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Mentoring in Practice: A Conversation with Becky James-Hatter, CEO Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri
Q: Tell me about your history with Big Brothers Big Sisters.
A: I founded Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Louisiana in cooperation with the YWCA. After 2 years there, I moved to Atlanta and was vice-president of Programs. It was the largest agency at the time and I was there almost 5 years. In 1994, I moved to St. Louis where I was appointed the CEO. The St. Louis agency has been around 91 years. In addition to being CEO, I am also a Big Sister to two Little Sisters. One I have been matched to for 8 years and another that I have been matched to for 5 years.
Q: Tell me a little bit about some of the mentors you had early in your career.
A: Obviously my parents were my greatest influences. But when I got into my career, one of the board members of the YWCA became a dear confidant, friend, and mentor. She and I are still extremely close and still rely on each other a great deal. When I founded Big Brothers Big Sisters in Louisiana, I contacted Scott Brame, the CEO of the Central Louisiana Electric Company, the biggest employer in town. People told me that you don’t just pick up the phone and call the top CEO in town for a meeting. I never could understand why not. He may say no, but I couldn’t figure out why I shouldn’t call. I called his office and scheduled a meeting. The first thing he said to me when I walked in was, “I don’t have any money to give you.” I was 25 years old at the time, and I quipped back at him, “Who said I was here to ask you for money?” He thought that was funny, and since that day we created the Central Louisiana organization. He had an enormous capacity and essentially helped me fund the organization for 3 years. He allowed me to make mistakes. And now, the follow-up to all of this is that he and I still stay in very close touch. I continue to send him some of my work; if it is a major piece I will always send it to him. He has been retired for 10 years, and he continues to review work and give me some of my greatest criticism.
Q: What about John Bachman of Edward Jones? I read that he was one of your mentors.
A: I wrote him a letter, a hand written note, and told him that I thought that he and I had a lot of things in common. Although I recognized the scale was different, I thought we shared a common value system around Peter Drucker and treatment of employees, and I wanted to meet him. After that meeting, as I was walking out, I asked him who he mentored. He hesitated long enough for me to say, “You need to mentor me.” He looked at me and said, “Well I guess I will see you in 6 months.” And I meet with him as often as I want to or need to.
Q: How do you view your role as a mentor within the organization?
A: I see myself in the classic sense of a mentor. My job is to listen to them, help them navigate their course. If I think the course they have picked is counterproductive, I show them why they may want to reconsider some of their decisions. But, at the end of the day, I recognize that it is their decision. I let them know that I have confidence in them. I help them figure out why things are and how to manage through those situations. I see myself as a friend, a confidant, someone who affirms them, someone that supports them in whatever journey they want to take.
Q: How do you tell someone who is looking for a mentor how to get the most out of working with a mentor?
A: Know exactly why you are there. Why do you want this mentor in your life? Be able to articulate it clearly. Be mindful of that person’s contribution. You don’t have to agree with what your mentor is saying. Be genuine. My goal is simply to build a friendship with someone who is incredibly smart, incredibly resourceful.
The most rewarding thing that you can do for a mentor is to let them know how they have helped. I remember after months of John and I talking, I came to him and said, “Now listen. I have been sitting here listening to you for months, and it has been incredible. But what I want you to do is sit there and listen for me for 30-45 minutes as I tell you what difference it made. Let me show you what I have done over the last 9 months with all of the information and all the questions you have asked me. This is where it has led me.” It was a very powerful session. I think that the benefit is knowing that I went off and did something with it.
Q: Are there differences that you see between business mentoring and the mentoring that goes on at Big Brothers Big Sisters with the youth?
A: I don’t think so, fundamentally. The biggest difference is the fact that you are dealing with an adult. As an adult, I am clearly able to articulate exactly why I am in certain relationships and know exactly why I pick certain relationships. I may have a mentor that helps me with this part of my life, and another for another part. An adult can communicate in a much more advanced way. I am not too sure that kids always know why they need to have caring adults in their life. But, when it comes to the relationship of what my role is as a Big Sister, I don’t see any major shifts in it.
Q: Is there anything else you want to add about mentoring?
A: I honestly can’t imagine a person going through their entire life without at least one great mentor. From childhood through adulthood, I know I will continue to nurture the mentoring relationships I have, and collect more.