As a front-office employee of the Minnesota Vikings, Katie Bernhjelm was driven to lead and succeed. In Pam Borton, she found a mentor who could coach her to rise to the next level.
When the two women met, Bernhjelm was a coordinator of marketing partnerships for Minnesota Vikings Football LLC. She’d been working for the team for three years, helping manage all of the marketing assets for the team’s sponsors, including TV, radio, websites, website advertising and social media advertising.
Bernhjelm met Borton through the mentorship program at TeamWomenMN, a nonprofit Borton co-founded in 2012 to bring professional women together for mentoring and leadership development. “I was looking for someone who was willing to be honest with me and help push me,” Bernhjelm says. She was “assigned” to Borton, and it turned out to be an excellent match. Borton “definitely understood the culture of being part of a sports team and was able to provide me really good feedback about things I was facing,” she says.
Borton was the most successful women’s basketball coach in University of Minnesota history. During her quarter-century as a Division I coach (12 of them in the Big 10), she coached teams to one Final Four appearance, one Elite Eight, three straight Sweet 16s and numerous NCAA tournament appearances. In 2014, after 12 years at the U and a few non-winning seasons, she was fired. But Borton’s reaction wasn’t a bitter one. Instead, she decided to continue coaching, but on an entirely different level. Along with Aimee Cohen and Sara Lebens, Borton co-founded Borton Partners, an executive coaching and consulting business based in St. Louis Park. “I’ve been a mentor my whole life with my student-athletes,” Borton says, so she believes the transition to business coaching was a logical one.
First, sports is business—even at the college level. Second, “people in the sports culture are usually more driven and competitive,” Borton says. And third, along with the competitive spirit, those working in the sports industry “get the whole team thing—teamwork and collaboration.”
Bernhjelm had a competitive spirit and a desire to move up the ranks. “I think it was important for me to help her understand that you’re not going to go from here to there overnight,” Borton says. In the driven environment of sports business, “sometimes you have to slow people down.”
Instead, Borton offered strategies for climbing the ladder. As a coach, she knows that to get good at something, you need to practice (which can mean hours of unexciting drills). In business, it can require working on less-than-exciting stuff as well. “Even though I wasn’t in a leadership role as coordinator, [Borton] helped me demonstrate leadership in other ways—by having pride in your work, even if it’s on the most mundane project,” Bernhjelm says. “Even if it’s not something you necessarily want to work on.”
In addition, Borton advised her to manage “up”—in other words, to build relationships with other executives in the company and members of upper management, “just to informally learn more about how they got to where they are, how they lead, and the advice they were given along the way,” Bernhjelm recalls.
Borton also helped her establish specific professional goals. Those included learning how to have difficult conversations with her co-workers and leaders, such as asking for a promotion or dealing with a challenging work situation.
As an executive coach as well as mentor, Borton says her first step is “to give [clients and mentees] the confidence to have those conversations. It shows a lot of leadership skills to go and have them.” She also advises that people “message that conversation and frame that so you’re not putting the person you’re having the conversation with on their heels or in a defensive position.”
All of Borton’s strategic guidance bore fruit last fall when Bernhjelm became the Vikings’ manager of marketing partnerships. Though she has no direct reports, she is part of a group of managers supported by the coordinators, her former role. Borton’s mentorship drew to a close at the end of the year, but she and Bernhjelm remain in touch.
“It was great to have an outside perspective,” Bernhjelm says of her experience as Borton’s mentee. “I knew I could confide in her and have her point me in the right direction.”
As for Borton, she says that “being a mentor is one of the most important things we do as leaders and as executives. Helping other people become successful [is important], because others helped us get here.”