by Karen Hughes White, CEO Tri Delta

Occasionally My Next Season has the opportunity to match a client with the needs of an innovative not-for-profit organization as an Executive-on-Loan. This match presents a unique opportunity to pair a client’s domain skills and career experiences with an organizational project/need that would be meaningful and impactful for them while furthering the important work of the organization. Below is the account of a particularly rewarding and fruitful Executive-on-Loan pairing, as told by the leader of one such organization.

On paper, it struck me as an odd match.

When I was first paired with John Thiel—former Head of Merrill Lynch—through a program that provides non-profit leaders with mentors from the for-profit world, I did what anyone would do: I Googled him. I looked at his achievements and wondered: What could I possibly have in common with this extremely successful business leader?

I had recently stepped into the role of CEO at Tri Delta at a pivotal moment for the organization. I was the first executive responsible for all three business units of Tri Delta, and I was the organization’s first CEO, an executive position formed from two newly combined positions. We were rebranding Tri Delta as a premier women’s organization, working hard to create a set of experiences, promises, and expectations tied to a brand that would begin to create a category of one. There are a lot of people whose experience with Tri Delta was limited to four years in college, and we were trying to re-create something that goes well beyond college years and becomes a lifetime experience on living, learning, and leadership. It was a tall order, and it meant a lot had to change.

In other words, I was a new executive in a new role crafting a new strategic plan—and I knew I would need help.

My first phone call with John went great—we got to know each other a bit, and I laid out my challenges and goals and what I was hoping to get out of the mentoring experience. Several weeks later we followed up in person, and one of the first things I noticed was how present John was. It was clear that he had carved out those several hours for me. He never picked up his phone during our meeting; he was focused and intentional with our time.

As it turned out, we found common ground rather quickly. John had deep experience leading Merrill Lynch through transformational change, and he was wonderfully candid and vulnerable in his discussion about it. He shared his journey in transforming the Merrill Lynch culture after the financial crisis, when he had found himself with many thousands of employees who were going to have to do things differently in order to rebuild the brand. At Tri Delta, it was many thousands of members who were going to have to look differently at the concept of sorority and work together to elevate Tri Delta’s brand as a premier women’s organization.

When someone as successful as John opens up about the challenges and limitations they have faced, it lets you know there is always more to the success stories you read about. It was a powerfully encouraging mentoring connection point.

Practically, John helped me develop a mind-set and a strategy for rebuilding the leadership team. His guidance was exactly the shot in the arm I needed. Everything we discussed was centered around the message: “You’ve got this, and remember why you’re doing this. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Stay the course. You’ve got the vision, you know what you need to do—now just continue to execute it.”

He also encouraged me to bring myself to Tri Delta. Incidentally, our tagline is “Bring you,” so here was my mentor asking me to “bring me” to Tri Delta and not try to play a role, but be myself. The irony was not lost on me.

Here are some of the key leadership lessons I learned from John throughout our mentoring engagement:

  • Change is hard.Transformational change is harder. You have to take people with you—but to get them to come with you, you really have to take the time to ensure buy-ins and commitments. You need to be willing to listen more than you talk.
  • Your whispers are roars. It can be easy to forget yourself when you’re immersed in the work and you feel like you’re just rolling up your sleeves in the trenches with the team. But as a leader, everything you say is magnified because of your position. So remember who you are when you’re speaking, and that will help you understand how your words might be received. This was a huge lesson for me, and as a CEO, it’s something I remind myself of every day.
  • Don’t forget self-care. John would check in on me personally with questions like, “What are you doing for self-care? How are you taking care of Karen White?” At one point during the holidays he told me, “This is an order: You’ve got to take some time off. And take plenty of vitamin C!” He helped me understand that I wouldn’t be any good to anyone if I was down and out. He made me feel cared for personally, and he put it in the context of being able to care for others.
  • Fill your gaps. John talked about the importance of identifying the qualities of leadership that were most important to me as I rebuilt the leadership team. And the way to build a great team is to understand where your strengths are and where the gaps are. Filling a room with a bunch of Karen Whites wouldn’t be nearly as effective as building a team that highlights and activates everybody’s different strengths. That’s where the magic happens.

  • Having a mentor made a huge difference in my ability to be successful in leading through transformational change. It encouraged me to stay in the game when I was feeling discouraged, and I think Tri Delta feels the benefit of my having had this extra support during a critical time in the organization’s history. I am a better leader because of John Thiel’s mentoring work with me, and I believe every emerging leader needs someone like John in their corner.