Get Thee a Mentor

Thoughts as I prepare to take part in Bizwomen Mentoring Monday, hosted by the Houston Business Journal on February 12, 2018, and in 42 other cities nationwide.

My dream job in fashion merchandising wasn’t quite the way I’d dreamed it would be. I became the youngest buyer for a Dallas department store. That took me to New York for buying trips. I had a lot to learn about the industry. I was fortunate that experienced business people took me aside and gave me advice. I needed a lot of it, it seemed.

I was out of my warm, friendly Texas bubble for the first time in my life. I was aghast when I saw people lying along New York City streets with a sea of people just walking around them. One of my dear early mentors at the time was Erma Koehler, the children’s clothing buyer. “Karen, you must walk fast, eyes straight ahead,” she told me. “And stop saying ‘hi’ to everyone!”

Life Lesson: When you leave your comfort zone, whether intentionally or by accident, you gain a new perspective. Listen to people who have been there before. A mentor can help you face reality. That perspective is everything for proper positioning.

A decade or so later, when I realized I needed a different career so I could support myself solo, I sought out wise counsel again to help me gain perspective. I was motivated by a desire to become better and sort through some of the chaos I’d been going through. It made sense to talk to a professional, and it helped me avoid burdening my family and friends with my discovery process.

My parents provided a safe place to land for a while. They did question why I would need to get help from outside. The implication was “You are from good stock. You clearly should be able to do this based on the way you were raised.” And yes, there are strong women in my family going back several generations. But the bright and shining truth is that I needed help that my family and my own limited experience could not supply.

I also drew strength from my faith, guided by an Old Testament verse:

Two are better than one,
    because they have a good return for their labor:
If either of them falls down,
    one can help the other up.
- Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 New International Version (NIV)

Spiritual guidance helped point me back to true north, and make positive changes in my life.

Life Lesson Unpacked: Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Look for guidance from people you trust, and draw upon your faith for support.

Following the example of the people who mentored me, I approach mentoring with a servant’s heart. I love being able to help others, especially women, find their passion and direction. When I mentor someone, I advocate on their behalf and make introductions to smooth their way.

That said, there are some things that mentors shouldn’t be expected to do. For example, I’ve had young professionals approach me asking for favors and contacts right off the bat. Frankly, that’s the wrong way to start. A mentor isn’t there to hand out shortcuts to success.

When you seek out a mentor, you should be prepared to work. Until you are fully committed to pursuing something better for yourself, you aren’t ready for a mentoring relationship. A mentor’s time is valuable—don’t waste it.

Life Lesson: When someone is generous enough to mentor you, take responsibility for the follow-through. Be prepared to serve as you work toward your goals.


For a background on this blog, please see the Preface.