More Mentors Focusing on Paying it Forward

An expanding network of business leaders are taking industry newcomers under their wings and mentoring the next generation of high-flyers.

Bryna Dabby, Nine Tails Studios | BCBusiness
A mentee on several occasions, Bryna Dabby saw the value in mentoring with regard to career development, and was game to mentor someone herself.

An expanding network of business leaders are taking industry newcomers under their wings and mentoring the next generation of high-flyers.

“When I was growing up nobody said to me, ‘Do you have a mentor?’” says Judy Brooks, a 49-year-old repeat entrepreneur with three successful startups built and sold, most recently Blo Blow Dry Bar Inc. hair salons, the party-hair-in-a-hurry chain. “It’s sort of common knowledge – like you’re supposed to follow your passion, you’re supposed to have a mentor, you’re supposed to have all these things that we didn’t even know about!”

Now Brooks fields phone calls from 20-somethings, the ink not yet dry on their university diplomas, asking her to mentor them. She’s also the interim CEO of Forum for Women Entrepreneurs, which facilitates a formal mentoring program. Mentoring is so hot right now that FWE had 65 women already signed up before it launched its mentorship program this year, a 30 per cent increase in enrolment over last year. The fact that female entrepreneurship has reached an all-time high in B.C. (37.5 per cent of the province’s self-employed workforce in 2011) might have something to do with it. But FWE isn’t the only local outfit offering female-focused mentoring programs; Women’s Enterprise Centre, Women’s Executive Network, Women on Board and Women in Leadership all do, too.

While there’s a wealth of these programs for women (perhaps a corollary to the perseverance of the old boys’ club), the rewards of mentorship are gender-mutual. “Leaders Pay It Forward,” a research report published in June this year by Catalyst Inc., an international non-profit devoted to promoting women in business, found that those who received career development (defined as mentoring, coaching or advising) are more likely to return the favour, fostering their own protege, than those who didn’t (59 per cent versus 47 per cent), and paying mentorship forward paid off for those providing it to the tune of $25,075 greater earnings growth in a two-year period. However, women are 16 per cent more likely than men to devote time to developing other talent.

If one were to put a face to that figure, Bryna Dabby could fit the bill. The 35-year-old is already a 13-year veteran of the video game industry, and the road to her co-founding Nine Tail Studios Inc., a Vancouver company that develops downloadable games for smartphone and tablet consumption, is paved with mentors.

Her first mentor, Denise Fulton at Electronic Arts, was a trailblazer. Dabby saw Fulton transition from development director to the company’s first female producer. Watching another woman command a new frontier was inspiring in itself, but Fulton was also hands-on in Dabby’s career development, giving guidance, providing opportunities to grow her confidence and talking up her talents to others. “She convinced me of what I could do and put me in situations where I got to show it. She was able to say, ‘You voice direct this session. You handle this on your own and you’ll be great,’” says Dabby, recalling her work on a new game title for Fulton. She’s not sure if she was the only one Fulton was shepherding, but the support she received felt unique to her.

Making a move to High Moon Studios, a 120-person gaming company in San Diego, to work as an associate producer on The Bourne Conspiracy, Dabby met her next two mentors, Chuck Yager and Josh Hackney. She reported to both producers, but they were yin and yang in terms of leadership styles. Yager was very vocal about his belief in her. He made it clear he saw producer potential in Dabby and laid out a path that would lead her to that goal. He cycled her through a number of departments so she could gain both knowledge of the business and the confidence of different work groups within the larger structure. “That was really what I needed because it was entirely new for me, and a huge team,” says Dabby, “I learned the ins and outs of the game.” Yager would also walk her through what he wanted. If things didn’t pan out the way he expected, he was understanding, as long as there was a reason.

With the dry-humoured Hackney, mentorship was less conspicuous. His just-get-the-job-done approach was less nurture, more nature. Not one for unnecessary chatter, he expected Dabby to take a task and run with it. “That was also very motivating,” she says, “once I figured out what I was actually learning through that process.” Hackney was also advocating for her behind closed doors, but Dabby would only find that out later.

Was one style of mentorship better than the other? “I liked the mix. They helped me grow in different ways at the right times.” A year in at High Moon, Dabby was promoted to producer.

Last year, with the launch of Nine Tail, she added director of production, COO and entrepreneur to her CV. She became much more than the producer her mentors believed she could be, but she didn’t think it was the right time to become a mentor herself. “I thought I was stuck between the two worlds,” says Dabby. “I think of a mentor as somebody who has already seen it all,” she says, adding she believes there’s a lot more for her to experience. However, her friend Maninder Dhaliwal, the Vancouver chapter chair of Women in Leadership, convinced her she had wisdom to share, so Dabby signed up to be a mentor in the foundation’s six-month program last spring and was paired up with Jennifer Scott, a sport hosting coordinator for the Richmond Olympic Oval.

The 31-year-old Scott was motivated to apply to Women in Leadership by the question that Judy Brooks was never asked: “I was interviewing for a position and one of the questions was, ‘Who is your mentor?’” says Scott. Previously coordinator for Own the Podium and assistant to senior executives at the Vancouver Olympics Organizing Committee, she had worked with great leaders, but hadn’t been individually mentored by one. She felt it was what her professional career was lacking.

Image: Perry Zavitz
Dabby says her career path as a
13-year game studio veteran was
paved by several previous mentors.

A Perfect Pairing

Scott and Dabby both felt they’d been perfectly matched, and right away the two hit it off. That was the work of Lucille Wang, Women in Leadership’s program director, a mentoring yenta of sorts, who has set up some 450 participants in the past three years. As she does with all mentors and mentees, Wang chose Scott for Dabby based on their personalities and life goals, rather than just their career objectives. Talking to them separately in Skype interviews, she could see them being sisters, sharing a similar drive.

While Dabby and Scott work in different industries, they quickly connected over the commonalities – both are fast-paced and high energy, and work in male-dominated fields. “I see her navigation of the gaming world as similar to an approach I would have to take in the sporting world,” says Scott. Akin to what Dabby received from her mentors, Scott says their relationship boosted her confidence in the skills she already possesses, and she’s felt the effect long after. “I now have Bryna’s voice, her opinion, whether she’s there or not,” says Scott. “When making decisions, my tendency may have been to pull back or present ideas in a softer way, but I can hear her saying, ‘Just do it!’” Scott likens this second voice to a sweater that she can pull on when she needs to feel emboldened.

The Secrets of Mentoring Success

Exercise candour

“Be very honest about who you are. Show the real you – the things you have difficulty with – not just your shiny self, so that the prospective mentor can see where they can really help you.”

Set Goals

“Be clear on what you want from the mentor-mentee relationship. Take the time to really examine your laundry list of what you’d like to achieve together. Find achievable goals and measure progress.”

Make it holistic

“A mentor can take a mentee shopping; that’s a part of personal branding. Progress shouldn’t be limited to leadership develoment; it should be the whole package.”

Friends first

“If you can’t be friends with the mentor or mentee, you really can’t have a long-term relationship with them.”

– Lucille Wang, program director, Women in Leadership

Wang wasn’t off when she saw the two as sisters. Scott uses the same word to describe their mentoring relationship, saying Dabby is like that accomplished big sister who blazed a trail that she wants to follow. Although their formal mentoring relationship through Women in Leadership is concluded, the two continue to meet. Now Scott is considering taking on a young mentee of her own.

Being mentored isn’t just for juniors; seasoned CEOs are in the receiving line too. “He’s helped save my bacon,” Perry Hildebrand, owner of Flooring Canada Kelowna, says of Ken MacLeod, his mentor through TEC Canada, an organization billing itself as a peer advisory group for chief executives, business owners and entrepreneurs. With its name adapted from The Executive Committee, the organization provides confidential, non-competing peer group and one-on-one mentoring for chief executives and senior leaders. MacLeod, an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year nominee for his tenure as president and CEO of O.K. Tire Stores Inc., chairs the 15-person Okanagan CEO group of which Hildebrand is a member.

First introduced to TEC in 2000, Hildebrand originally declined because of the time and financial investment – approximately 10 hours a month and $16,000 a year, but in the midst of the global financial meltdown three years ago, he changed his mind. “I just thought, I need help. Before you make any changes you want some kind of assurance that you’re [headed] in the right direction.” His company’s overhead was more than it needed to be, and that meant tough decisions ahead, decisions many founders and CEOs face alone. “The things that they talk about, they can’t talk about to their peers, their partners, their boards; they can’t even bring [it] home,” says MacLeod. That confidential forum, MacLeod’s knack for asking the right questions, and the insight and accountability of the rest of the group inspired Hildebrand to devote even more hours to personal mentorship.

In January 2011, Hildebrand sought out Kelowna business consultant Ray Griffin, who would act as another business mentor, shadowing Hildebrand for 24 days from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Hildebrand would have liked to have MacLeod fill this role of a more intensive mentorship, but that was beyond the boundaries of TEC involvement. Having this extra mentor entrenched in the day-to-day helped Hildebrand uncover and alter more deeply rooted habits; he felt the positive effects on his company immediately. “If he just would have been rough with me, told me what to do, I might have just balked or felt beat up,” says Hildebrand. “But he was extremely encouraging, as is Ken.”

Two years into TEC and six months after the intensive mentoring, Hildebrand’s business was put on the ultimate hot seat. In the midnight hours of Saturday, August 13, 2011, the Flooring Canada Kelowna building went up in flames. In a matter of hours, the new showroom he’d renovated five months earlier was destroyed. On Monday morning, as word of his misfortune began to circulate, his phone rang. “One of the TEC members called me up and said, ‘I’ve got my board room, I’ve got three lines set up for you, there’s telephones. You can move in here.’” Another member offered to provide any amount of financial aid he needed to survive the setback. “I didn’t take him up on it; obviously we were well insured, but for him to offer – and he meant it – it just doesn’t get better than that.”

Hildebrand’s staff pulled together too, as if they owned the company, and seven days after the incident they were just a day behind on one last project. That was yet another ripple effect of TEC mentorship, Hildebrand says, because what he learns there feeds back to his employees. He’s also feeding them professional development opportunities for their own benefit.

Here, a misanthrope might wonder if he could have arrived at the same destination without mentorship. Hildebrand thinks he probably would’ve been fine, that if you want to get somewhere, you will regardless, but this was the easier way through. He even believes it prepared him for the unpredictable. “When the fire happened, it’s like we were ready for it,” he says, “You’re never ready for it, and I would never choose to go through something like that again, but in hindsight all this adversity we’ve had has been fabulous.”

The consensus on mentoring, from those giving it and receiving it, is that it’s invaluable. While the mentees describe their mentors in similar terms – sounding board, supporter, advocate, accountability partner – the relationship isn’t formulaic. “Some may want more of a counsellor, or a friend to chat with, or someone to give them really clear direction. You might be better at counselling somebody on the emotional side of something that they’re going through or you might be better at analytically looking at their challenges and making a plan for them,” says Dabby, “Everyone needs something different and everyone can give something different.”

Those who get it, just be prepared to pay it forward.