Three tips critical to business success that executives learned from their mentors:

  • To tap into your core business strengths and interests, ask yourself, “What gives you energy? Where do you feel excited, and where do you feel drained?” said Shelley Bransten, Corporate Vice President, Global Retail and Consumer Goods for Microsoft, imparting the wisdom of a mentor.
  • Spend time learning every facet of a business, “then, figure out a business challenge that needs to be solved that no one has learned how to do,” Nzinga Shaw, President and Chief DEI Officer for recruitment firm TurnkeyZRG, learned from her mentor. “Learn how to do that specific thing and then you’ll always be valuable.”
  • When leading a team in a business that’s facing key challenges, “they’ll follow you if you take a positive message to them about how things can be turned around. But they won’t if you’re only focusing on the negatives,” Jill Standish, Head of Accenture’s Retail Industry Group, learned from her mentor.

For top executives at companies ranging from Hershey to Microsoft, the wisdom of mentors who’ve shepherded their careers, like “crisis builds character,” and “give people hope,” are more than mere sound bites they’ve filed away as mental notes to ponder from time to time.

Instead, they’ve served as actionable lessons tapped by mentees to shape strategic initiatives — from merchandising programs to customer acquisition plans — and score business wins, executives told CO—in its feature series on the imprint of mentors.

Here's how five executives have summoned the guidance of mentors to drive business.

 kristen riggs headshot
For Kristen Riggs, SVP and Chief Growth Officer at Hershey, mentorship helped her to find the answers to her questions within herself. — The Hershey Company

A mentor’s lesson: ‘She never tells me what I should do, she helps me find the answers’

Kristen Riggs, SVP and Chief Growth Officer, Hershey

For Kristen Riggs, Hershey’s SVP and Chief Growth Officer, Michele Buck, CEO of the legacy candy brand, has been “an amazing teacher; she never tells me what I should do, she helps me find the answers,” Riggs told CO—. “It’s a powerful thing to help people discover they have the answers to their questions within themselves.”

That message has empowered Riggs to lean into her expertise and critical thinking skills — and then act on them.

Bucks’ guidance has complemented the wisdom of marketing executive Andy England, the former Hershey Vice President who first hired Riggs, each nurturing business skills that have nudged Riggs’ rise up the executive ranks at the company.

“Andy taught me this amazing analogy,” Riggs recalled. “As you gain new perspectives and experiences, you’re able to see things more clearly. His analogy for my combined experiences in marketing and sales was the ability to see with two eyes rather than one.”

[Read: Hershey's VP of Commercial Planning Reveals the Game-Changing Impact of Her Two Mentors]

The mentor-inspired business win: A product packaging strategy shaped by a ‘customer-centric and insights-driven approach’

Riggs spearheaded a product packaging strategy for Hershey’s that rolled out to candy aisles at retail stores shaped by the “consumer-centered and insights-driven approach to the business that both Michele and Andy have,” she told CO—.

“My team invested in different types of consumer research, including spending time interviewing people in their homes about what they expect from their candy packaging after they bring the item home from the store. For example, consumers told us that there was no added value in having a resealable closure on bags with individually wrapped products inside like Hershey’s Kisses. Why? Because most people already have a ritual of taking the product out the bag and putting it in a special place around their home, a desk drawer, container in the pantry, etc.,” she said.

The packaging strategy marked a joint effort across Hershey’s supply chain and sales functions, reflecting the collaborative nature of Riggs’ mentors, she said. “It’s also been a project where, as a leader, I have championed and supported my team.”

Indeed, leading a team and making business decisions fueled by the strengths nurtured by her mentors “allows me to move forward with confidence and conviction,” she said.

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Nzinga Shaw, President and Chief DEI Officer at TurnkeyZRG, learned through mentorship to learn how to solve business challenges, even if that requires uncomfortable conversations. — Starbucks

A mentor’s lesson: ‘Make people get comfortable with talking about uncomfortable topics’

Nzinga Shaw, President and Chief DEI Officer, TurnkeyZRG, former Chief Diversity Officer, Starbucks

Nzinga Shaw, President and Chief DEI Officer for recruitment firm TurnkeyZRG, credits the “take-bold-chances” ethos of her mentor Neil Glat, former National Football League senior executive, for shaping her skills and informing her leadership style, which led to business wins during a career that has included Chief Diversity Officer stints at Starbucks and The Atlanta Hawks. Glat also implored Shaw to spend time learning every facet of a business, she recalled, “‘then, figure out a business challenge that needs to be solved that no one has learned how to do. Lastly, learn how to do that specific thing and then you’ll always be valuable.’”

A mentor-inspired business win: ‘A guiding light’ that led to a ‘wildly successful’ DEI-led symposium

When Shaw was the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at the Atlanta Hawks, she created MOSAIC [Model of Shaping Atlanta Through Inclusive Conversations], an annual symposium comprised of panel discussions, keynote speeches and interactive activities via the prism of DEI, tapping sports entertainment “as the connective tissue to unify the masses,” Shaw told CO—.

“Neil’s imprint on me served as inspiration and a guiding light to use the platform of sports to be brave and be different,” Shaw recalled. “He challenged me to make people get comfortable with talking about uncomfortable topics so that we would ultimately have no choice but to change the status quo and create equity for all.”

Glat’s direction paid off: “MOSAIC was wildly successful, grew its attendance every year, attracted global thought leaders as speakers and had a five-year run until I departed the Atlanta Hawks franchise [in 2019],” Shaw said. “Neil’s advice helped me to crack the code on what companies were missing and the core thing that will help them thrive.”

[Read: Starbucks’ Chief Diversity Officer on the Game-Changing Imprint of Her Mentor]

 T.J. Fox headshot
Verizon's T.J. Fox found the importance of character through mentorship, later learning that what a business does during a crisis is what reveals its character. — Verizon

A mentor’s lesson: ‘The importance of character’

T.J. Fox, SVP of Industrial IoT and Automotive for Verizon Business, former President of Verizon Business Markets

T.J. Fox, SVP of Industrial IoT and Automotive for Verizon Business, counts among his mentors the former CEO of Walgreens Greg Wasson, to employees who’ve served on his teams, to “folks I have never met,” like the comedian Denis Leary.

While the list describes a disparate bunch, he’s learned a singular lesson from all of them: “The importance of character,” Fox told CO—.

The mentor-inspired business win: A post-COVID resource hub for small businesses

When Fox was President of Business Markets for Verizon, the company launched several programs to help small businesses impacted by COVID — “a prime example of a motto I live by best summed up by Denis Leary,” Fox said. “‘Crisis doesn’t create character. It reveals it.”

In that spirit, in 2020, Verizon launched its first-ever comprehensive small business hub designed to provide SMBs resources such as one-on-one coaching sessions; a business-maker toolkit that includes a business plan creator, a website platform, and a finance tracker; and content offering actionable strategies for business growth. “What we have done during this crisis,” Fox told CO—, “has revealed our character as an organization.”

[Read: Verizon’s President of Business Markets on The Imprint of His Mentors]

 Microsoft's Shelley Bransten headshot.
Mentorship for Microsoft's Shelley Bransten sparked a discovery for her passion in technology, which ended up leading to major business wins down the road. — Microsoft

A mentor’s lesson: ‘What gives you energy? Where do you feel excited, and where do you feel drained?’

Shelley Bransten, Corporate Vice President, Global Retail and Consumer Goods for Microsoft

When Shelley Bransten, Corporate Vice President, Global Retail and Consumer Goods for Microsoft, was a rising star at iconic apparel retailer the Gap, mentor and business coach Eva Archer-Smith intuited that Bransten — who describes herself back then as “the least cool kid in a fashion company” — loved technology. So, Archer Smith pressed her to lean into that passion.

“We would have a coaching session twice a month, and she would ask questions like, ‘What gives you energy? Where do you feel excited, and where do you feel drained?’” Bransten recalled. The answer became clear. “I liked the data, the technology, the underbelly [of retail].”

That eureka moment proved pivotal, igniting a career in retail tech — which soon became foundational to the $3.3 trillion global e-commerce market.

Mentor-inspired business win: A ‘radical’ retail tech idea to personalize the shopping journey takes flight

Years since those early career days at the Gap and after serving in roles including SVP of Retail and Consumer Goods Industries for retail tech giant Salesforce, Bransten, who’d landed at Microsoft, worked to get the Microsoft Cloud for Retail platform off the ground after hearing from merchants where technology was falling short.

Retailers were saying, “‘We need more finished solutions to understand our customers better, have a more agile supply chain and empower our frontline workers,’” Bransten recalled.

Cloud for Retail hinged on connecting siloed data sources across the shopper journey, from their social-media profile to their e-commerce account, for example. The theory was, “By bringing together disparate data sources across the retail value chain, we’ll enable retailers to realize the true value of their data,” Bransten said, and in turn, offer consumers a more personalized shopping experience. It was a “radical” notion, “because tech companies are traditionally more horizontal by nature than vertical.”

But Bransten, a seasoned retail tech exec by then, had the backing of her boss and another mentor Deb Cupp [president of Microsoft North America], to move ahead. Cupp told Bransten, “‘If you believe that this is the right thing for the company to do for this industry, you’ve got to push for it, and I will create every forum I can to make it [happen],’” she recalled. “And she’s done that.”

[Read: Microsoft’s VP of Worldwide Retail on the Imprint of Her Mentors]

It’s a powerful thing to help people discover they have the answers to their questions within themselves.

Kristen Riggs, SVP and Chief Growth Officer, Hershey

 Headshot of Jill Standish, Head of Retail for Accenture.
Jill Standish, Head of Accenture’s Retail Industry Group, learned the power of positive messaging from her mentor. — Accenture

A mentor’s lesson: ‘What people need right now is hope’

Jill Standish, Head of Accenture’s Retail Industry Group

When Jill Standish, Head of Accenture’s Retail Industry Group, first joined the global consulting giant, the prevailing perception of the retail industry was doom and gloom. “The tone was that it was the retail apocalypse,” Standish told CO—. “And I probably felt a bit of that too.”

It’s then she met now-mentor Maurice Biriotti [CEO of business services firm SHM], whose insights reshaped her thinking and proved instrumental to rejuvenating Accenture’s retail practice.

“‘Jill, what people need right now is hope,” Standish remembers Biriotti saying. “‘They’ll follow you if you take a positive message to them about how things can be turned around. But they won’t if you’re only focusing on the negatives.’”

The mentor-inspired business win: Positive messaging campaigns reinvigorate Accenture’s retail practice

Biriotti’s wisdom inspired Standish to craft a positive message for the retail market via campaigns like Accenture’s Retail with Purpose and Responsible Reset messaging.

“This reframing of retail strategy from being somewhat defensive and reactive to being much more positive and hopeful was absolutely right for the time and has been very powerful in the market,” Standish said.

[Read: Accenture’s Head of Retail on the Imprint of Her Mentors]

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Published August 09, 2022