This article is part of the WIT Empowerment Day Mentorship Series, which provides insight and advice from top toy industry experts.
By Wendy Smolen, Wendysmolen.com
When I was first starting out in the toy and media industry, there were few women mentors. “Take Your Daughter To Work Day” was a ground-breaking event started in 1993 by Gloria Steinem, to show girls the different roles that they could play in making things happen, despite their gender. Yes, we’ve come a long way in 18 years. It’s now called “Take Your Daughters and Sons To Work Day.”
But the fact remains that it’s still critically important for adults to share what they do with others. We are part of an industry where five generations are working at the same time—sometimes even in the same company. There are Boomers (52-71 year olds), Xers (41-51), Millennials (22-40), plus revered Traditionalists (72+) and ambitious Gen Z’s (younger than 21).
I’ve written before how much the older and wiser generation can benefit from the younger. But the inverse is also true. In the same way that a parent’s role is to teach one’s children, we have a responsibility to teach incoming generations. Mentoring a less experienced worker can impart invaluable lessons, pass on coveted traditions, encourage innovation, keep the toy industry vital, and make both the mentor and mentee feel good.
A few months ago I caught up with Danielle Gillis, my very first assistant at Nick Jr. in the 90’s, who told me, “You brought me with you to Toy Fair and taught me how to evaluate products. You gave me the freedom to produce shoots, book celebrities, and work on articles in a high level way. Your support gave me a sense of fearlessness that I’ve carried with me all the way through to today.” Danielle recently started her own animation company. Her first client was the Boston Red Sox. I couldn’t be prouder!
Dennis C. Miller, an author, speaker, and leadership coach who overcame childhood adversity to rise to the top of corporate ranks, concurs. “No one succeeds in business completely by themselves. My mentors were extremely important. Mentoring others is now my opportunity to give back. It’s the right thing to do. And, it makes me appreciate myself!”
One of the simplest tips I give mentees,“ says Miller, “is to ask for advice, not a job. People (including me) love to be flattered. It gives the mentor a chance to shine. And hopefully, the mentee will listen.”
Last year I mentored a college intern who was so passionate about the toy industry, I couldn’t wait to take her to Toy Fair, where she sponged up the people, the products, and the vibe. She’s now working for a toy PR agency. In February she sent me an email thanking me for guiding her through her first Toy Fair, saying, ”It’s because of that experience that I am so looking forward to the show this weekend.” When I ran into her on the Javits floor, it was my turn to thank her for making me feel so good. Great mentoring is a two way street.
It’s also prudent to seek mentors at every point in one’s career. Experience, contacts, and context—the key assets a mentor can provide—are valuable at all times. Events such as WIT Empowerment Day provide opportunities for mentees as well as mentors.
“Mentors can be important in helping with early learning and growth throughout your career, “ advices George Bradt, Chairman of PrimeGenesis and author of The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan and First-Time Leader. “Don’t ever ‘settle’ in a position. Seek mentors that keep you moving forward.” But even at the top, Bradt recommends finding a mentor, albeit it could be someone you think of as a kid. (Or even a real kid!) “Leaders’ mentors should be people with complementary perspective and experience. If your mentor is just like you, you’ll hear things you already know. If your mentor is different, you’ll hear different things. This is where “reverse mentoring” comes in. Some of the people with valuable complementary perspectives and experience may be younger than the people they are mentoring. That’s beyond fine to wonderful.”
Both Bradt and Miller agree that attitude is a key factor in successful mentoring. The mentor has to truly find happiness in helping others succeed; the mentee has to have an open mind and desire to learn.
If you’re like me and wish that 20 years ago you knew what you know today, share it! And if you’re on the opposite side of the equation, and want to prepare yourself for what’s to come, seek it! We can all help each other.
Wendy Smolen has spent more than 20 years playing in the toy industry. She cofounded Sandbox Summit, an idea forum focused on the intersection of play, learning, and technology. Currently, she works with companies and organizations to create playful solutions that engage kids and families in innovative and impactful ways. www.wendysmolen.com