Real-life lessons about value of mentoring

I am going to start this month’s discussion with a heartfelt thank you to you for reading my column each month as well as sharing it with others. Your support and enthusiasm are contagious and you inspire me to work harder to identify relevant topics and offer ideas and insights that will be of value for you all.

Last month I spoke about the power of mentoring. Whether you are the mentor or the mentee, there is so much to learn. Some of the lessons exchanged through mentoring are more obvious, such as the passing along of wisdom and guidance gained through years of experience. But some are less anticipated, such as when a mentee engages in reverse mentoring, becoming the advisor instead of the advisee and the more seasoned professional is the one who becomes the beneficiary.

The precise details don’t really matter.

Some mentors are assigned, others are found serendipitously. Some interactions take place regularly, others meet informally on an as-needed basis. Some mentors and mentees share professional connections, others gain or add value from outside the industry. But no matter how the arrangement works, the bottom line is that an important exchange takes place and both parties are the winners as a result. The key is to remain open-minded, putting aside traditional expectations and being willing to explore new opportunities together.

When my column entitled “Memo to Mentors: Prepare to learn as much as you teach” was printed July 2 in NJBIZ, I referenced it on my LinkedIn page. At that time I asked if you have a special story about your own mentoring experiences. I was hoping that you would provide some interesting perspectives that I could draw upon for a future article. As a result I used your real-world reflections to follow up on, and expand, my original comments.

Thank you for taking time to respond to my request!

What I discovered from your replies reinforced and confirmed many of the concepts I had put forth in July’s article. While each of you described your mentoring experiences differently, there was also a good amount of commonality and consistency in every email you sent.

First and foremost, you all agreed that each situation is distinctively shaped by the needs of the mentor and mentee. Even under similar circumstances, the different personalities and philosophies of the participants inherently influences the exchange in a unique way.

At any given time the roles may reverse but the concept remains consistent: Mentoring represents an open and honest discourse between colleagues, each providing the other with key bits of valuable knowledge.

Second, the best mentoring occurs when there is a give-and-take relationship that offers significant benefits for both parties.

Third, the most powerful mentoring situations are not bound by traditional parameters. In fact, the insights offered often extend well beyond the workplace. Along with sound career advice, personal observations and critical life lessons are frequently communicated.

Here is a sample of some of the comments I received.

Cliff Evans, vice president at M&T Bank wrote, “My mentor is a consensus builder, a door opener and a motivator. Being a working mom, she has great sympathy for everyone’s lifestyle. She is an influential businesswoman who I look to for guidance and advice although not in a formal role. She has also been a reference for me when I have transitioned into new positions.”

Tracy Fink, a resiliency consultant and herself a frequent mentor noted, “As the mentoring relationship progresses and trust is built, the two participants can discuss some challenging life situations in addition to work. It’s a gift to be of service to help someone navigate challenges that can impact work if not dealt with effectively. There are many lessons to be reaped from real-life experiences.”

Robin Rotenberg, vice president, corporate communications and chief communications officer at BASF Corp., thoughtfully noted, “I have never had a mentor but I have had some really good bosses who have mentored me through minefields. Now I take every opportunity I get to informally mentor as many people as I can. I also think it is part of our responsibility to others.”

So what were the key nuggets of wisdom we gleaned from this mentoring conversation?

In our modern technology-driven workplace, there is an observable decrease in opportunities for human interaction. We listen to webinars in the privacy of our offices, register for online tutorials and nurture and cultivate relationships remotely by constructing social media communities around us. The result is that we are not as likely to have the chance to exchange ideas with each other in a profoundly personal way. This actually makes mentoring more important now than ever before.

When mentoring or being mentored, the basic framework is founded on a special connection between two people. At any given time the roles may reverse but the concept remains consistent: Mentoring represents an open and honest discourse between colleagues, each providing the other with key bits of valuable knowledge.

I hope this article helped to “close the loop” on the power of mentoring. I also anticipate that hearing a wide range of comments was a benefit for you.

I will be putting forth many exciting new ideas in the months ahead – and I invite you to continue sending your comments to enhance and deepen the dialogue.

Sally Glick is principal of the firm and chief growth strategist at Sobel & Co. LLC and president of the Association for Corporate Growth in New Jersey.

Pioneering Montclair mortgage company perseveres

Autumn Urling is determined to carry on her mother’s legacy.

As the owner and CEO of First Prestige Mortgage Services Inc. – the only female and black-owned mortgage company in New Jersey – Urling said she owes much of her success to her late mother Georgia, a well-known and much-beloved North Jersey native who served as a real estate broker for more than 60 years.

Urling recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of the opening of her Montclair-based mortgage company, which was started by her mother. Urling eventually joined the company and was named CEO, working side-by-side with her mother for years.

“My mother worked 24/7,” Urling said. “She was always an entrepreneur and was a pioneer in every sense of the word. Georgia Urling dedicated her life to helping others living in communities in New Jersey. Her interaction with people and passion for life were absolutely amazing. She helped create my mindset and inspired me to help others and showed me how I can make a difference.”

Urling, who has created mentoring programs in local schools and is the founder of an empowerment network for young women, said while she has faced obstacles along the way, it has never distracted her from her mission of giving back to the community.

She is also the author of the book “The Real Deal,” which is described as “part memoir, part informative and part instructional,” has appeared on several television and radio programs and holds educational workshops and other programming throughout the community.

“I, as an African-American woman, have experienced challenges,” Urling said. “The industry is predominantly men and for me as a black woman, I had to work even harder to be accepted. There were days I wanted to quit and walk away, but my fortitude and faith kept me going. Yes, at times you feel isolated, but I have earned my keep no matter my ups or downs.”

While she has experienced several blows in recent years, including financial hardship and the deaths of her mother and sister, Urling has weathered the storms and wants to continue to serve as a role model in her community.

“After you made it through one storm, then the others, it becomes easier to know I will get through and today, the company is still here 20 years later,” she said. “I am proud to be the only black woman left today but now I must leave a legacy, expand and bring others into the industry mentor and train to join this wonderful company.”

New Jersey among handful of states to take progressive stance toward paid family leave

Steve Wood was there for nearly every milestone in the first 12 weeks of his son’s life. And as he got to bond with his first child, his relationship with his wife Lizzy grew stronger, enabling the couple to equitably share parental duties.

Wood was better able to partner with his wife to negotiate the frenzy of parenthood thanks in part to his employer Internet Creations’ new paid family leave policy. He was the first employee to take advantage of the policy that was introduced in February, just two months before Lizzy gave birth.

“When we were a small company, it was easy to just take care of employees’ individual needs and what they needed to support their personal situation,” said Glen Wilson, Internet Creations’ director of talent, who helped implement the policy at the Hamilton-based IT consultancy. “As we approach 50 employees – and we’re looking to go beyond that – we recognized the necessity to lay out our intentions on paper.”

The policy creation and review process started as a fact-finding mission, with a group of employees looking into the policies of some of the top-rated places to work in New Jersey and seeing what the options were for paid leave. Additionally, they weighed how a variety of federal, state and local laws might impact their policy. For example, they looked at the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, Americans with Disabilities Act and local paid leave laws.

“It was important we took a lot of things into consideration and gave everybody the right options. And that people were being treated equally across the board,” Wilson said. “Some plans might treat you differently based on your role or tenure. This one does not.”

Family Leave Insurance, guaranteed to all employees in New Jersey who worked 20 hours and earned at least $169 per week in the 52 weeks immediately preceding leave, or to all employees who made at least $8,500 during that time, allows for six weeks of paid leave to care for a newborn or adopted child or a sick family member.

The state implemented the program in 2009 and through 2017, it had supported 251,418 qualified workers. Last year alone, NJFLI covered over $85.3 million in claims. All employees in the state pay into NJFLI, which costs about $30.33 per year per employee whether they take it or not.

New Jersey was the second state to adopt a paid family leave program after California. New York, Rhode Island and Washington, as well as the District of Columbia, have since enacted similar legislation.

Family leave programs go beyond parental leave, yet even today, few states have either.

The 1993 Family Medical Leave Act requires companies with more than 50 employees to allow for unpaid parental leave; however, the U.S. is one of only three countries worldwide without mandatory paid parental leave. Earlier this month, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Mo., unveiled legislation that could change that, but until then most employees must take unpaid leave following the birth or adoption of a child.

New Jersey’s paid leave plan isn’t perfect. The maximum pay allowed per claim is $637 a week, which prompted companies like Internet Creations to implement its own policy.

“It’s not bad, but it’s still too low for a lot of people. If you’re a low-wage worker, you’re still only getting two-thirds of what you take home,” said Karen White, director of Rutgers University’s Working Families Program in the School of Management and Labor Relations. “For someone making $300 a week and having that cut by $100, that’s a lot to be cut and they can’t afford that. When you’re living to the last penny that you earn on a weekly basis, having to take home any less than you would normally is very hard.”

Without the full pay offered by Internet Creations’ leave plan, which thus far is entirely company-funded, Wood said that he likely would have had to take less time off after his son Greg was born.

The plan at Internet Creations allows for 320 hours that can be taken in two ways. An employee can take his or her leave consecutively for eight weeks, or over 12 weeks with a ramped return: five days off for the first four weeks, three days a week for the next four weeks and two days a week for the remainder.

Though Wilson and company founder Chad Meyer wanted to give employees full flexibility with how they took their 320 hours, their lawyer advised having two options was the best plan, Wilson said.

“If Manager A offers one thing to Employee A under the care plan, but Manager B doesn’t offer Employee B the same thing, it opens you up to the possibility of discrimination,” he said. “We want to make sure all staff is treated fairly, and how you do that is adding some structure around it. When we put it out, I think the team understood that.”

Wood chose the ramped option, which allowed him to spend more time with his wife and son and plan ahead for doctor appointments and checkups.

“It also helped me mentally prepare for coming back,” Wood said. “You put 100 percent into this role as a new father [and] it’s not easy to turn that off and come back to your professional duties.”

“Think about it: when you take a vacation, it’s like you need a vacation from the vacation just to catch up on email. It’s a similar mindset. It’s a longer time, though, with many more emails,” he joked.

Meyer said a fully paid family leave plan aligned with Internet Creations’ employee-focused culture.

“It’s not really scientific or mathematical, but I generally think when you do the right thing by your employees, they do the right thing for you and everything falls into place,” Meyer said. “There’s no mathematical formula to prove that, but sometimes my gut is sharper than my mind.”

And he’s right. The National Study of Employers by the New York-based Families and Work Institute found programs like paid leave promote the retention and recruitment of employees and increased worker productivity.

“When you think about the whole life cycle of hiring — posting the job, wages to recruit the person, background checks, everything that goes into the process … then when you think of the time it takes for a manager to onboard, knowledge transfer, loss of knowledge that could have been prevented if someone didn’t leave the door — there’s a lot that goes out the door when you lose someone when you could have kept them,” Wilson said.

Wood said knowing his paychecks would be consistent and his job protected while he navigated his new role as a father led him to feel positive and rejuvenated upon his return to work. And the effects did not end with him.

“It’s not just the employee that gets impacted. The impact on your spouse can’t really be measured either,” he said. “That’s a part of the story that needs to be told as much as possible.”

Women breaking through glass ceiling at PSS

Engineering, planning and surveying are three professions that historically have been male-dominated.But PS&S, an architecture, engineering and environmental consulting firm based in Warren, is out to change all that with the recent senior-level promotions of Kris McCool, Jarka Vonder and Marge DellaVecchia, each now principals and vice presidents at the company.

PS&S’s Chief Executive Officer John Sartor said a culture of inclusion and diversity has been a part of the company since it started in 1962.

“It’s something that’s been in the company and, quite frankly, that’s always been the culture,” Sartor said. “My dad and his partners—that’s the way they always operated—and that inclusion has been maintained from back then. When I joined it was already there.”

McCool, an engineer who heads up PS&S’ Energy Services Group and oversees many of the company’s energy and utility projects, has been with the firm since 1997.

“I’ve had a very circuitous path,” McCool said, noting years spent on the environmental side of engineering, then heading a large design firm in Philadelphia, with time as a stay-at-home mom mixed in. “I can honestly tell you that I never knew where I was going to be every step of my career. Now I’m kind of going full circle. I’m going back to my tree-hugging roots.”

Although McCool said she has, for the most part, had a clear path in a male-dominated industry, there have been times when she was reminded of just how rare females in the engineering field can be.

“Sometimes when I’ve gone to professional events people are surprised that I’m an engineer,” McCool said. “I think that by and large PS&S is color blind to color or sex when it comes to promoting people. I’m very pleased with the number of women I’m seeing. STEM has been turning a slow tide. I try to keep my door open to women and to mentor them.”

Vonder, who joined PS&S in 1987, is the director of surveying and responsible for the execution and supervision of surveying projects.

“PS&S didn’t have surveyors then and it was a very exciting time for me to join the company,” Vonder said. “I obviously saw opportunities for growth in the company. Thirty years later, I’m still here. It’s been quite a journey. I’m living the dream.”

Vonder notes the pride she feels in having taken part in much of the development at formerly abandoned sites spanning from Jersey City to the George Washington Bridge.

“It’s amazing that these properties used to be abandoned,” Vonder said. “We’ve turned these abandoned areas into thriving areas. It’s still amazing that this is part of what I’ve done. We did the surveying when these were abandoned railroad yards and now they are communities with people who enjoy living there, so my journey was really very exciting and rewarding.”

Vonder attributes much of her success to the mentorship and support she has received from the company.

“I got to this place because I had tremendous senior management to help me along and mentoring me,” Vonder said. “It’s the policy of open doors from top management. Anytime there are issues, they say the door is open. You can thrive in an environment like this, there are many opportunities. Being a woman, particularly a surveyor, is not quite common, but I was given the opportunity and I took it. I learned leadership from the mentors in the company.”

DellaVecchia, a senior director and planner with PS&S since 2016, worked in government and the casino and construction industries prior to joining the company.

“I never really mapped out a career path with a clear, final goal,” DellaVecchia said. “When I went into government it was just a natural affiliation for me. I had a wonderful mentor who afforded me an opportunity as a woman to have a seat at the table.”

DellaVecchia recalls male colleagues in her previous career doing the same job she was and getting paid twice as much.

“I think PS&S recognizes capability,” she said. “They listen, they’re open to new ideas. Our firm will step out of the box.”

DellaVecchia said more women are still needed in fields like engineering.

“Engineering still has a ways to go,” she said. “There’s no line at the women’s room at engineering events. It’s still a balancing act for women in this field.”

Sartor said the company partners with several colleges on internship programs and is committed to mentoring new generations of young professionals.

“We work very closely with colleges and with undergraduates,” Sartor said. “Fostering this workforce starts in college. Eight percent of our workforce are interns. You need to have generational relationships. I’m positioning this company for growth in New Jersey and the region.”