5 B2B CEOs on their favourite mentors

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Medical education has a saying that could apply to B2B mentorship: “See one, do one, teach one.”

Essentially, you first watch someone else performing a process. Then, you learn to do it yourself. Finally, you share your knowledge with others.

It’s the last tenet, teaching, that deserves more attention. C-suite level B2B professionals are craving advice and market knowledge from those who have been in their polished shoes before. They want to learn from inspiring and successful leaders that can help teach them to grow their business and mange their teams.

We asked five B2B execs to tell us who influenced, encouraged, taught and helped shape them into the powerhouses they are today.

Derek Bond
President and CEO, Content Division, IMAGINA US

CEO Derek Bond
CEO Derek Bond

“Don Browne, former President of Telemundo Network, and my boss at the time, was my mentor while he was in that position until he retired,” Bond told us in an interview from Miami where IMAGINA US headquarters are based.

“He used the word courage quite often which was something that you didn’t hear in the workplace that much and he tried to incite other leaders in the company to step up and take bold risks and to take one for the team, whether it was good or bad. It was a different sort of leadership than I had ever experienced and I realized it made a lot of sense, the only way we’re going to get ahead is by taking huge risks.”

He adds: “You gotta pull the trigger and the only way you’re pulling the trigger is by having the courage to do so.”

Sage advice that Bond uses to this day while running the content division of IMAGINA US, a leading production company in Spanish language entertainment programming.

“There’s no day that I don’t sit there and try to think out of the box and try and put that on the table in whatever meetings I’m at, or asking others. I try to push that message down now. It’s much easier to sit in complacency and just go with the flow with the rest of the team, you can go there….or you can lead the pack. The only way people step up is when they have the courage to do it. Truly, it all starts with that instinct.”

Jennifer Osborne
President, Search Engine People

JenniferOsbSometimes the people that have the most influence over us we’ve never even met. So is the case for Search Engine People president Jennifer Osborne. Headquartered in Pickering, Ontario, Search Engine People (SEP) is a full-service digital marketing agency and, according to PROFIT Magazine, one of Canada’s fastest growing companies.

Osborne says she’d love to have a real mentor in person, but hasn’t had that opportunity yet. She notes that “what we need could be different at different times in our life, so I think going broader than your traditional mentor/mentee relationship is not a bad thing, because as you go through your business journey what you require is going to change and if you look a little more broadly then I think the answers are out there.”

But if she had to name names, the first that comes to mind is Ben Horowitz, venture capitalist, blogger and author of the recently published book The Hard Thing About Hard Things.

What resonates with Osborne the most when it comes to Horowitz’s advice is, “He talks about the reality of the situation; a lot of the business books out there are higher level, best practices, what you should do, but he talks about how it’s not hard to put together an org chart, it’s hard to figure out a restructuring, or all the people parts that go around that org chart. I feel like he’s very practical in his approach to business.”

But just because she’s never met Horowitz in person doesn’t mean she can’t take that knowledge with her in order to run her business. “My style of mentorship is probably going to be more common in the future as we move to more globalization of business and social media.”

At the end of the day, for Osborne, knowledge from all types of sources is the greatest influencer.

“You should always be seeking to learn. I do a lot of reading both of books and blogs and I don’t necessarily expect everything that I read to be ground breaking from start to finish, but you can get tidbits out of some of these sources and you can take that tidbit and think about how to apply it to your own business. It could be gold.”

Greg Alexander
CEO, SBI (Sales Benchmark Index)

Greg Alexander
Greg Alexander

Greg Alexander, CEO of SBI (Sales Benchmark Index), a sales and marketing consultancy, has two mentors, and the first hits close to home.

“My mentor in my personal life is my father, my dad was an entrepreneur his entire life,” he says in an interview. “I like to say that he has the highest street IQ of anybody I’ve ever met, as opposed to raw IQ or book smarts; he’s got very high street smarts and that was really helpful to me.”

When it comes to who has influenced his professional career, Dallas-based Alexander credits Geoff Smart, bestselling author and founder of ghSMART, with having the most influence on his trajectory from a regional sales manager to CEO.

“Early in my career I’d get what was called a Smart assessment and I’d meet with Geoff and we would go through an exhaustive interview process…and the results of that were measured against the job that I was trying to acquire. I wanted to be a CEO, I was not a CEO, I was having a hard time getting investors to hire me as a first-time CEO, so Geoff spec’ed out for me what it meant to be a CEO. We wrote a job description for that, and he assessed me against that and revealed to me all the gaps I had and from there we would execute a development plan.”

To put it plainly, Alexander told us that Smart’s advice changed his life.

“He told me that my ladder was leaning against the wrong wall. At that point of my career I was trying to become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and he made me aware of the fact, based on my background and my personality and what I enjoyed doing, that I would be unhappy in that job.

“He told me to lean my ladder against another wall and that was to be an entrepreneur and start a company and he explained to me how that would give me greater fulfilment and my chances of success would be much higher in that environment…and that was my inspiration for starting SBI. We’ll celebrate our 10th anniversary next year. We’ve had a great success story and he deserves much of the credit.”

Brian Kardon
Chief Marketing Officer, Lattice Engines

Brian Kardon
Brian Kardon

During his time as CMO of Eloqua (now part of the Oracle Marketing Cloud) Brian Kardon admits he did a lot of growing up. “It was quite a ride. Huge growth, aggressive competitors, an emerging new category (marketing automation).”

And through it all, Kardon, now CMO of Lattice Engines, says former CEO, Joe Payne, was and continues to be his greatest mentor.

“Joe would always be eager to try new things. He knew that in a fast-changing market, you needed to continuously evolve. But if the new thing didn’t work, Joe was first to admit it and explain what worked and what didn’t.  He made it easy for the rest of the company to admit mistakes, too.  When the CEO says he tried something, it didn’t work, here’s why, it fosters an incredible culture of innovation and risk-taking.”

In an email, Kardon describes Payne as “very charismatic, persuasive and dynamic” but at the same time “incredibly humble, giving credit freely to others, stepping back to let lower-level employees bask in their well-earned success.”

It was Payne’s behaviour as CEO that left an indelible mark on Kardon. “I will never forget the day of Eloqua’s IPO.  Joe did not rush to put all the execs and bankers on the stage of the Nasdaq stock market.  He invited some customers and wanted Eloqua’s IPO to be more about customer success than about Eloqua’s financial success. So many companies get caught up in their own internal world. Not Joe. He personally prioritized getting in front of customers and asking them how we could do better.”

Joe Payne
CEO, Code42

B2B executive Joe Payne
B2B executive Joe Payne

While he has been a mentor to many (including our previous CMO Brian Kardon) Joe Payne, former CEO of Eloqua and new CEO of software company Code42, says the most important thing to look for in a mentor is, “Someone who is a good listener and speaks the truth back to you even if it’s not what you want to hear.”

Payne’s approach was to reach out to individuals he felt were contributing something different content-wise to the world. He cites stars like David Meerman Scott a marketing and sales strategist and prominent public speaker as well as Chip Heath, Stanford Professor and co-author of the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. Payne then (through sheer persistence) enlisted their help and asked them to serve on his advisory board.

“I used my advisory board as a CEO advisory board; it was not like what a lot of companies do which is a customer advisory council. We had one of those too, but this was just people that I wanted to be helpful to me and I drew them from different areas…I collected people that had different perspectives than mine in slightly adjacent spaces and they became good sets of mentors.”

Payne’s best advice for new CEOs is to, “Find yourself another CEO, or a set of people when you need to talk about an issue that you’re not familiar with or if you just need to kvetch every once in a while. As a CEO you really shouldn’t be doing that with your employees and you shouldn’t be doing that with your board necessarily. It’s always nice to have another CEO that you can call and complain to or get their advice.”

Also read the Mark Evans column on the pros and cons of being a B2B mentor

Photo via Flickr, Creative Commons

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Kareen Madian

Kareen Madian

Kareen Madian started her business journalism career as an intern at CNBC. As the Web Editor for MoneySense.ca and Senior Web Editor for CanadianBusiness.com she created and produced content on all matters of business related news. Whether it be personal finance, daily market activity or interviews with some of Canada’s top CEOs, Kareen’s desire to make business news exciting and entertaining for her readers is always her top priority. Kareen is based in Toronto, and in her spare time she enjoys helping the Canadian economy by shopping for shoes. Find her on Twitter here