I had the opportunity to engage with amazing women who shared their stories about the tremendous influence their mentors had on them and it got me thinking. Cynthia’s impact on my life was profound. Her wisdom, so softly spoken and freely shared, had continuous impact on my early career. Decades later, the future-focused framework she gave me for evaluating career opportunities now takes on an almost butterfly-effect: I chose – and stayed in – software marketing (a field I love!) because of her guidance. Today, I mentor because of her example.
For these reasons and many more, I’m so grateful.