Mentoring in Practice: Betsy Cohen of Nestlé Purina PetCare

Mentoring in Practice: A conversation with Betsy Cohen, Vice President, Extended Enterprise, Nestlé Purina PetCare Company

Q. How long have you been at Nestlé Purina PetCare and its predecessor companies?

A. Twenty-four years. I started in brand marketing, moved up into marketing and sales, and new ventures and new businesses.

Q. Tell me about someone who has made a difference in your career.

A. My mentors typically were outside the company. I didn’t really understand the power of it and didn’t have people filling that role inside. I had one or two outside, and one inside who was a very good mentor. The person inside was someone I was reporting to. He got to know me personally, what my goals were, and looked for ways to help me shine. He was an enthusiastic supporter of my ability to add more to the company. He wanted to see me get recognition and promotions that weren’t easy for those of us who were the first women considered at the vice presidential level. We kept moving boundaries upward, and this person was a big supporter, saying, “You can do it.”

Q. At the time, this person was your boss. Did you initiate the mentoring aspect of your relationship or did this person do it?

A. He did it. I see him as a role model. He had a very broad view of how he led people, and mentored many people. He saw that he should guide careers as part of what he did. I saw that he could do that for more than one or two relationships. I saw that I could have an impact like he did if I could work with more people as a mentor.

Q. What is the best piece of advice you’ve received from a mentor?

A. Early on, I thought that if I just work hard and do a good job, I would get advanced. My mentors showed me that I needed to be overt in new work I wanted and to be bolder. I shouldn’t assume that it would be obvious that I should be considered for leadership. I needed to ask for more opportunities and be more forthright. It was somewhat shocking when they encouraged me to think bigger, and not to assume that others are going to see that.

Q. Can you talk a little about your role as a mentor within Purina?

A. I’ve put together a career with a variety of areas of interest. When people are stumped, they want to talk to me because they’re trying to find their own pathway. Inside the company, my calendar is open. My secretary knows that I will accept at least one meeting with anybody. If they’re someone who is pretty junior, I know other people in the middle levels who would be great mentors and do my own matchmaking. Some of the mentors I suggest are people to whom I’ve said, “As you elevate yourself in the company you need to be a mentor. There’ll be people that I’ll send your way. That’s how you can show you’re adding value to your own leadership skills.”

Sometimes people with whom I meet say, “It was suggested that I meet with you because this is an area I’m trying to develop, but I’m not quite sure why I need to do this. My manager said that this is part of my development.” We sit down and talk, but they aren’t as motivated because they haven’t bought into what they need to do. The most successful ones really want to expand their horizons. They understand that over their life they are going to have different mentors and that different people can help broaden their learnings and their insights.

Q. What have you gotten out of being a mentor?

A. I get a lot of insights into how different parts of the organization work and what their culture is. I’m also glad to be an outlet valve. I believe I’ve saved some jobs at the company, where people would have resigned over a frustrating situation. I give them a two to three year picture of what would happen if they could make it through the bump in the road. I tell them, You’re not hitting a wall, you’re hitting a bump in the road. I help them to look at it differently because I have a little perspective. I can see when people are hitting bumps in the road that they think are walls.

Q. You talked about how you do some mentor “matchmaking”. Do you give them any advice about how to really make it successful?

A. My advice to those looking for mentoring is to always come prepared; it’s not just a chat. They should come in with good questions to engage the person who is willing to make the time as a mentor. On the other side, I tell the mentor to remember that it’s important to have a personal relationship as well. Get to know the person, try to start and end the dialog on some of the personal things. You have to build that rapport. People’s careers aren’t happening in a vacuum.

Q. Is there anything else that you want to add about mentoring or coaching?

A. Take it seriously. Seriously, but also fun. It’s one of the privileges of leadership. You have a chance to make a difference in people’s lives. Try to be enthusiastic. it is scary to build bridges across the organization when someone’s at a different level or in a different part of the organization. To me, these are the things that make any place that you work so much more than the work. It’s the excitement of our people, how they feel about their work, how they feel about each other that makes people excited to come in the door.