Five Ways to Be a Great Mentor

If one of your goals is to be a better mentor, you can find a lot of standard advice such as listen well and stay open-minded. But I think the best way to inspire great mentoring is by describing a man who excels at it.

I met Charlie Warner at the University of Missouri in 1989 when I began teaching broadcast journalism. I also started a master's program in media management, a program run by Charlie. So while we were both faculty members, he was also my adviser, and at times, my department chair and classroom teacher.

Initially, Charlie scared the hell out of me. Before coming to Missouri to take an endowed chair at the top ranked journalism school, he ran radio stations in New York and Chicago. He had hired people like Bob Pittman, who went on to found MTV. And Charlie literally wrote the book on sales -- his book Media Selling has been used by 70 universities.

I was given a cubicle just a few feet away from Charlie, but I didn't feel like his peer. He taught me in a classroom and later advised me on my thesis. It would be beyond embarrassing if I didn't meet his expectations.

During the four years I spent at Missouri, Charlie mentored me in a variety of ways. And I'm proud to say over the following two decades, he has remained a mentor and a friend.

The ways Charlie helped me can provide a model for anyone interested in improving their mentoring skills:

1. He provided a clear vision of excellence. Every time Charlie opened his mouth, I learned something about what it takes to be good at your job. Whether it was in class, a faculty meeting, or in conversations, Charlie provided a consistent vision of excellence for both media management and academia. Charlie's philosophy is that you need to provide people with a clear vision and goals. Then you deliver regular, specific feedback to keep them on track.

Charlie's career in broadcast management and teaching is in itself a model for excellence. Charlie has no patience for any kind of politics -- he is always about the work and delivering results. That unwavering commitment to excellence provided a clear roadmap for the kind of teacher and manager I wanted to be.

2. He always made time for me. Even though Charlie was the busiest person I knew at Missouri (he not only taught, but consulted many outside organizations), he made himself available. Now, you couldn't waste his time. You had to prepare for any meeting and show that you did your research.

Over the years, Charlie continued to give me his time, often providing job references and discussing career issues. He does have a great shortcut -- if I ever needed a written reference, he would ask me to write it and then he would edit it. It was actually a great exercise because it forced me to see myself through his eyes. Over the years, there were many jobs and opportunities I landed because Charlie made the time to help me.

3. He gave me honest feedback-good and bad. I had always wanted to become a television news director, so after getting my master's degree, I began job-hunting. But few women held those top management roles in the 1990s and I wasn't getting anywhere. Charlie conducted mock interviews with me on videotape. Afterwards, he told me (as kindly as possible) that I needed more energy and looked a bit "dumpy." That's not an easy thing to hear, but I lost some weight and improved my wardrobe. Before long, I had my first news director position.

Charlie was also quick to praise, and not just with a generic "good job." He delivered specific, detailed feedback. He often took the time to write handwritten notes, such as sharing the positive remarks evaluators made after visiting my class or feedback from a news director who attended a seminar I taught. This kind of "catching someone doing something right" helped me to hone my skills and build my confidence.

4. He challenged me. Charlie's "stretch goals" could be terrifying, but were probably his most valuable gift. He used to run a management seminar for news directors and each year he would ask me to lead a session or two. The first time he did this, I said, "But I don't know anything about Myers-Briggs testing." He responded, "Well, it's a great way for you to learn." I studied intensively and my session was rated highly.

About a year after I left Missouri, Charlie called me and asked if I would pinch-hit for him at a speaking engagement for news executives. It was a little scary because people were expecting Charlie and I was on my first news director job in tiny Ft. Wayne, Indiana. But I always said yes to Charlie. I delivered the speech and got a nice reception.

5. He always had something new to teach me. When I first met Charlie, I couldn't get enough of his stories about working in the big leagues. But soon I realized Charlie wasn't content to draw lessons from his past. He always had something new to share -- whether it was from a consulting engagement, a conversation with an executive, or new research. He held management seminars for news directors not just to give back to the industry but to stay on top of the latest trends.

And to this day, I'm still learning from Charlie. He is probably the most enthusiastic person I know in terms of embracing change. He combines the mindset of a millennial with decades of experience. I think he was the first person in our department at Missouri to use the Internet. Charlie was one of the first people I know to blog regularly.

Charlie left Missouri in the mid-1990s -- not to retire or take a cushy job, but to become Vice President of Interactive Marketing at AOL. Charlie was hired by Bob Pittman, who calls Charlie "one of my first and most important mentors."

While I didn't become a top executive like Pittman or some of the other folks Charlie has mentored, I've had a good career -- working as a news director before moving on to corporate communications and change management. I'd hate to think what my career would have been like without Charlie. I've tried to pay it forward and help others. And like Charlie, I've even been hired by people I once mentored.

The best news is Charlie is still mentoring, and not just to people he met decades ago. He teaches four graduate courses at the Media Management Program at The New School and provides consulting. Even if you never had a Charlie in your own life, you can still follow his example and work unselfishly to help others succeed.