This piece originally ran on August 8, 2012 on Yours in Books, the blog of Meredith Rutter, author and veteran publishing professional. Meredith’s career has run the gamut from her first job at a textbook company in Boston to founding her own packaging company that grew to employ over 100 people. After selling a trade publishing house she also founded, she finally settled down to being a full-time writer. She’s published a family biography/memoir, The Cleveland Rutters and is now at work on a novel.
Meredith’s “chronology” of mentors both spectacular and lackluster wonderfully demonstrates how much mentorship contributes to the shape of one career. Do you have any stories about the single biggest thing a mentor left you with? We’d love to hear! And many thanks to Meredith for graciously letting us share this on Publishing Trendsetter.
by Meredith Rutter
From Alan MacRoberts, I learned–to my great surprise in 1970–that not everyone cared about keeping a job where they were, that they might be enticed to work somewhere else. His own reason was a purchase of our company by Xerox, which he decided boded no good for the publishing experience as he knew it. He was my first boss in the career path of my choice, and I was starting as the high-school science department secretary. Of course, he taught me a lot more (as did all the mentors I’ll mention here), but I’m focusing on the gut-level learning, the aha.
From A.K., I learned that some people can be managers who don’t have a clue how to motivate others to meet a common goal. This manager sat in his office, smoking his pipe (ah, the good old days), thinking about who-knows-what, though rumored to be writing a book. Luckily for him, all of us on staff cared about getting things done. I must, however, credit him for making sure I was promoted to assistant editor before the company blocked that avenue to people who had never taught in a classroom. So, I also learned that people are not ever only what they seem.
From Jim Ashley, I learned a person can still be human while managing others. He had (still does have) great heart and could make me laugh like few others, thanks to a perfectly bent sense of humor. Jim was in charge of the development of a major elementary science series and then an individualized/modular science program for older students. While with Jim, I was promoted to editor and then program manager.
From Dick Morgan, I learned the value of keeping to agendas at meetings, and also that managers have the power to help their direct reports in quiet, strong ways. (You can see more of my thoughts about Dick here.) While Dick was my boss, I was chief cook and bottle washer on a junior high lab-science program, and later program manager in the reading department.
From E.H., I learned that one can harm their project by hiring a friend who can’t do the job. My mentor with regard to this boss wasn’t the boss but my dad (my chief mentor in life), who advised me how to get the work done despite roadblocks put in my way by my own boss. In this case, my dad advised–and I followed through–that I write a memo to my boss suggesting how the project might still be completed on schedule, and that I copy in the sales and other managers in the company who wanted that deadline met. E.H. leaned over the wall of my cubicle and said, “Meredith, do what you have to do to get it done.”
From Ruth Ann Hayward, I learned the importance of writing memos that could be read quickly, almost at a glance. She emphasized the value of using bulleted lists. This has served me extremely well, especially after emails came into vogue! (I also learned by negative example never to use multiple exclamation points!!! They riddled her informal communications.) Ruth Ann was in charge of the development of a major new K-8 reading program and then a major new K-8 language arts (English) program.
Following my involvement as program manager for the new English program, I transferred to the marketing department as a product manager to oversee the launch of the program into the marketplace. I had thrived in the editorial/development end of publishing but now had to learn to swim in the marketing/sales end. My boss, E.B., had different pressures on him than any of my former bosses. At first I required little attention from him as I performed my job (already being familiar with the product and how to position it). But when I needed help with the political aspect of working with the sales manager, the help was not forthcoming. And when an outsider was hired for a new position I thought I was perfect for, I learned it was time to leave the company.
I had not hit the glass ceiling but an experiential ceiling. E.B. didn’t know how to explain it to me, and I’m still not sure I understand the decision. I wish he could have talked to me about it, but “sharing” wasn’t the mode in that department. So, I’ll credit that boss with showing me by example that one does have to learn to “swim with the sharks.” E.B. wasn’t a shark, but he sure had quite a few reporting to him, and at least one biting him from a different department. The book by Harvey Mackay, Swim with the Sharks without Being Eaten Alive, first published in 1988, is a bit dated now but still gets rave reviews from users. I wish I’d read it at the time, and still would recommend it to anyone trying to survive in a business setting today.
And you, who was a favorite mentor of yours for positive learning? or for negative?