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Carter Murray: A successful career starts with the right mentor – and lots of them

Carter Murray is the worldwide chief executive officer of FCB, an IPG-owned, global, fully integrated marketing communications company with more than 8,000 people in 109 operations across 80 countries.

Ironically, the more I advance in my career, the more I find that mentoring is still crucial to who I am as a leader and to my performance. Honestly, I always thought that the need for mentoring might diminish as I progressed; now I’ve found the opposite to be true.

When I look at the leaders I admire most, they all demonstrate a will to listen and have an ability to make their best selves come through. They have a natural curiosity for people, business and life, and often they are natural mentors to many around them.

The most potent mentoring methods I know come in two forms: “up-and-down mentoring” – meaning mentoring in both directions within the reporting relationship – and reverse mentoring. I believe that both types help to accelerate learning, elevate one’s career and – probably most important – make us better people.

Up-and-down mentoring

Up-and-down mentoring, while not always recognized as “mentoring,” is powerful and among the most compelling relationships. For most people, the term “mentoring” conjures a top-down approach, coupled with a certain distance from the actual day-to-day work. However, mentoring “up” is very helpful, as it is a direct connection to the work. It also seems part of a more modern style of leadership and a productive way to look at organization’s structure.

I have ongoing up-and-down mentoring relationships with the market CEOs I work with across the world. Each brings different discipline expertise and diverse experiences to the table as we talk about business, creativity, our clients’ problems, my job and theirs, and their aspirations – both work-related and otherwise. It’s up-and-down mentoring when we are continually learning from and coaching one another in a very complicated world.

Quite honestly, if you don’t have a boss you feel can be your mentor, you shouldn’t work for them. Having your boss as your mentor is the ultimate gift to your success and fulfillment at work. Creating environments in which you are mentored during everyday interactions can change the course of business and have a profound career impact.

I was lucky to have bosses who took the time to guide me while I was building my career. Their wisdom and genuine interest in making me a stronger leader were invaluable. As people, they went way beyond to make sure that they helped me become a better leader, businessman, ad person — and human being. They didn’t merely manage me or my business performance; they cared about me as a person. They had my back, worried about me, shared their experiences, knowledge and observations, and, vitally, believed in who I was and where I was going, often before I did.

Working in Germany, at about 27-years old, Anthony Gibson, my boss at the time, walked into my office and told me about a regional new business director job available within the agency. I thanked him for giving me the heads-up and said I would keep an eye on it, as I would be thrilled to work for whoever got that role. He looked at me with a wry smile and said, “No, I think you should apply for the position. You can do it.” I earned the role with the help of his coaching and mentorship throughout the whole transition, for which I am forever grateful.

And now I try to do the same for my team. (An important note: I realized in writing this that most of the bosses I had were men. I wish the gender balance had been there for me – but I am determined to try to make sure it is for others.)

Reverse mentoring

Another useful way of mentoring is reverse mentoring, which comes in a few forms. The first, very traditional form of reverse mentoring is to acquire subject matter expertise from others in your organization, often from those more junior who have cutting-edge skill sets in an emerging area. Recognizing what you don’t know, being able to admit it, and finding those who are willing and able to make you smarter are critical ingredients to being successful. They are also humbling! However, continuous learning and growth – what mentoring essentially enables – are crucial to any leader’s success.

A personal example: Recognizing that artificial intelligence (AI) has such an impact on our industry, I have found a mentor on the topic. The more I am mentored, the more I realize how little I know – but the better I understand. Seeking expertise from others – and building a mentoring relationship from it – is not a deficiency; it is undoubtedly a strength.

Another form of reverse mentoring is to be mentored by someone who is different from you based on background, gender, race or ethnicity – the more different the person’s background, the better. I have found that this has had a profound impact on how I lead and how I see the world.

I was always aware of gender inequality. When I became a CEO, I became much more intensely exposed to the realities of it, and of my position to do something about it. It is through having several women mentors that I have found the best insights of how to be a force for change in this area.

I often talk about Susan Credle and the force for good that she is, regarding creativity and character, but on the topic of inequality, she has also been a great mentor. We frequently discuss ways to play an impactful and positive role, and she is incredibly attentive in how she mentors me through her experience as a woman, as a successful female executive. As I think about our efforts to foster equality, I make more informed, thoughtful and understanding decisions because of her mentoring. It has led to me wanting to be an even stronger voice.

Having mentors from different backgrounds helps one understand, confront and challenge unconscious biases. I believe that if you want to be successful in the future, you need to understand perspectives and upbringings that are different from your own. There are endless studies on how diversity within teams correlates to better financial results, innovation and creativity. It’s not whether we should have diversity and inclusion in our organizations; it’s how far behind we will fall if we do not. Mentoring across differences helps make you a better professional and person. It creates better teams and offers the chance for a more level playing field in the long run.

I think of Vita Harris, recently ranked in the 4A’s '100 People Who Make Advertising Great,' who has become an extremely close mentor to me on the topic of diversity and a “total market” approach to building brands. Vita, an African-American woman and highly recognized industry executive with more than 30 years of experience, is continually finding ways to mentor me to be as rounded as possible on incredibly sensitive, critical and challenging topics. She shares her experiences with me — often tough stories that must be hard to share — because there is a level of trust between us. She makes sure that I better understand culture and inclusion and as a result, more thoughtful decisions.

In my experience, I have found that mentoring is not something you need as you climb the corporate ladder, it is needed at all career levels. Mentorship from people of different backgrounds, faiths, experiences, races, ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations has been an invaluable success tool for me. It has opened up my view to see market opportunities, and to explore work with deeper insight and understanding.

Read Carter Murray's previous opinion column: Doubling down on diversity

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