That’s How I Work
The Value of a Good Mentor
In the above photo, on the left the Associate Dean of the College of Business at New Mexico State University peruses a course catalog while an eager student looks on. The year is 1992.
That’s me. I am that eager student.
This photo was included in a recent mailer from my alma mater sent to alumni to convince them to include donations to the University in their will.
I only vaguely remember when the photo was taken and boy did I have to plumb the depths of my brain to recall that day.
But I am delighted to see the photo and more importantly, the woman in the photo. I was her graduate assistant and she was my first mentor.
I am forever in her debt.
My time at university was both the greatest time of my life and a difficult ride, but I suppose I am not unique in that experience.
In 1991, I finished my undergraduate degree but hadn’t really made an effort to find a job. I figured it couldn’t be that hard, I mean I was a newly minted graduate, wouldn’t job offers be thrown my way? In the middle of a recession?
I may have been college educated but I was not smart.
Okay, let’s be honest, I was dating this tall, blue-eyed cowboy who still occasionally shows up in my dreams. One night while sloppy drunk he said, “I’m going to marry you one day” and I was dumb enough to believe it.
So instead of finding a job and moving on, I applied to the MBA program so I could stay on at school and be with him. After all, we were going to be married someday. Right?
You can probably see where this is going. He broke up with me a few months before I completed my undergraduate. He’d been trying to break up with me for months and the night he finally worked up the courage to actually do it, I starting crying and I wouldn’t stop crying for a very long time.
Every day I’d go to a certain place by the Rio Grande, a place we used to go together, and I’d cry so hard I’d swear I raised the water level and the salinity of that old muddy river.
In between sobs, I applied to graduate school at Texas A&M and was quickly rejected. I made an appeal to the President of NMSU who was friends with the someone important at Texas A&M and managed through the good ol’ boy network to get a provisional admission. That meant I would pay out of state tuition, could not hold a graduate assistant role, and could not qualify for scholarships. So back to NMSU I went.
I applied for and received a graduate assistant role in the Advising Center for the College of Business, and that is how I became the assistant to the Assistant Dean.
She spoke with the gentlest of east Texas accents, owing to a childhood in Abilene. She personified both southern charm and Texas grit. She was made in the mold of former Texas Governor Ann Richards, and was beloved by all who knew her. My older sister had been her graduate assistant and I counted myself lucky to be chosen to serve in the same role.
One day while in her office I witnessed a mighty but brief dust up with the Dean of the Business College, her boss. He was a large cigar chomping man’s-man and she put up with exactly zero percent of his bad mood. She never raised her voice but she sent him packing from her office with a look on his face that can only be described as chagrin.
Physically shaking after the door closed, she took a deep breath and right then, in that moment, taught me the lesson of how to “tell someone to go to hell and make them look forward to the ride.”
At conferences, she taught me to wear my name badge on my right side. Everyone always wears it on their left. Her reasoning was when you shake hands, the other person’s eyes will travel from your hand up your arm and then your name tag is right there.
She also taught me how to shake hands. No wimpy sad handshake. A lady in business must have a firm grip and be unafraid to shake hands like a man. She taught me that you can be a successful woman in business without having to act like either a man or a bitch. It’s not so easy as it sounds.
We went on recruiting trips to area high schools. We rode long hours in the car and we talked and we laughed. She’d get a glint in her eye and tell a good joke. She knew the best places to stop along the way for a plate of Mexican food. She charmed her Business 101 students, her peers, and prospective students alike.
She gently encouraged every student she advised. She demanded the best of all of us.
I graduated with my MBA in 1993, and soon began to work. Twenty-eight years later who I am as a woman in business and how I work every single day I owe to my mentor and the foundation she laid.
I have had many wonderful mentors since then. Strong, powerful, intelligent women. One taught me how to stand up and walk out of a high stakes negotiation when the opposing sales team was being ridiculous. One taught me that having a year’s gap on my resume (that was not related to having a baby) was nothing to be ashamed of and might actually be a positive.
I’ve also met some clunkers. One manager was so insecure she kept a list of employees she didn’t like and actively mistreated them at every opportunity. Another was going through a terrible time with menopause and was erratic even on her good days.
Every woman that I work with teaches me something. Every day that I work is an amalgamation of them all.
There was that one day in Amsterdam when I was the only woman in the conference room filled with twenty men, mostly engineers and salesmen. We were negotiating a very difficult telecommunications contract, a very dude-heavy industry.
When the meeting opened our lead engineer asked, “So who is going to take meeting notes?”
They all looked at me. Every one. I looked back at each and every man in the room and said nothing. Nothing. Because a powerful woman taught me the value of silence in negotiations.
The quiet was delicious. Finally, “I’ll do it,” said someone who was not me. They took the notes and I negotiated the hell out of that deal. I never once raised my voice.
She would have been so proud.
Karen Fayeth was born with the eye of a writer and the heart of a story-teller. From her New Mexico roots she is constantly evolving through global experience. Karen has won awards for her writing, photography, and art. Currently, she is working on a collection of her many short stories titled, “A Delicate Pain”.