The New Rules of Mentorship
Photos by Eliesa Johnson Makeup / Hair Kate Erickson

The New Rules of Mentorship

Who's helping whom? From banks to Best Buy, mentorship, increasingly, goes both ways.

Ask almost any business leader the key to their success and you’ll hear some version of this refrain: “Nobody gets here alone.” But mentorship is no longer a one-way endeavor—a boost up the ladder, so to speak. “A mentor relationship needs to be a two-way street and there needs to be ‘currency’ between two people,” says Gene Han, Target’s vice president of new ventures and accelerators. “It’s like a personal ‘bank account’ between people; you make deposits and withdrawals.”

You’ve likely heard the buzzwords: reverse mentorship, peer-to-peer mentorship. But even in traditional mentorship relationships, the more seasoned partners are realizing how much they can learn about business from those on the way up. In a 2018 Robert Half Management Resources survey of CFOs who had served as mentors, the No. 1 benefit cited by the execs was the opportunity to improve their leadership skills. Last year, Best Buy formalized the trend by launching a reverse mentorship program that pairs senior leaders with employees at earlier stages of their careers who have different life experiences from the leaders. UnitedHealth Group, Target, and Deloitte are among the growing number of businesses that practice reverse mentoring.

“When you’ve seen a lot and had a lot of success, you’re thinking, ‘How can I continue to stay challenged?’ ” says Lisa Brezonik, president of Minneapolis–based staffing agency Salo. “It gets them revitalized.”

Meet five mentor pairs who are inspiring each other.


Partners in Disruption

“As a founder, you think you’re supposed to know all the answers. It’s important to show the world your authentic self.” —Clarence Bethea, founder and CEO, Upsie

Clarence Bethea, founder and CEO, Upsie Gene Han, vice president, new ventures and accelerators, Target

Entrepreneur Clarence Bethea did “90 percent of the talking” the first time he met Target exec Gene Han through the Target + Techstars accelerator program in 2017. Bethea was working to grow Upsie, his mobile app-based warranty service; as Target’s vice president of new ventures and accelerators, Gene Han was there to help.

“I didn’t think he liked me,” Bethea says. “He was so quiet, and I’m an extrovert, so I just kept talking.”

But then Han went to the whiteboard and started drawing circles to represent various aspects of the Upsie business and how they intersect. “It was so different for me—so methodical, the way he thought about problems and solutions. We understand the problem we’re trying to solve at Upsie, but I didn’t know how [to go about it].”

That interaction sealed their bond and the two tech leaders stayed in touch after Techstars wrapped up. Sometimes it’s a text message, other times they hop on the phone after their kids have gone to bed. Often they talk while in transit (Han recently moved from Minneapolis to San Francisco for his job).

“I’m an emotional guy,” Bethea says. “He helps me think about the pragmatic way to approach things.”

But Han marvels at Bethea’s decisiveness.

“He’s quick, nimble, and has a big hustle factor. The pace of change is so fast now—disruption comes from places you don’t expect,” Han says. “Our relationship has increased my own empathy for the startup founders going through Target’s accelerator programs.”

What’s a value you share with Clarence?
The commitment to being a great husband and father. We both have little kids and we remind each other about making sure to keep our families a priority given our hectic and demanding work schedules.

What do you admire most about Gene?
He just listens. Great leaders listen first.

Gene, having been with Target for seven years, do you ever think about what it would be like to be in Clarence’s shoes as a startup founder today?
Every time I look at how much money he’s raised!


Banking on Bonds

“Marci introduced me to the concept of Me Inc. I am me, and I am in charge of my career. I have to pursue things because no one is going to give it to me.”—Aleesha Webb, president, Village Bank

Aleesha Webb, president and vice chairwoman of the board, Village Bank Marci Malzahn, president, Malzahn Strategic

Growing up in Nicaragua, Marci Malzahn loved to play Monopoly. When she was 19, her family immigrated to St. Paul; she rolled the dice and pursued a career in banking. She started as a teller for Marquette Bank and eventually became the first employee and one of the first shareholders of Tradition Capital Bank in Edina. Through the years, she oversaw all areas of operations and served in just about every executive role—except president. (She has run her own financial institution consultancy since 2014.) Now a speaker, author, and proud grandma, she helped paved the way over the past 25 years for the next generation of women in banking and watched with pride last year as her mentee-turned-friend Aleesha Webb became president of Blaine-based Village Bank. “Women need a mentor to tell them, ‘Here’s the path,’ ” Malzahn says. “Just because it hasn’t been done doesn’t mean that can’t be you. That is the biggest challenge for women executives today.”

Best advice you’ve gotten from Marci?
To take 12 weeks off when I had my babies. I wasn’t going to. Now when I mentor young women, I always tell them to take time for your personal life. Never be afraid to say you have to get to swim lessons. If you don’t work at a place that will support that, you’re probably at the wrong place.

What’s your fondest hope for each other’s careers?
That Marci continues to grow as a speaker, to share her story—it really needs to be told on a bigger platform.
Malzahn: I want Aleesha to be the best leader she can be for this bank, to leave a legacy so people know when Aleesha was here this bank thrived, grew, and she allowed people to flourish.


Partners in Law

“If I treated an associate the way partners treated me when I started out, I’d get fired. We’re improving on humanity and I think it’s way better.” —John Stout, shareholder, Fredrikson & Byron

Debbie Walker Kool, senior associate, Fredrikson & Byron John Stout, vice president and shareholder, Fredrikson & Byron

As Fredrikson & Byron’s longest-tenured attorney, John Stout has helped dozens of associates on their way up. But when one of his own mentors introduced Stout to Debbie Walker Kool, he knew she was someone who could enlighten him. Before law school, Kool directed the nonprofit Freedom Firm in India, working to rescue victims of sex trafficking. A member of the American Bar Association’s human trafficking task force, Stout encouraged his firm to pay for 100 hours of Kool’s time so she could contribute while still a law student at the University of St. Thomas (Kool continues to support the ABA’s work on labor trafficking today). A friendship built on mutual respect and shared learning blossomed from there. It’s a dynamic that Stout says wouldn’t have happened when he was hired out of law school in 1967. “Back then, a senior partner might walk around on a Saturday morning to see who else was there, but he wouldn’t ask how you’re doing or feeling. It was more directive. For me, the most important thing is helping people find their passion. Then it isn’t work. I’m 78 and I get paid to learn.”

What do you admire about each other?
John has exceptional judgment about people. He’s not threatened by including others and giving them credit. If you want to be a good mentor, you need to put your ego on the line.
Stout: She’s a very committed person with a strong set of values and she’s not shy about those values. In some ways, you could say she’s better focused than I am.

What makes for a successful mentor relationship?
Be curious and involve yourself in your mentor’s projects. What’s worked well for us is finding a project we could work on together. Then you don’t need to make time to see each other.
Stout: Don’t be afraid to admit you know nothing about certain things, and reach out to people who do.


Reversing Stereotypes

“We approach our time together with an all-in mentality—practicing honesty, vulnerability, compassion, and taking a leap of faith on trust. This allows us to cover all topics, both personal and professional.”—Allison Peterson, chief customer and marketing officer, Best Buy

AllIson Peterson, chief customer and marketing officer, Best Buy Laura Miller, senior coordinator of diversity and inclusion, Best Buy

Laura Miller is just four years into her career at Best Buy, but she schooled the company’s new chief customer and marketing officer Allison Peterson the first time they met. “She talked about racism, sexism, and ageism she’d experienced in a previous job and I said, ‘I’m so sorry,’” Peterson says. “She took it as pity, and called me out. It’s not what I meant, so I asked what I could do differently.” Miller quoted Brené Brown on empathy versus sympathy. “Empathy is feeling where you’re coming from. Sympathy is feeling bad for you,” Miller says.

It’s a lesson Peterson says she won’t forget. “She could have brushed it off—brushed me off, but we have to be honest, be vulnerable.”

Peterson has mentored many up-and-comers over her career, but Miller is Peterson’s first reverse mentor relationship. The pair met through a Best Buy program launched last year to help executives become more empathetic leaders. “We’re on a journey as an organization around how to put our diversity and inclusion efforts at the forefront,” Peterson says. “Understanding someone’s journey that doesn’t look remotely like mine helps me to build inclusive teams.”

How do you get comfortable talking about touchy subjects?
It’s humbling. I have to pinch myself. But I look at this as an opportunity to help influence executives on how to get better as leaders, to build inclusive cultures.
Peterson: We immediately had a connection when we met. I believe this came from a genuine place of each of us wanting to get the most out of this opportunity by truly taking a personal interest in one another.

Best advice for each other?
Seek out people who have different experiences.
Peterson: I really try to advocate for people being their best authentic self and leaning into their strengths. Another key theme is the power of being proactive and working to anticipate what’s next—what are the upcoming needs of the business? Our customers? Our teams? Thinking about that allows you to play offense versus feeling like you are constantly trying to keep up.


Enduring Relations

“Our entire team, culture, and business grow stronger when we’re willing to learn from one another.”—Melissa Kremer, chief human resources officer, Target

Amber Alexander, director, talent management, Target Melissa Kremer, executive vice president and chief human resources officer, Target

It started out as many mentor relationships do: Amber Alexander was early in her career at Target, having worked at a distribution center before moving to headquarters as a recruiter. She wanted to learn about other paths in human resources and asked a colleague for an introduction to Melissa Kremer, who was an HR director on the fast track. “I could see right away that Melissa genuinely cares about and is interested in people as individuals, at Target and outside of work, too. We very quickly developed an easy and trusting rapport, and there’s never been a moment where I felt I couldn’t speak openly with her,” Alexander says. A decade later, the two remain colleagues and friends, a bond unchanged by Kremer’s recent promotion to the top spot in Target HR.

“When we first met, many of our conversations were role-based with me offering Amber advice as she navigated a new position or responsibility on the team,” Kremer says. “Over time, our relationship has evolved to become a two-way conversation, and now I’m listening to her advice for me as much as I’m offering it. Our relationship works because we’re both committed to learning and helping one another grow both inside and outside of work.”

How do you make time for each other?
It’s all about prioritization. Talent is our most important asset at Target, and I see it as a huge priority to invest in the future leaders of our company. Amber and I don’t rely on just formal meeting moments. We’re quick to pick up the phone or leverage email as a way to supplement our time together and engage on hot topics.
Alexander: It helps to establish a routine. We meet monthly, and you both have to agree the time together should be a priority. There have been times over the course of our 10-year relationship where we didn’t meet as often but we’ve always come together during the important career milestones.

How do you maintain a personal and professional relationship when you’re at different levels of management?
Melissa has always made it clear that I can speak freely and she gives me space to offer advice, even though I’m junior to her. We’ve been intentional about taking time to check in with each other to make sure there’s a good balance of give and take.
Kremer: I think senior leaders at Target have always had an appetite to stay connected to the frontlines of our business. So, in formal and informal ways we seek input, sometimes for specific needs like building digital acumen or for better understanding generational dynamics. What’s important is that we all stay curious and committed to understanding what’s moving our guests and our team.

Allison Kaplan is TCB’s editor in chief.