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  • Writer's pictureJerry Phillips

The Value of Strong Mentors

The path for many of us, is not a straight path. We believe we are going to be something or do something, and then our life plan changes. Bob Pilon is no different. Bob was a talented hockey player and bright student at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, MN. He was a pre-med major when he realized he didn’t want to spend the amount of time in school that was required to become a doctor. There were two things that he had to do, now that he had made this discovery. The first was to figure out what he would do with his life, and the second was to tell his parents that he was not going to medical school. Neither was an easy task.

There is great benefit to having a trusted mentor. As an individual, you can gain from their experiences. You can have an outside view of possible paths to follow. Mentors are not easy to identify, but when you find one, learn from them. A great mentor must truly care about you and your wellbeing. They must have credibility with the outside world, and they must be willing to be totally honest with you. Bob was fortunate to have a great mentor. His college advisor John M. Lammert, PHD, Biology Professor, earned his trust. He was wise, blunt, and held him accountable. He was consistent in his feedback and his expectations. His experience allowed him to see the talent and potential in Bob and allowed him to make early course corrections.

Bob’s mentor offered that he had two choices; he could teach high school biology and coach hockey, or he could leverage his lab work into the field of medical devices. As he worked through the choices, he chose the path of medical devices.

Bob’s parents, while I’m certain they were a little disappointed in the change of direction, were just as supportive. We sometimes take our family for granted, but Bob’s parents were strong mentors as well.

I asked Bob his advice to people who are early in their careers and he was quite adamant about mentorship. “Find that relationship!” was his answer. He has shared that with his step daughter who is a sophomore at the University of Tennessee. The human element to productive work is critical. Strong, trusting relationships are critical. The things that stood out from Bob’s story were Professor Lammert’s recognition of Bob’s talent, and the empathy to understand where Bob was coming from. He saw the potential. He nourished the talent and Bob turned it into a full and productive career.

Bob took the path of working for a medical device company as a Project Manager upon graduation. He worked on a cross functional team where he ended up taking the notes. He was underwhelmed in the role and slightly bored. There was one individual who didn’t make many of the meetings and Bob asked his superior who it was and why he didn’t make the meetings. He found out that the individual was a Product Manager/Marketing. He didn’t make meetings because he was in the field talking to customers. It was intriguing to Bob. He felt he could be successful doing that. He shared that with his manager, and shortly after that he had an opportunity to move to Santa Barbara, CA. and take on a similar role.

Bob’s work in the Project Manager and Sales and Marketing lead him to his current role. He is the President of Unipart-Olsen. They manufacture precision machine parts for Ag, Construction, and other markets. While it may seem like a leap to go from medical devices to manufacturing for farm equipment, and construction, it was a logical path.

I met Bob when I was doing consulting work for UOI. They were looking for someone to sell for them. We found Bob and could hire him, mainly because he lived near the facility and he wanted to travel less. His talent was way beyond the role, and in a couple of years he was promoted into a manufacturing role that integrated and aligned the India plants into the offering. Over time, Bob proved himself to be a great leader and in the past few years, he earned the role of President of the company.

When he became President, there were issues he needed to address. The first was a fear of conflict. His direct reports were made up of a group of individuals and not a team. There was turf protection but not an open discussion or conflict resolution. Bob has made changes in his staff and built rules of engagement. There are still challenges and limiting behavior, but they are addressing these at the staff level. The challenge for Bob, as well as any other leader is “What happens when you aren’t in the room?” Bob is very candid, professional, and humble. He recognizes the challenges of this and his staff is still dependent on his knowledge, but they are learning. They use metrics to help them track their progress and set the rules of engagement at all levels in the company, even on the production floor.

From pre-med hockey star to company President of UOI wasn’t a planned path for Bob, but an honest, trusted mentor helped send him in the right direction so he could make the right choices.

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