Mentors: The Best Friends You Can Have in Business

Author: Dean Scott Beaulier 

I recently had lunch with a Fargo business leader who shared with me a bit about his path to success. I always enjoy hearing insight into personal journeys that contribute to the making of a successful entrepreneur — as dean of a business school, these conversations are invaluable in helping design a program that best equips our graduates to thrive in the business world.

The conversation didn’t disappoint as my lunch friend told me about the time he spent working closely at Kilbourne Group with now Governor Doug Burgum. “I didn’t have a clue what I was doing in the job but I learned so much by just watching Doug,” he told me. He went on to explain the value in both being able to observe, in real time, how Mr. Burgum made decisions and ask why he made specific decisions.

Without this on-the-job personal coaching, my friend is convinced he wouldn’t be the successful entrepreneur he is today. And, as you’d expect from the deep relationships mentorships inspire, my friend and Doug are still in touch.

As someone who has spent the bulk of his career with the title, “professor” and have now assumed the role of “academic dean,” I certainly have an appreciation for classroom and textbook learning. Taking time to study the findings of scholars and innovators past and present, and learning about tried-and-tested processes is an invaluable foundation for any career, but it is no doubt incomplete. Anyone who has had a good mentor will tell you exactly what my lunch friend told me about his experience under the tutelage of Governor Burgum: they wouldn’t be where they are today without that person.

Ode to Mentors:

The value and impact of having a good mentor cannot be overemphasized. Mentors do more than teach the tricks of the trade, they offer the kind words and personal encouragement that often get lost in day-to-day business.

As the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? taught us, being able to “Phone a Friend” has value far beyond getting help with answers to questions. The game showed us that for the people on the hot seat, simply talking through their thinking with a friend—even when the friend didn’t know the answer—sometimes helped them calm down and make more a confident choice.

Mentoring works the same way. I know that in my job and personal rise to the position of dean, I learned a tremendous amount by just being around deans and academic leaders.

Building a network of mentors early in one’s career is critical to long-term success. Many of us, hardened by experience, know we don’t have all the answers. That’s why mentors are so critical—they can offer professional advice but can also provide empathy and encouragement as we move along in our businesses and careers.

2/25/14 – Business students participating in a sales seminar with area sales professionals.

Fostering Mentorship at NDSU:

As I wrote about in my first column for Emerging Prairie, the College of Business at NDSU is breaking down the walls that have traditionally separated studying, and doing business. We’re charting new paths in developing a business program that best equips our students to succeed. This means giving them access to good mentors, now. Fargo, which has recently made national headlines as a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity, makes for fertile ground for such a program.

Here’s what we’re doing to connect our students to local doers and lifetime friends:

  • Making the Connection: Business Connections, our mentoring program pairs 25 undergraduate students with local industry executives at firms like Gate City Bank, Border States Electric, and Discovery Benefits. They get a chance to learn about the company they are paired with; to ask career questions to their mentors; and, most importantly, they get an unbiased professional friend who they can talk to about anything on their minds.
  • The More the Merrier: Currently, we offer our students one industry mentor at a time and while that’s a nice start, more than one mentor makes a lot of sense. I can think of between 6 and 10 people I regard as mentors in my own career development. Most of these people are in higher education because that’s my industry, but they are diverse in terms of age, current job (i.e., they aren’t all deans), and in how we communicate. Common throughout all of them, though, is that they care about me and offer unbiased counsel about issues I’m dealing with.

Our mentorship program is just two years old and on track to expand! We hope that the relationships that start here are long-term; that mentors are there not only to lift mentees when they are down, but to cheer their successes 10, 20, and 30+ years down the road. And, maybe even a few mentees will eventually find themselves ready to mentor an NDSU undergrad!