The Public Relations Strategist

Mentors and inspiration: Partners in a lifelong journey of self-discovery and change

May 14, 2007

Copyright © 2007 PRSA. All rights reserved.

By Debra A. Miller, Ed. D., APR, Fellow PRSA

The following article appears in the spring issue of The Strategist.

When my daughter came home with another one of her mind-bending third-grade projects, I cringed at the thought of what we would be asked to do this time. She has new-school teachers and an old-school mom. 

While interviewing me for the project, she asked, “Who do you talk to for advice?”  I answered, “I talk to my mentors.” After explaining what a mentor does and who mine are, I realized that even with more than 25 years in the profession and double that of being on earth, there are a handful of people I still talk to first before I make a move professionally or personally. 

As a member of, and leader in, PRSA, I know that I am not alone in this. Mentoring, as PRSA chair and CEO Rhoda Weiss, APR, Fellow PRSA, states, “is analogous to lifelong learning.”

I am convinced that had it not been for the counsel of my mentors, I would not have made some of the best decisions in my career and personal life. I know I would not have given any thought to becoming involved in PRSA, and most recently, allowing myself to be nominated for the Gold Anvil Award this past year. 

Over the years, my mentors have helped me take an exciting journey of self-discovery and development each time I speak with them. Among probing questions, mental stretching, words of encouragement, reminders that “I know you too well,” the laughs and the wisdom, we all come away inspired and energized. Each of them challenges me to draw upon and develop hidden personal resources and qualities. The results are always more than I hoped for.

Improving your effectiveness
In this real-time, dynamic PR environment, experience is not enough. Whether you’re beginning your career, hitting that mid-level stride, getting comfortable in the executive suite or cruising toward retirement, mentoring can improve your effectiveness in terms of leadership, decision-making, creativity, time management and career development.

When one thinks about mentoring, the image of a seasoned corporate sage conversing with a naïve young student comes to mind.  Although there is truth in this, real mentoring is simply when someone helps another person learn something that he or she would not learn if left alone.  As we progress through life and our career needs change, our mentors change with them.

A mentor is not only a teacher or coach who focuses on tasks and results. Mentors focus on individuals and their development. They act as confidants willing to play the part of adversary, to listen and to question so their protégés can broaden their own view.

Mentors help assess our performance, provide feedback on strengths and weaknesses, and encourage us to learn new skills and behaviors. They even help us build a network of contacts. And if you’re lucky, they’ll help with challenging life decisions as well.

Words of wisdom
If you’ve been in this profession for any length of time, you’ve learned that mentors are a critical element in your career development. Whether your mentors are symbolic or multigenerational, choosing to have a mentor is one of the most important career decisions you can make.

To confirm my opinions, I reached out to my mentors and colleagues and asked them to share a few words about the value of mentoring at this stage in our lives and careers. To the letter, all of them have had long-term mentoring relationships that have lasted a minimum of 10 years. Here’s what they said:

• Mentors are a necessity throughout one’s career. “There’s an obvious advantage to having a mentor at different stages of a person’s professional development,” says 2000 Gold Anvil Winner Ofield Dukes, APR, Fellow PRSA.  “Having the advantage of prudent advice from a caring mentor on a regular basis is invaluable.”

• Mentoring is focused on using your skills to achieve success. “When I changed career paths from practitioner to educator, Dr. Jim Grunig [professor emeritus at the University of Maryland] set my path and standards,” says University of Florida professor Kathleen S. Kelly, Ph.D., APR, Fellow PRSA. “Because he was my Ph.D. adviser and the leading theorist in public relations, Jim invisibly stood over my shoulder as I wrote scholarly articles and prepared class syllabi.”

• The diversity of mentors is important. As we advance in our careers, the types of mentors and what we need from them vary as our roles, responsibilities and accomplishments change. “I have found great value in the mentor relationships I’ve had for more than 25 years with my peers in the profession,” says Cheryl Procter-Rogers, APR, Fellow PRSA, PRSA’s 2006 chair and CEO. “We have a unique bond, sharing best practices and learning from one another.”
• Establishing mentoring relationships with peers, professionals in other disciplines and individuals who have fewer years of experience is invaluable. “At this stage in my career, mentors are part of the fabric that I have woven into who I am,” says Robert S. Pritchard, APR, Fellow PRSA, Ball State University assistant professor and PR sequence coordinator. “Seek out mentors. They seldom come to you, but they are far too valuable to go without.”

• Success would not have come as easily without mentors in their lives. “My mentor is responsible for helping me find every PR job I’ve held, beginning with my first internship,” says Lori George Billingsley, director, community and multicultural communications, Coca-Cola North America. “She always tells me, ‘You can do this,’ and I believe her.”

• Involvement in professional organizations such as PRSA has given them access to an array of mentor candidates that they wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise. “I have had two particularly wonderful mentors early in my career — Hal Warner, APR, Fellow PRSA, and the late Davis Swanston — both of whom I met through the National Capital Chapter,” says Katherine Hutt, APR, Fellow PRSA, president, Nautilus Communications, Inc. “They encouraged my involvement and leadership in PRSA and always were there when I needed them. David inspired me to start my own firm.”

• Diversity is key to maximizing mentor-mentee relationships. Not only is the multigenerational aspect important but so is diversity in backgrounds, ethnicities, professions, expertise, education and stations in life.  “I was told early on in my career that I would need a minimum of four [mentors] to include African-American male, African-American female, White female and White male,” says Brenda Siler, national director, communications and marketing, of the United Negro College Fund. “My cadre of mentors has expanded over the years to include a variety of professionals as I have continued to grow.”
• Multigenerational mentoring relationships provide the wisdom of experience and a perspective that includes future trends. “There is a great deal of value to having multigenerational mentors,” says Mike Herman, APR, Fellow PRSA, vice chairman of the Catevo Group. “While most of mine have been older, now many are younger, especially as [the relationship] relates to technology and its uses and potential.”

• Mentors can help you work toward both immediate and long-range goals. “At this stage in my career, the type of mentor I’m looking for is someone to help me figure out how to become a published author of books,” says Angela Sinickas, ABC, president of Sinickas Communications. “I’ve considered Roger D’Aprix a philosophical mentor [through his writings and speeches] my entire career.”

Leaders turn to trusted mentors
As you climb the corporate ladder, move from employee to employer or change professions completely, the right mentoring relationship is essential. You will be faced with issues such as career satisfaction, professional development, critical life transitions, personal growth, work-life balance, and leadership and management skills. Each step of the way can be more bearable with a mentor who can provide the following:

• Safety.  Mentors are confidants with whom you can share your personal frustrations, fears, uncertainties or even doubts without worrying about an adverse impact on your career or working relationships.

• Sounding board. Mentors are engaged, supportive listeners who pose insightful questions as you talk through tough leadership decisions, new ideas for your business or life choices outside your professional career.

• Perspective.  A mentor can be a knowledgeable adviser who understands leadership and offers an outside point of view on your business and the dynamics within it.

• Counsel. A mentor helps you sort through difficult issues related to ethics, the direction of your career or life outside your professional career.

• Coaching.  A mentor shows you how to sharpen the tools critical to your success.

• A guide. A mentor can be a probing questioner who helps you keep your values aligned, your priorities in order and your inner life in balance.

Partners in the journey
Wherever our life or career journey leads, it will require an excursion into the unknown. Along the way, we may confront a fear of success and, paradoxically, a fear of failure. We may have to cast aside long-held beliefs about who we are and what we are capable of. Having a mentor to share the journey can create new opportunities for personal fulfillment and achievement. 

Debra A. Miller, Ed. D., APR, Fellow PRSA, is senior director of marketing and communications at Clark Atlanta University.  She is the recipient of the 2006 Gold Anvil and D. Parke Gibson Award. She is 2007 chair of the College of Fellows. She was PRSA president in 1997. E-mail:

Looking for a mentor?
Please visit the College of Fellows Web site, complete the application and you will be matched with a mentor.


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