CHROs and their Mentors

Top HR leaders share their stories and experiences around the mentoring they received to help them succeed.

By Maura C. Ciccarelli

Who was your most significant mentor?

In all great stories, whether in real life or fiction, there's usually someone helping the main character live up to his or her true potential. Chief human resource officers are no different. They can always point to one or more people who had big influences in their careers and their lives, someone who helped move their game into high gear. How they came into their lives, and what lessons were learned, are insightful stories.

For Harvard Business School graduate Ken Meyers, his primary mentor came from a surprising place far outside the business world.

In early 1990, Meyers left his familiar Chicago life to become an HR director for Otis Elevator Company South Africa in Johannesburg at a pivotal time. Nelson Mandela had just been released from prison and apartheid was about to crumble. He wanted to learn more about the country and its people than he could from books or corporate colleagues.

When a co-worker suggested that he spend a weekend at the Kliptown Clinic, run by Sister Mokoka (nurses are called sisters in South Africa), he said yes.

Mokoka had been managing the medical clinic since 1954, serving the poorest of the poor who called the shantytown their home.

Meyers says that when she shook his hand for the first time, enveloping his hand with her two hands, he felt a "bolt of energy."

His ongoing relationship with her and the people of that poor shantytown in Soweto taught him how to extend his own energy to have a greater impact.

The lessons he learned from her about service, perseverance and leadership stayed with him, leading him to self-publish a 100-page book in 2008, titled Leadership Against All Odds: Sister Eva Mokoka's Universal Lessons of Leadership.

Today, as senior vice president of organizational transformation and people development for Hospira, based in Lake Forest, Ill., Meyers says he continues to learn from Mokoka's mentoring legacy, including to "seek out mentorship and pull it toward you," instead of waiting for someone in HR or another area to give you the opportunity.

"Identify what your needs are, find those individuals who can meet those needs and expand your network," says Meyers. "You have to go take ownership for your own development."

Watch and Learn

Curiosity has led Rino Piazzolla, chief human resource officer and a senior executive director of New York-based AXA Equitable Life Insurance Co., to find lessons from mentors, whether they knew they were mentors or not.

In the early 1980s, when Piazzolla was a junior HR manager for S.C. Johnson Wax's Milan, Italy, operation, the CEO, Gianni Montezemolo, had the closing speed of elevator doors increased.

"Everybody thought [the elevator change] was stupid and a waste of money," says Piazzolla.

His curiosity and "brash" nature, as he calls it, led him to ask Montezemolo why he did it. "He told me that he wanted to change the pace of the company. He wanted to foster the sense of urgency and speedy execution he was expecting."

The combination of this symbolic action, combined with ongoing communications about the goal to increase the pace of the already successful company, did just that.

"I've been fortunate ... to interact with a lot of very smart people over the years, so I personally have observed a lot of senior leaders -- how they behaved in different situations, how they conducted themselves," says Piazzolla, whose career path has taken him to PepsiCo, General Electric, the European bank UniCredit, and, currently, AXA. "I consider them ... mentors as well."

In addition to Nestor Carbonell, PepsiCo's former vice president of international government affairs, Piazzolla also cites Bill Conaty, GE's former CHRO, as being instrumental in his career development. Conaty became a trusted adviser instead of just a boss when Piazzolla decided he wanted to move to another career level, which eventually took him to UniCredit. The two have stayed close since, checking in periodically to see how things are going.

"I was never afraid to share anything with Bill," Piazzolla says. "We would discuss a dilemma and what to do and not to do."

To help make meaningful connections between junior employees and senior leaders, AXA has developed a "reverse" mentoring program called "Swim or Sink," in which junior-level employees mentor senior leaders to build their digital capabilities around social media, blogs and other new technologies. The relationship starts with an expert teaching a student, but evolves into the senior leader mentoring the junior person as well, which "has changed the social interaction in the company," he says.

Lifelong Relationships

How does a senior person mentor well? For Accenture's CHRO, Jill Smart, good mentors don't just give you answers; they help you figure out the answer yourself.

Her initial mentor was her first Accenture manager, Marie Campagna, whom Smart worked for during several different client engagements over the years and stayed connected to when Campagna became a partner.

"One of the most effective types of dialogue I would have with Marie was when I could 'play tennis' with her," says Smart. "When I didn't know exactly how to solve a problem, she would listen to all my points of view and play devil's advocate, bouncing the ideas back and forth until I came to my own decision. Marie is very approachable and responsive, which are two key ingredients in an effective mentor."

To this day, despite the fact that Campagna is retired, Smart says she will reach out to her to get an honest assessment of a given situation because her former manager knows how Smart "ticks."

Her relationship with her second mentor, Steve James, was a bit different; she started working with him when he was a partner in charge of Accenture's financial services for its Midwest region and remained in touch when he moved up the ladder to become chief operating officer.

"He mentored me by following my career, advising me on next steps to take [and putting] me on projects that continuously stretched me," says Smart, who is based in New York. "When he would call me to his office, I knew it meant another challenging assignment was about to come my way. I would often be worried that I was not up for the task, but it was like he could read my mind. I clearly remember how he would lean across the table, look me in the eyes and say, 'Jill, do you think I would give you this role if I didn't know you were up to the challenge?' His confidence in me made me confident in myself."

Dermot O'Brien, CHRO and corporate vice president of ADP, based in Roseland, N.J., says constructive feedback develops confidence -- but getting that feedback can be tricky in the workplace.

"As kids, parents, teachers and coaches share their knowledge as they observe you. Best friends are peer mentors. You grow because of the honest feedback from those mentors," he says. "Then, when you come to the workplace, it stops."

O'Brien says two early managers -- Herb Allison at TIAA-Cref and Kelly Martin at Merrill Lynch -- showed him how effective mentoring can boost not only skills, capabilities and career prospects, but also promote employee engagement and loyalty.

During his time with Allison as his manager, O'Brien faced many challenges, including leading TIAA-Cref's first-ever downsizing and taking on new responsibilities and career challenges. O'Brien describes Allison's support metaphorically: Allison would ask him to "walk out on a pole over the Grand Canyon," and would verbally push him along the way.

However, whenever O'Brien "turned around to look back," he'd see that his boss was right behind him on the entire journey. "He got me more comfortable in taking risks," O'Brien says, adding that he felt supported every step of the way.

Martin, who included O'Brien in operational meetings and moved him past the functional HR role, would tell him, " 'You really can't help me by getting inside my head unless you understand the business,' " O'Brien says.

That shaped O'Brien's own belief in the importance of encouraging HR folks to get business knowledge, learn how the organization makes money and be visible to senior leaders so that HR professionals don't get stuck in their conventional streams.

With proper mentoring, he believes, their HR roles can become quite dynamic, encompassing much more than their functional expertise.

Operational, Not Just Functional

Conaty personifies why operational expertise is critical to an HR leader. While a junior HR director at General Electric, the general manager of the Erie locomotive operation, Rick Richardson, convinced Conaty to take on a temporary plant manager's position while the search for that position was conducted -- which took a year, much longer than expected.

"At the end of the year, he had a hardnosed discussion with me," Conaty says. "Richardson said, 'I think you're the kind of guy who is in a function [that] will get kind of topped out. You're only going to be able to go so far in HR. I want to put you on an operational path where the sky's the limits.' He was a tough guy."

Richardson "elevated" Conaty's thinking about his own career. In the end, Conaty decided that, without a technical engineering background, he probably would do better in the more fertile territory of HR, despite Richardson's arguments.

The plant manager experience gave him a tremendous competitive edge over other HR directors, but the experience also taught Conaty the importance of having more than one mentor, since he "could have been stuck" when Richardson passed away a few years later.

"I always taught at GE that you need mentors or sponsors," says Conaty, who left GE in 2007 after a 40-year career and now runs Conaty Consulting, an HR consulting firm in West Palm Beach, Fla. "I always said you want that to be a plural, with an 's' on the end of it. You want mentors or sponsors who can help you at certain levels of the organization and then develop other mentors as you move on up."

He also advises not to "force" mentor relationships: "Your mentor has got to be somebody ... you're interested in and they're interested in you."

In the end, he says, having mentors follow you through your career is the best strategy for career development: "When the right people recognize you over a long period of time, good things usually happen."

See also:

A Mutual Learning Experience

Dec 9, 2013
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