Susan Bender Phelps created Odyssey Mentoring & Leadership to make a difference for people and organizations that aspire to go higher – this is her passion.
Odyssey’s programs teach the essential relational and communication skills organizations facing global competition and multiple generations in the workplace need to succeed. Effective mentoring and leadership are key elements for increasing employee engagement, profitability and maximizing ROI on training dollars.
Susan holds a Masters in Management & Organizational Leadership. Prior to opening Odyssey, she ran a non-profit that provided mentoring programs for at-risk youth. The program literally transformed lives.
MO: What inspired your decision to launch Odyssey Mentoring & Leadership? Did you have an ‘aha’ moment while running your mentoring programs for at-risk youth?
Susan: I did have an “aha” moment, but it occurred when I was researching topics for my masters thesis in 2007. With 15 years of youth mentoring behind me, I wanted to see what was happening in corporations. I found the results of the Coaching Mentoring Practitioners Survey that had been just been conducted and was I surprised!
Of 300 companies surveyed less than half have programs.
Less than one-fifth of employees consider programs good or excellent , and more than half of companies with programs report use by only 4-5% of employees.
As soon as I read that, I knew there was a niche for me. After years of training adults to be effective mentors to young people at risk of dropping out of school, joining gangs, becoming teen parents and potentially spending their adulthood behind bars – most of whom were able to completely turn their lives around — I knew I could make a difference by helping clients make their programs stronger and their companies more profitable. It is all in the design of the program, the training of the mentors and mentees and support from the top.
Many corporate mentoring programs are designed to help those “poor women and minorities of both genders feel as if someone wants them to succeed.” But being invited into a program feels like it’s a life preserver for the “victim’s unit” is not an opportunity. It is a waste of time and money.
An invitation to the mentoring program should be an honor, as highly regarded as a plum assignment. It is for your stars. I can hear it, “But our stars don’t need mentoring!”
Effective mentoring for your star performers will create new possibilities and levels of performance that will positively impact the bottom line. It will also begin to create a learning environment that will encourage others to reach for the stars – so they can be good enough to be in the next program.
If you are mentoring the stars, then your mentors must have the commensurate skills– that is where I come in. Now, even if we teach and support those skills, mentoring alone is not enough. Everyone in the company needs to see a clear path to career growth as a result of being in the mentoring program.
MO: Do you think that it’s true that if a person isn’t mentoring they’re not truly leading?
Susan: The best leaders should be expected to identify and cultivate leaders and peak performers to keep the organization growing and successful. When I interviewed Sarah Mensah, Chief Marketing Officer of the Portland Trail Blazers for my book, she could point to major turning points throughout her career where mentoring helped her to grow and develop. I live in Portland and often run into members of her staff, they all tell me that Sarah maintains a culture of mentoring that makes them feel honored to work with her. They know they have a future and that they are valued. That is the secret to high employee engagement and productivity.
MO: Can you talk about some of the mentoring relationships that you’ve had and what made them successful as both a mentor and mentee?
Susan: My first career mentor was an architect named Bob Turner. We met when I was the public information officer for the chamber of commerce in Albuquerque, NM. I had been working closely with Bob when he served as chair of our Sites & Sights Development Tour, and event that featured the new construction and development in the city and the companies that made it happen. I could see the basic skills were the same: ability to network productively, write persuasively, and research opportunities.
After a preliminary interview with a top firm, I was invited to come back a week later to deliver a presentation on how I would market their group of consulting engineering firms to architects and governmental agencies.
I had a vague idea of what kind of work the different disciplines performed and I didn’t know how architects, engineers and their clients thought about their work, their business and the future.
Bob, who did the marketing for his firm agreed to help me prepare. He invited me to come to his office and go through his firm’s marketing files to learn what comprised a successful proposal, see what good marketing materials for the built environment look like and the kinds of messages that communicate. I jumped at the opportunity.
He answered my many questions about local market conditions and the roles of the different players in our market. Because I was open to new ideas and perspectives, I learned to think more strategically about business development and marketing.
I got the job and went on to become a very successful business development director for all three engineering firms.
Bob remained a mentor, friend, client and resource. He generously shared his network with me and introduced me to people and organizations that could help me. That is why I joined the Society for Marketing Professional Services and ultimately became an officer in our local chapter. I joined the National Association of Industrial and Office Parks. I stayed active in the chamber of commerce where I had worked and joined the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber as well. And I volunteered for Albuquerque Economic Development to help attract new business to the area. All of these activities helped me to build my own network.
I was lucky because Bob was a natural mentor and sponsor. He was a professional colleague who readily stepped up to become my mentor. This is clearly the ideal of informal mentoring. Bob and I had been working together on a project for the chamber for two years. We met through our jobs, but didn’t work for the same companies. Our relationship began as a situational acquaintance and over time warmed into a collegial friendship and then mentoring.
I had an important role in my own success because I took every opportunity he offered and ran with it When Bob asked me if I wanted to go to his office and look through his files so I could learn about how engineering firms marketed to his firm, I didn’t hesitate.
When he took the time to talk with me about the philosophical underpinnings of the built environment, I listened and used those talks as the foundation for me to learn more by reading professional journals and going to workshops sponsored by the Society for Marketing Professional Services.
Our conversations and my self-directed learning gave me firm ground to have these same kinds of conversations with the engineers in my firms and architects and developers in our client firms, helping to build their trust in me.
For the last three months I have been mentoring an old friend who is a pharmaceutical rep. We met years ago when I worked with his Dad at the engineering firms. He became a member of the board of directors of the New Mexico Youth at Risk Foundation where I had been Executive Director. He’s on my mailing list for Odyssey Mentoring and responded to one of my updates with a request for mentoring. He had been unable to meet his sales quotas and was in danger of losing his job. Back when he was on the board, he was on of the top producers for the company he worked for. I knew I could help.
We scheduled weekly talks and began seeing improvements almost immediately. The firs thing we addressed was his sense of failure and resignation. We didn’t have to analyze him or dig deeply into his psyche. Instead we talked about the goals, what he needed to do each day to reach them, how to talk about his progress with his boss and how to take better care of himself and his family. He grabbed hold of the lifeline and swam with everything he was worth. We focused on the low-hanging fruit – the doctors most likely to have patients with the disease his product treats and he stuck to the plans he made. In the last 90 days, he met his annual sales target.
Mostly, I asked a lot of questions and listened. Then I helped him organize his thinking and made him accountable for reporting his results – successes, failures, any movement toward the goal and even no movement. We examined what insights he was having and developed mini action plans to keep him moving. Next week, we will work on improving his overall time management and organization skills – by his request. He really does know what he needs to succeed. I listen, coach, suggest, trouble-shoot and give lavish praise when it is due.
The cool thing is that business has been slow these last six months and in the process of mentoring him, my sales and marketing has picked up. I am writing more proposals, got scheduled lead a training program for one client and just signed another for 6 months of consulting. Our mentoring partnership benefited both of us.
I am also a firm believer in practicing what I teach. So it is really gratifying to demonstrate the power of the mentoring skills that I teach:
Being a Keen Observer of Patterns
Effective Communication with Different Personality Styles
Conducting Conversations that Lead to Breakthroughs in Performance
MO: Can you explain what Emotional Intelligence is and the importance of using it in the workplace and beyond?
Susan: According to John D. Mayer and Peter Salovey, two of the leading researchers on the topic, emotional intelligence (EI) is “the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions.”
In my workshops I teach that emotions occur all the time and arrive unbidden. Emotion is an automatic response to a stimulus. Some emotions capture our attention and some do not. Problems occur when negative emotions threaten to overwhelm or prompt us to act in ways that damage our relationships or undermine our effectiveness.
If we can be perceptive, and identify the emotion, take a moment think and make a reasoned response, rather than an automatic emotion-driven response we will be more effective. That is why Emotional Intelligence skills are important in the workplace. Effective leaders and mentors have what they call high EIQ.
MO: Do you think that most people have the capacity to become great leaders with the right tools and techniques?
Susan: I’d say most people have the capacity to become effective or capable leaders. Great leaders are another breed entirely. These are men and women who go far beyond being effective. They attain a high level of mastery in their style of leadership and go as far as it can take them. Great leaders don’t abuse the power that comes with their leadership. We can look through history and point to great leaders who fully realized their potential. We can also identify those who had the skills, for a while they had the power, but then, they abused it, and their infamy is their legacy.
I think it is important that we always recognize that our leaders are human beings who will make mistakes, disagree with us from time to time and still, they are great leaders. They are not idols, magicians or angels. Our greatest leaders are skilled human beings with an extraordinary talent for leading others.
MO: Can you tell our readers a bit about your new book, “Aspire to Go Higher: How Mentorship That Works Can Help You Get There”? Can you talk us through the inspiration for the book and the writing process behind it?
Susan: In this book I present a series of vignettes from my own career and from interviews I conducted with successful people who credit mentoring with supporting them in their careers and personal growth. Their inspiring stories have allowed me to clearly distinguish the principles and practices that enable mentoring to fulfill the promise of leadership and career development, breakthrough thinking, higher productivity, career satisfaction and higher earning potential.
At the end of each story, I distinguish three elements that worked in each partnership so readers can see very clearly what it takes to be effective in their own mentoring relationship or program.
I chose stories of people from large and small corporations, entrepreneurs, and non-profits as well as a scientist and college student turned science fiction writer. This is because the principles and practices of effective mentoring are universal and can be successfully applied no matter your profession or goals.
I interviewed Sarah Mensah, Chief Marketing Officer of the Portland Trail Blazers, the only African American woman in a C-level position in the NBA, Bibby Gignilliat, CEO of Parties That Cook, a $2 million dollar a year company that uses the vehicle of gourmet cooking as executive team building for its Fortune 500 clients, Mike Saxton, a science fiction writer and a man who started as a mobile phone installer back in the day and now runs four companies.
It’s a “you can do it, too” book.
It took me more than a year and half to write. I did not use a ghost writer. I am in the process of choosing the self-publishing firm I will be using to get it in print, as an e-book and an audio book. This has been one of the most challenging assignments I have given myself. I had to choose the voice of the book, the audience and believe me that was a moving target for a while.
I am a corporate trainer, so it seemed it should be a book to top level executives on why they should have a mentoring program, how to make it effective from the start or how to beef up their existing program. Then I realized that would just be a very long advertising brochure. I want this book to make a difference and I didn’t want to write a “how to” book. There are a lot of those. I wanted to tell real stories that would inspire people to become mentors or to get one. I want then to know that talented people with lofty goals and plenty of desire to go higher are the very people who can use mentoring – from either side of the partnership to reach their goals. Mentoring is not about fixing what is wrong or engaging the disengaged – it is about polishing the shining stars – in your organization – or yourself for a greater role in the future.
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