I make it my mission in life to say thank you and express gratitude to those who have mentored and helped me succeed – as a person, in my business career, and as an athlete. No one truly succeeds alone, and I am fortunate that I had the opportunity to learn from so many excellent mentors along the way.
The key to mentorship is double-sided: The mentor has to be fueled by a desire to give back and to impart their knowledge to others while the mentee needs to be coachable, above all else. My definition of “coachable” focuses on demonstrating a commitment to listening, a willingness to practice new techniques and lessons, and an unrelenting desire to improve. Many times, coachability is not an inherent trait, but instead one that needs to be learned through experience and effort. It takes a willingness to check your ego at the door and to accept that there is always more to learn. Ultimately, if you are willing to make the sacrifices to be coachable, you will often be rewarded with the most valuable lessons that can fuel success in all aspects of life.
Now, onto another example of an integral mentor in my life and career… Jim Widmann.
I often echo the excellent, proven philosophy of Herb Brooks when discussing the key to recruiting and building a team: You want the right players, not necessarily the best ones.
In 1994, Valassis Communications, a leader in the newspaper coupon promotions business, bought the coupon division of a competitor, Marketing Corporation of America (MCA). At the time of the purchase, I was an award-winning salesperson for the MCA coupon division, covering the area of Metropolitan Boston. As a part of the transition, Jim Widmann was sent to our headquarters in Westport, CT to conduct a review of the MCA sales team with the goal of selecting six people to stay on with Valassis. The big problem there was that our sales team consisted of 25 people, so the majority would be looking for new work.
If the odds didn’t seem troubling enough already, there was the elephant in the room of Valassis’ company policy that salespeople were required to have a college degree. My opportunities in hockey led me to leave Boston University early in the spring of 1979 to play in the World Championships, followed by the Olympics and NHL. Roughly one semester of work was all that I had left to complete my Bachelor’s Degree, but I jumped right into my hockey career, followed by my business career, and that ultimately remained a box that I could not check off, so to speak. Despite all of my success with MCA and my proven track record as an excellent, winning team member, the writing was on the wall for me with Valassis because of that policy.
Jim Widmann did hold a meeting with me to review my work and candidacy in spite of the fact that he easily could have just checked me off the list on account of the degree policy. I did my absolute best to illustrate to Jim that, regardless of my lack of a degree, I had learned invaluable lessons over the years through hockey and business that drove me to be the best. My track record with MCA, including my status as the reigning Salesman of the Year, certainly backed up all of that. Unfortunately, Jim proceeded to inform me that I would not be one of the six people to move on with Valassis, but that was not the ending, in fact, it was just the beginning.
On the company flight back to Detroit, Jim was compelled to have a conversation regarding my candidacy with Valassis with his boss, Dave Brandon (also the subject of one of our previous Mentor Series piece). I had left an indelible impression on him from our meeting and he explained to Dave that he felt it was a mistake to let me go on account of my enthusiasm, earnestness, and the energy with which I advocated for myself during our meeting. With the college degree policy being the only reason to let me go, Dave Brandon ultimately gave Jim the directive to call me back and offer me a position with Valassis late that same night.
I was obviously equally relieved and excited to get Jim’s call at about 11 p.m. that night, as anyone would imagine. There was a caveat to the opportunity, though, as my position with Valassis would be on a probationary basis. To many people, this may have dissuaded them or heaped on extra pressure, but it did not bother me at all. Jim Widmann had clearly done his best to vouch for me and now my foot was firmly planted in the door. I may have been considered “probationary,” but I knew I was going to win and succeed because I adopted the mindset of a winning underdog. The proverbial “odds” were against me, but after all of my experience that was a position in which I felt extremely comfortable and, more importantly, thrived.
In the early stages with Valassis, it was paramount that I adapt to the new culture and system smoothly while demonstrating the sales acumen that I had at MCA and convinced Jim Widmann of during our previous meeting. The key to successfully completing these tasks was coachability. I had to embody those elements of coachability that I mentioned above, including checking my ego at the door, listening to mentors like Jim Widmann and Dave Brandon, and acting on the techniques and lessons that I learned along the way. Through accepting mentorship from Jim Widmann at Valassis, I ultimately learned one of the key selling approaches that I practice to this day: the consultative selling approach.
The consultative selling approach focuses on conducting extensive research on a prospective client with the purpose of developing as deep of an understanding of the company as possible, including their goals, practices, and, if possible, strengths and weaknesses. The next step of the approach is to take this accumulated knowledge on a company and to present detailed, thoughtful questions based on your understanding of the client’s company. This builds an element of trust within the potential client because you have demonstrated a strong desire to truly understand what they do so that you can present ways to help them improve. From there, consultative selling is about taking all of the intelligence you have acquired and to create a product or service solution that is tailored specifically to the company and will help the new client win and achieve its goals. It is an extremely effective method that not only builds new client relationships, but also helps to maintain them.
As I mentioned, developing trust is a key within consultative selling and, truly, within all relationships in life. With genuine trust comes a bond that typically leads to long-term positive relationships. This sounds like something more tied to interpersonal relationships, but it absolutely applies to business as well. If a client trusts you and, by extension, your products, then they’re infinitely more likely to continue working with you themselves or to spread the word about you to other potential clients in the future.
A key aspect of maintaining this trust was something that Jim Widmann reinforced to me frequently: do the right thing and tell the truth. It sounds like a simple lesson that parents always teach children at a young age (mine absolutely did) but it really is important. If you are honest and forthright with a company throughout your business, they will undoubtedly appreciate it and hold you in high regard because of it. This was a key part of Valassis’ model, and undoubtedly a major factor in the overall success for Valassis as a company, and for myself as an individual within the sales force.
In due time, Valassis Communications took over seemingly the entire Boston newspaper coupon market, causing many competitors to throw in the towel and move on to other areas. Through this success, which I fortunately had a major hand in, I received the honor of becoming an elected member in the Valassis Communications Sales Hall of Fame. That’s a long way from my beginning as essentially a “probationary apprentice” with the company, but that is what happens when you employ the mentality of a winning underdog and are coachable.
While I am proud of my individual accomplishments during my time with Valassis, the fact remains that it was only possible because Jim Widmann took a calculated risk and bet on me. From there, Valassis invested in me and that was all I needed to take off running and make sure to show them it was an outstanding investment. Jim’s belief in me, his coaching, and his guidance helped me to improve immensely and I still employ many of his lessons to this day.
Above all of the individual lessons I’ve mentioned here, the biggest one I will return to for running a business as a whole is that recruitment is absolutely paramount and that you need the right players for the team, not necessarily the “best” ones. Jim Widmann recognized that I had all of the traits necessary to succeed but only lacked in what was basically a technicality. He took the chance to bring me on and then committed himself to my development. That is the true mark of an excellent leader and coach.
Jim has since retired from his long, excellent career as a sales and marketing executive. He and his wife, Pat, live in Bluffton, SC, and they have three children, with four grandchildren. Jim and I have stayed in touch through the years and I consider him to be a good friend. Jim embodied what it means to be a mentor and I am thankful for his time, effort, and belief in me.