Susan Bender Phelps is the Chief Navigator at Odyssey Mentoring, a consulting and training company that specializes in strengthening existing mentorship and leadership programs and helping clients build strong programs from the start.
Odyssey Mentoring & Leadership is a corporate training company in the essential skills you need to be an effective mentor, mentee and leader. They work with corporations, professional associations, municipalities and educational institutions. Susan is available to speak at conferences and events.
MO: Where does your passion for leadership and mentoring come from?
Susan: The short answer: When I was working on my master’s thesis in 2005, I began researching corporate mentoring programs. I was stunned to learn that less than 5 percent of employees take advantage of such programs and that more than 90 percent of those who do, considered the programs to be poor or of little value. It occurred to me that if I could make a difference with at-risk middle school students, I could really make a difference with adults and their careers. My whole life has been about empowering people, strengthening children and families, and having communities that are great places to live and work. We spend so many hours at work that if our careers don’t satisfy us, if we can’t make a living to support our families and if our employers don’t succeed, then we simply won’t have those things.
The long answer: In the 1990’s, I led mentoring programs for at-risk youth (12-14 year-olds in New Mexico. They were at risk because they believed, and had a lot of evidence backing their beliefs up, that they would never finish high school, would become a gang member, have failed relationships, end up in jail or become a teen parent with no resources. And some of our kids were pretty sure they wouldn’t live past 25. Many of our kids were living in chronic poverty. Every choice they made was consistent with the future they could imagine.
Our program was based on the premise that the most powerful way of living is to create the future you want instead of predicting it based on your past. And that the support of an effective mentor would keep the young people moving in the new direction they chose. The mentor’s job was to remember who the young person really is when the going gets tough and they want to quit, take the easy way out, or revert to counter-productive behavior.
Adult mentors worked one-to-one with each student for a year. To recruit the students I would share about a new possibility for the future and how the mentors would help them make positive changes and reach their goals.
The kids signed up and their parents gave them permission to be in our program. We raised all the money, so it was free. I saw what you might describe as miraculous changes and accomplishments for both the mentors and mentees.
One of our students, a 6th grade boy in special education, was reading at a 1st grade level, getting D’s and F’s, sent to the principal’s office twice a week, oldest of five children with a single mom, and the only one who wasn’t medically fragile was a typical recruit. He wanted B’s. But based on his history, he could only predict more of the same. Yet, when he saw the glimmer of a possibility for a future he could create and the promise of a support system, he had the courage to try.
Improving his reading was the first step. His mentor worked with him, encouraging and supporting him relentlessly. As his reading improved, so did his writing. Within six months, he was mainstreamed and getting B’s. Today, he has a good job, is married with children and maintains a relationship with his mentor.
For more than 15 years, I volunteered and eventually worked part-time raising the money, recruiting and training the kids and volunteers, and all this while being a divorced mother of one. During that time I was trained to lead the program and had an amazing mentor who helped me learn to lead the organization.
In 2001, I relocated with my new husband to the northwest. While my son finished high school and college, I went back to school and got a bachelor’s degree in Communication and a master’s in Management and Organizational Leadership. All those years I had talked with the kids about the importance of an education. I had an associate’s degree in Advertising & Communication, had started but never finished earning a bachelor’s. I was 50 years old and decided it was time to walk my talk.
When I chose my master’s thesis topic, I also invented my company.
MO: What are some reasons that a company should implement a mentoring program? What are the first steps of putting a mentoring program together?
Susan: Organizations interested in profitability, productivity, and sustainability should have mentoring programs. If you are not mentoring, you are not leading. If you are not developing the talent within your organization, you are not demonstrating to them that their future is as important as the company’s.
Recent research has shown that employee engagement is the number one indicator of productivity and therefore, profitability. Employees who participate in a well-supported and effective mentoring program are engaged. They actively support each others success.
The first step to putting together an effective mentoring program is to outline the organizational goals the program will support. Then have a program coordinator. This will be the person who oversees the matching process, stays in touch with participants, and organizes events and training opportunities. Then design a solid matching process.
The key to success is to launch the program with a comprehensive workshop on the essential skills for success. I like to include both mentors and mentees. That way you can do interactive exercises that give the mentoring partners an opportunity to practice their new skills with coaching and build trust.
The workshop should cover listening, being a keen observer, understanding and working with differences, the use of reflective questioning, goal-setting, creating practical action plans, giving actionable feedback, debriefing both success and failure, preparation for the pitfalls, and how to share your network and opportunities. We offer monthly consulting to clients who have a program underway where we can provide coaching to the program coordinator and/or the mentors. There are always unexpected challenges.
If you have a program and are not happy with it, consult with a professional. You may be able to repair or rejuvenate your program with some fairly simple options, or you may want to start over.
MO: What leaders inspire you?
Susan: That is a great question. There is a lot of lamentation about there being no real leaders anymore. Many of us are waiting for the next great leader to emerge. I believe we are the leaders we have been waiting for.
There are many people whose leadership inspires me. Here are my top three. The first person is Anita Roddick, who founded The Body Shop retail chain. She was a brilliant business woman who figured out a way to be profitable while making a difference in the world…mostly because making a difference was the foundation of everything she did.
The second person is Claudette C’Faison, Executive Director of New York Youth at Risk. She heads one of the most successful youth mentoring programs in the country. And she was my mentor while I was the Executive Director of the New Mexico Youth at Risk Foundation. I learned so much about leading both the programs and the organization from her. Claudette would always tell me that my life was my university. She is a champion for empowerment and personal growth and development. Her wisdom, generosity and guidance continue to light my way.
The third leader who inspires me is Nelson Mandela. He spent 30 years in prison. His ability to forgive what for most of us would be unforgivable has taught me so much and given me peace of mind no matter the challenge I face.
These heroes inspire me to do well by doing good. I run by business and I make sure I give back to my community. I volunteer on my county commission on children and families, I work part-time with a grant-making charitable foundation, I vote, I write to government officials when I feel strongly about something. And I am a mentor. Right now, I am working with an old friend who just got her teaching certificate and is having trouble getting a permanent teaching position. I am mentoring her in creating a tutoring business. This is the best way I know to repay all of the mentors who have given me so much.
MO: Can you talk to us about the book that you’re just finishing up? What inspired you to write and what did your creative process look like?
Susan: Yes! Writing the book is more of a business decision to help my training and speaking business. After I wrote the business plan, I wrote the entire training curriculum and the companion workbook. It was quite a process. It is a great sales tool and it makes training new employees and train-the-trainer clients much easier. What it didn’t have was the same cache that a book does for generating speaking engagements and more importantly industry credibility and training engagements.
I am always reading. I have read enough good business books and enough really bad ones to know this is not rocket science. I began by looking at the different formats of the books I think are effective and easy to read. What I chose to do was interview some very successful people who have had mentors or who have mentored others. I am telling their stories and distinguishing what works about their mentoring partnerships.
I feel so fortunate because I have some great stories. I interviewed Sarah Mensah, the CMO of the Portland Trailblazers. She is the only woman c-level executive in the NBA. I also interviewed Bibby Gignilliat, CEO of Parties That Cook. She is an executive chef who created a corporate team building and event catering business whose clients are Fortune 500 companies. There is an entrepreneur, an inventor, a science fiction writer, a regional bank executive, and a college professor.
The book is almost finished. The creative process has involved a lot of thinking and then writing. It is taking much longer than I thought it would. My next step is to determine whether to self-publish or try to sell it to a publisher. So far, when I use the stories in speeches, I am getting rave reviews. I will be selling it from my website which ever way I go for publishing. People can go there to sign up for my newsletter and they will be the first people to be able to buy it (http://odysseymentoring.com/).
MO: What is reverse mentoring and what are the advantages of promoting it in the workplace?
Susan: Reverse mentoring is a fairly new trend, at least as old as email. Legend attributes its birth to Jack Welch, former CEO of GE. The senior executives were so used to having secretaries do all of their correspondence for them, that using computers was something they actively resisted. Once email became an important tool for communication, they just had to learn to do it. The younger employees came in with that skill set. Welch assigned someone to each senior executive. In addition to the executives learning to use the new technology, the reverse mentors got access to corporate leaders who would never have met them or spent time with them. This opened lines of communication and changed the corporate culture. As is often the case in effective mentoring, the mentors benefit from the partnership as much and sometimes more than the mentees.
Social media seems to be the key area where reverse mentoring is seen as an effective tool. I think the same benefits they saw at GE so many years ago are manifesting.
I also think reverse mentoring is a fantastic strategy for customer and client services. Yes, we have five generations in the work place. We also have them in our customer base. Reverse mentoring can be a very effective tool for teaching people to work with clients of different generations. We are seeing this in law offices and non-profits working with donors. I believe there are many other businesses that serve generations that are different from their employees. Reverse mentoring will help them serve their clients more effectively.
MO: Learning from mistakes is critical for entrepreneurs. Can you share some lessons learned from your past or how you would have approached things differently?
Susan: It is very popular to analyze and debrief our mistakes. And heaven knows I have made many. But I think it is also important to learn from our successes. I say this because when you spend too much time on what went wrong, you can miss understanding what went right. This is important because you want to be able to consistently and reliably replicate what you did right and improve upon it.
Most of the mistakes I have made occurred when I was moving too fast and didn’t stop and take the time to really look at what I or we were doing. I understand deadlines and I am a stickler for meeting them. What works for me is finishing the project a day ahead of the deadline. This way I have time to walk away and look at it again with fresh eyes while there is still time to make an adjustment.
Sometimes the thing that didn’t work is not a mistake or error. I get a lot of ideas for doing things better or differently. Some of them work out brilliantly and some not so much. But if I didn’t try them out, I wouldn’t know. For example when I was doing youth mentor programs, we put the mentors through a three-day training. And it worked. When I got my first client, they looked at three days and said, “No way. We can do a ¾ day of training and that’s it.”
I really wanted to please and land the client, so I re-worked the curriculum and came up with something. It was good, but it wasn’t great. What I did learn is that I can deliver the training in less than three days; a full day and a 3-hour follow-up, or several 3-hour workshops over time. That was a huge breakthrough.
The other important lesson I learned is cannot and should not do everything myself. If something takes more than an hour to learn to do and I will only need to do it once or twice a year, I sub it out.
I love being in business. I love doing the work it allows me to do. Starting a new business comes with huge benefits. It also comes with challenges and risks. I have learned that I will lie awake with worry from time to time. I will cry from time to time. I also make sure I do the happy dance for every success and every victory.
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