Best Mentorships Happen Organically

The issue of mentorship and executive development is a tricky one. There are formal programs such as the ones mentioned by Don Harris, formerly of Wild Oats and Safeway, in his column in this issue on page 100.

These often focus on transmitting specific skills, say teaching a produce clerk how to properly rotate product. There are also wonderful University-based programs. Since its founding, I’ve had the pleasure to teach at Cornell University each year as part of the faculty of the United Fresh Produce Executive Development Program. This program tries to transmit higher level skills, say key skills that one might learn had one taken an MBA at a top school, but in a limited time frame.

My friends, Jay and Ruthie Pack, were visionary and generous – a pretty incredible combination! – in originating the Pack Family/PMA Career Pathways Fund, which set a standard for how one can reach out to students and introduce them to new worlds. This program ultimately generated the PMA Foundation for Industry Talent, geared toward attracting and retaining people to work in the produce trade.

Building on the legacy Jay and Ruthie established the Eastern Produce Council and PRODUCE BUSINESS together spend a small fortune at The New York Produce Show and Conference to bring in university students and faculty to hear from star-studded industry luminaries, such as Bruce Peterson and Frieda Caplan. Not limited by a mission to have people work in the industry, we expanded the initiative and now offer the largest program to bring culinary students to any produce event — mentoring these young people as to the possibilities produce offers for their recipe development and culinary work.

This issue of PRODUCE BUSINESS is always a highlight as 40 deserving up-and-comers are recognized before the whole industry. The 40-Under-Forty program is not only designed to provide recognition for these select individuals, it is designed to provide an aspiration for every person as they undertake a career in the produce trade. In launching the program, we wanted them to know that industry, intelligence, self-discipline, a willingness to defer gratification, a willingness to engage in public service… that internalization of these character traits would, in due course, be recognized before the entire industry.

Corporate decisions to commit to mentoring can be helpful; the transmission of skills from generation to generation is important. Yet as anyone who has ever had a real mentor knows, it is a relationship that can’t be willed into existence. I had a junior high school teacher who decided I was worthy of sharing his library with and gave me a book each month. I had a high school teacher who introduced me to foreign films and political lectures. I had a college professor who thought enough of me to personally edit articles I wrote and to call colleagues to try to get me fellowships and internships.

I have a 22-year old assistant, and when I go on high-level consulting assignments, I often let him sit in, let him see a world he wouldn’t see otherwise. His old boss used to make him wait in the car.

Do all these things really help the mentor? Financially that is unclear. You could make a case that such behavior might engender loyalty, but the very nature of honest mentorship requires one to encourage a mentee to seek opportunities where they exist. Of course, better-skilled workers are a win, though, once again, honest mentoring has to include helping the mentee negotiate to get what he is worth.

Of course, being mentored is a value in and of itself and, very often, people stay where they are because they want the opportunity to work with certain people. This could be because of their skills but, also, because of their emotional and intellectual generosity. People like to work with people they think care for them and want them to succeed.

Besides, win or not in the immediate sense, maybe there is some great karmic stream, some Jungian oneness, and when one throws a little love into the world, maybe one gets a little back.

Good mentoring is actually hard work — which is why those who grow up with parents both loving and able are so fortunate. There is someone in the world who both knows enough to teach them well and cares enough to make the effort to do so. That is why family businesses can be such awesome competitors.

Mentorship doesn’t have to be announced. Indeed because the higher up one rises, the less success is about specific skills and more about traits of character, the very best mentorship is not a lecture but an example. My father, Michael Prevor, died earlier this year after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was my greatest mentor by far, yet he never gave a lecture. He taught me the importance of hard work by working hard. He taught me the importance of learning by always learning new things. He taught me the importance of looking ahead by always thinking about the future. He taught me the importance of leadership by leading. He taught me the importance of love by loving.

In the end, people rarely follow people because they have an MBA. They follow the people whose character inspires them. In the end, each individual has to dig down deep and decide what character they will carry in this world. Mentorship programs can help, but they are thin substitutes for able and loving parents.