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Pay It Forward

How To Be A Great Mentor

By Robert Peckenpaugh
Learn more about Robert Peckenpaugh by visiting his bio page.

I’m sure that we’ve all had young persons in our companies who looked like they had potential but needed a little push to learn some of the things we had to learn to get ahead. Early in my career, I was fortunate to be mentored by a wonderful man who modeled for me the things I needed to know to become an investment professional, and what it looks like to be a successful mentor.

I want to share with you what I’ve learned about mentoring and how it benefits the young people I’ve been fortunate to mentor, our organization and ultimately – our clients.

Bob’s story

After graduating from a prominent university, I was fortunate to land a good job with a notable investment firm in downtown Chicago. I was proud to be a part of this team and wanted to do my best, learn as much as possible and grow my career.

Alvin became my mentor. He was the senior partner of the firm. I remember that he was friendly to everyone, a man of medium height who wore glasses and a white shirt and a tie almost every day. He had an even temperament, had warmth in his smile and was easy to talk to. He had the bearing of an accomplished professional.

One afternoon, Alvin asked me and my colleagues, Ted, Herb and Ed, if we would be interested in what he called “think meetings.” Of course, we said yes because we all wanted to advance our careers and were complimented that the senior partner was taking an interest in us. We were all at about the same level, being research associates who came from good schools.

Every Monday at 5:00 PM we would meet in his office. He would sit at his enormous oval desk in his rather large office and begin by challenging us to say what we had been working on and thinking about.

One of the first things he told us is that it was not enough to have an economics or finance degree from a prestigious university. For Alvin, these were just table stakes. If we ever aspired to become investment advisors and serve the firm’s clients well, he told us, we would have to learn from other professionals with experience in the field.

He said after the first meeting: “Bob I’ve noticed you’ve been taking notes. Why don’t you write them up and circulate them to our group as minutes.” To this day, I still have those ”think meeting” minutes.

During these “think” meetings, Alvin would ask probing questions about what was going on in the world and financial markets. The investment landscape then was complicated and unpredictable, just as it is today. Just when you thought you had figured things out, you would get surprised. Alvin challenged us to think through the assumptions we were operating from.

Usually Alvin did more listening than talking during these sessions. But at the right moment, he knew the right questions to ask. He would listen, reflect, approve or channel our thinking in another direction and then share with us what he was thinking about investments.

Now the interesting part of all of this is that none of us worked directly for Alvin. As our mentor he gave generously of his time. From 5:00 PM till about 8:15 we would meet and talk and then he’d say – “alright who’s hungry.” Then we’d go down from our offices on the 22rd floor and get a quick bite before catching the 9 PM train home, feeling that, somehow, we were learning some important lessons.

Here are some of the lessons I learned from Alvin about how to be an effective mentor.

Practice approachability

Alvin had a reputation among the junior staff at the firm for being an approachable guy. The old saying is that your reputation precedes you. If you have built a reputation for being pretty important, for being too busy to talk to people, or for not being a listener, you might find the suggestions below do not work out so well. So begin by examining your reputation and asking yourself what you can do to be recognized as someone other people would want to talk with.

Ask for the relationship

Many young people these days would like to have a mentor. But usually they don’t know how to ask and this can be awkward for them. Tell them that you would like to be their mentor and share with them some of the important things they will need to know to get ahead.

Pick people of promise

Whom you choose to mentor is just as important as being a mentor. Not everyone may want someone to be their mentor and not every personality works well with other personalities. I tend to look for people of promise whom I believe will do well in their careers over time. These are people who are already making a contribution to our firm and may just need a little push to move on to the next level. Most of all, I want to make sure that the people I invest in are committed to our field for the long-term.

Expect to listen twice as much as you talk

Too many mentors make the mistake of believing that their wisdom can only be imparted by talking. Smart, motivated and passionate young people want to be self-starters and often resist being told what they need to know. So be prepared to listen – a lot – but follow-up with an anecdote from your own experience.

Ask probing questions without expecting on-the-spot answers

Alvin was masterful at asking the right question at the right moment. Sometimes, I could tell that he already had an answer in mind to his question that he was hoping to hear. But other times, it seemed that none of us had an understanding of what he was getting at.

From this experience I learned the value of asking the difficult questions that require independent thought. As mentors, I believe our role is not to create solutions to complex problems. Instead, our role is to ask the right questions and allow those we counsel to struggle to come up with their own answers. For young people to be successful in the new global economy, they need to learn to ask questions, develop strong critical thinking skills, do their own independent research and learn to write creatively.

Expect nothing in return, but require a commitment to pay it forward

Alvin asked nothing from us in return for his time. But there was an implicit expectation that each of us, in our own way, would one day become mentors ourselves. A commitment to pay it forward was our price of entry into the mentoring relationship. I believe this model works best with young people today.

Let’s put it in action

At previous firms and at Whitnell, I have been privileged to mentor young interns and associates who are early in their careers. I have had the opportunity to share what I’ve learned and to help them develop a habit of critical thinking. My goal is always to help them develop their own convictions.

The financial services industry can be a very perplexing and ambiguous field. By working together, we can learn to think for ourselves and not just rely on what some outsider or purported expert thinks.

As we mentor young professionals on their way up at Whitnell, we help them advance in their careers, move on to senior positions, provide continuity for the firm, and serve our clients effectively. This is one of the best ways I can think of to leave my mark on this organization, an organization I deeply believe in.

If leaving your mark through mentoring is important to you but you’re not sure how to get started, I invite you to reach out to me and let’s have a think meeting.


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ROBERT PECKENPAUGH - view full bio

mia erickson

“It is my great privilege to serve my clients at Whitnell.  I’m also delighted to mentor young people at this company.  Mentoring is one of the ways I help ensure our next generation of leaders have the skills and expertise, as well as the values, that have made this company strong for many years.”