Why Mentoring Matters: Our Failures Are Just As Important As Our Successes

By Laura Kopp
President/CEO of the Center for Active Seniors

In 2010, I made the transition from a very small not-for-profit to a much larger, broader mission based organization. While I felt comfortable with the mission, I made the move for money and access to executive level leadership experience. Unfortunately, I quickly found that I lacked both the innate skill and the organizational support to succeed in my new role. There are many details about the context in which I found myself at the time, but for the purpose of what I want to share with you today, the details are not important. What is important is the fact that I was able to survive this incredibly difficult professional experience because I was not alone. I was accompanied by a trusted adviser who made all of the difference for me as I came to accept my reality and work toward creating a new reality. 

Throughout the turmoil of navigating a “political” minefield every day, I began to confide in a fellow member of the executive leadership team. This woman, while having worked for decades for this organization, was also one of the most balanced, compassionate and silently confident women I had ever met. Maya Angelou’s description of a Phenomenal Woman comes to mind as she writes, "Now you understand just why my head’s not bowed. I don’t shout or jump about or have to talk real loud. When you see me passing, It ought to make you proud ."

While I never formalized a mentoring relationship with this woman,  I began to see her as an unofficial mentor. By definition a mentor is “a trusted counselor or guide.” I began to seek my guide’s advice on how to best handle my difficult interactions in this toxic environment and the unrelenting stress that resulted. I began to seek her input and insights into this unhealthy dynamic playing itself out in my workplace. I sought her wisdom as I tried to better define myself and my leadership style in the context of this negative situation. What was mine to own, control and change? What was not?

After a period of time, the agency's Board made the decision to change the leadership at the top and my mentor became the CEO. Unfortunately, by this point, there had been thorough and irreparable damage done to both my relationships and my reputation. While my mentor could not correct all that had transpired, even from her position at the top, she was able to guide me toward right-sizing my expectations and putting into perspective my experiences within the organization. After three years and many sleepless nights, I made the agonizing decision to leave the organization and seek success elsewhere. Recognizing I was not a fit within this organization that I loved, despite my every effort to succeed was a challenge for sure. I will never forget the day I left that organization. As the now newly hired CEO, my confidante and guide, my mentor, smiled at me and through tears said, “Always remember the good work you did here. And know that this is simply one experience of many. This does not define you. You are made for great things.”

To this day, these words bring me comfort when I think about what I often see as a personal failure. It reminds me that not everyone is made to do great things in every place and in every way. Our “failures” are just as important as our successes. They are both valuable lessons along our leadership journey. And to have a mentor along the way, who can help you remember to see these experiences as gifts and not burdens, is simply the most wonderful blessing.