Mentoring a Winner—Difficult Conversations, Exceptional Rewards

May 7, 2017


Stephen Sparks of Labor’s Community Services Agency (LCSA) and the 2017 SVP Fast Pitch winner offered me an opportunity to join him on his journey to transform a complexity of ideas into a three-minute winning pitch. Sparks is by no means average. He is smart and ambitious—one of those people that make the challenges of mentoring rather easy. Foremost, Sparks trusted me. His willingness to listen and accept frank, honest, often difficult feedback was key to the relationship and to his deserved win.

The conversations between mentor and mentee can be difficult, and at times, brutally honest. Emotions, money, relationships, the future, are all at stake. Without this level of open, honest communication, rigorous assessment, and growth that leads to exceptional rewards would not be possible. In the years I volunteered as a mentor with SVPAZ, I continue to see the manifestation of benefits. My mentees continue to excel, I’ve made great friendships and learned a lot great deal along the way. While mentoring is exciting, I’m often asked, “what is it that you do exactly?”

Here’s a short on how I think about mentoring…

Some may call mentoring by a different name—coaching, or even teaching. These titles and terms are often conflated. I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing in this instance.

I approach mentoring with these ideas in mind:

  1. TRUST—I must first gain the trust and earn the respect of my partner (aka: mentee). We’re going to have some difficult conversations and I’m going to be honest with you every step of the way—not to harm or to belittle, but to identify challenges so that we can overcome them—highlight where you’re good, and where we can make you great!
  1. SYMBIOSIS—If this were a one-way street, I wouldn’t do the work. I need to trust you too. I also need to learn and grow. While I’m offering guidance, and advising on what I know, I’m simultaneously seeking out new knowledge and gaining insights into worlds I previously knew little about. It’s a give and get relationship. We are in this together. Perhaps that’s why I’m okay with conflating mentoring with coaching.
  1. GROWTH—We need to have actionable items to assess growth and guide the relationship and the work. We can also use benchmarks to guide us. Ultimately, I want to see you at your best and I’m not going anywhere until you’re there!
  1. REWARD—Again, in a trusted relationship, there is mutual gain for both mentor and mentee. You grow and so do I. What that looks like varies of course. In the end, the relationship should be a win for all.

TRUST is key

Success in the many of mentor/mentee relationships I’ve had, regardless of whether I was the mentor or mentee, were predicated upon trust and open dialogue. That includes listening to others, critically analyzing feedback, challenging assumptions, and acting accordingly. Stephen Sparks took on that charge with me. I was honored to mentor and simultaneously learn from him.

Sparks’ organization, LCSA is doing great work for our community. The SHIFT program will continue moving the working poor out of poverty and subsidized housing, transforming lives and ending the poverty cycle one family at a time. Mentoring is hard work but I should admit, LCSA’s work is a lot harder. I’m fortunate to have played a small part in their continued success. Consider supporting LCSA and get involved in SVPAZ Fast Pitch 2018!


MichaelZMichael Zirulnik researches, teaches, and consults on organizational effectiveness, negotiation, and intercultural conflict. He is past Chair of the Peace and Conflict Communication Division of the National Communication Association in Washington, D.C. Dr. Zirulnik is serving as Program Manager in the recently launched School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University and is Executive Director of The Varsity Project LLC—a communication consultancy. His recent book is, The Rightful Place of Science: Creative Nonfiction (2015; co-edited with Gutkind & Guston).

He served in the emergency medical and fire service for seven years, and is founder and former creative director of a design firm based in New Jersey and New York City. For a decade, Dr. Zirulnik worked as an internationally based flight attendant. The aviation sector has been a primary focus of his research. Previously, he worked on labor resolution, and national security initiatives, living, and working in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.

Teaching remains his passion.