Weekly Editorial

The Benefits of Mentorship

Written By Rob Kirkbride, Editor-in-chief, OI Publications • May 8, 2023


When I enrolled in college, it was as a business major, not the school’s journalism program. In fact, I wasn’t the kid who worked at the high school newspaper or even yearbook. Simply put, writing was never on my radar as a career.

All that changed my freshman year. One of the first courses I took was a writing class taught by Prof. Elva VanHaitsma. She worked in the English Department for 30 years and was quite a legend by the time I took her class.

I did well in her course, but if she wouldn’t have taken a moment to stop me after one particular class, I probably would have graduated from Michigan State University with my degree in economics (and not a degree in journalism). She stopped me on my way out of the classroom and asked if I had ever considered a career in writing. Apparently she saw some kernel of talent in my papers.

I told her honestly that I never had. She told me I should consider it. And as a rudderless college freshman, I did just that based on her advice. I switched majors to journalism while continuing on with economics and I never looked back. With Elva’s help, I found my calling. I also found an unlikely mentor.

By the time I took her class, Elva was in her 70s and very close to retirement. I was a 20-something undergrad. On the surface, we had little in common except our shared love of the written word. But even after we both left campus — me to take a job at a newspaper and Elva to retire — I kept in touch with her. She actively followed my career and gave me advice in the form of annual Christmas cards that we exchanged. I was about 10 years into my career when my Christmas card to Elva was returned by her sister, with whom she lived in retirement. Elva had died earlier that year, her sister said.

I was crushed and missed her advice and kind spirit. A few years later, I began teaching journalism at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids as an adjunct professor. Over the course of the five or six years I taught there, I stopped a few of my students as they walked out of class and asked the same question Elva had asked me so many years before: “Have you ever considered a career in writing?” A few of them became writers too, a couple of whom I still remain in contact.

I learned a lot from Elva about writing. She taught me to stay quiet when interviewing a source and let them fill the silence between questions. She told me when I was blocked and couldn’t get a story started, to get writing the rest of the story and return to write the beginning later. She said the first draft is often the best and not to mess around with copy except for a spelling and grammar check.

She also taught me a lot about being a mentor. All it takes is a word of encouragement to set someone’s life on a different path.

Mentorship is underrated, especially in the office furniture industry, which is so full of people who have deep and important institutional knowledge that those new to the industry can benefit from.

The best thing about mentorship is that it benefits everyone involved.

The mentee receives guidance and support from a respected member of the community. They have more professional development opportunities. Mentees also have increased confidence, better institutional knowledge, greater awareness of other approaches to work, a built in sounding board for ideas and challenges and a strong network of colleagues in the organization.

In return, being a mentor provides fulfillment and the satisfaction of helping others and contributing to the development of colleagues. It builds community, encourages the examination of alternative possibilities and encourages renewed perspectives on one’s leadership role.

The organization benefits as well. Mentorship facilitates the growth and development of high-potential leaders. It demonstrates visible commitment to staff development and continuous learning. It helps transfer and maintain institutional knowledge and fosters an inclusive, diverse and collaborative environment.

Again, all it takes is for you to reach out. If you are early in your career, ask a knowledegable employee if they will take you under their wing. If you are a veteran, seek out younger members of your team and give them a word of encouragement.

One kind comment may change someone’s life.

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