Higher Learning: Mentoring Takes Off

NEW YORK — Danny Muskat has known footwear his entire life. The 34-year-old’s father and uncles all worked to build Deer Stags into a sizeable comfort brand, exposing Muskat and his younger relatives to shoe-talk around the clock, even more so after they entered the business. But having been around it for so long — and the family’s tried-and-true way of doing things — the brand sales manager wanted to solicit advice from a different source: a competitor.

In February 2010, Muskat met his mentor, Jim Salzano, the interim president of Clarks North America, thanks to a new program organized by Two Ten Footwear Foundation.

“I was interested in getting a new perspective, in learning how a more corporate environment did things,” said Muskat. “I’ve always had access to the boss at my company — both direct and indirect communication — but because of that, I thought, as I rise in leadership, it would be good to gain an outside perspective, on how others operate and lead. I needed to see different styles.”

Muskat got more than he bargained for. Over the course of a year, the two execs spoke frequently, with Muskat eventually spending a day at the Clarks headquarters in Newton, Mass. There, he met with the heads of customer service and independent accounts, and was able to speak freely and at length with executives in production and design.

Muskat now credits Salzano with empowering him to be more vocal when participating in decision-making and for instilling the idea of “openness,” that it is better to listen to other employees and ask a lot of questions.

Advisers and wisdom-seekers say a good mentoring relationship builds on people’s strengths. It also lets both seasoned and younger executives learn new skills and sharpen self-awareness.

But the hardest part is finding a suitable mentor. The footwear industry has a long but under-the-radar history of people — from Ron Fromm to Bob Campbell and Jim Issler to Steve Madden — teaching executives from other companies their tricks of the trade.

It was only in recent months, however, that Two Ten leadership took steps to formalize the mentoring process.

Peggy Kim Meill, president of Two Ten, said the industry had demanded it via a member survey. That resulted in the pilot program, which fielded more than a dozen participants from across the U.S. As mentors and mentees signed up for the program, they each filled out contracts that outlined goals for the process. “We asked everyone what they would like to gain so it was an organic and open-minded experience,” Meill said.

Two Ten expects to further develop the program and roll out the next phase to a larger number of people in the coming months. Executives who mentored in the first round said they benefited — professionally and personally — more than they had imagined. Some said they gained insight into new technologies. Others learned more about balancing the rigors of corporate life with family commitments.

“To help somebody shape their leadership style is truly a priceless honor,” said Salzano, who had several personal mentors during his formative years in retail and at Clarks. “I get as much out of it, if not more, than Danny.”

Others have benefited, too. For example, Elaine Dalton spent seven years rising through the sales ranks at Puma before she realized she wanted management experience, as opposed to just sales. So she turned to Two Ten to help find a mentor. Dalton was paired with Anna Bakst, president of footwear and accessories at Michael Kors. Throughout last year, the two held 10 meetings and conference calls discussing issues ranging from plotting a career path to the design processes at fashion houses.

“I was at crossroads in my career. I loved Puma and what it stood for as a brand, but I was getting very comfortable,” said Dalton. “Anna helped me focus on my career and evaluate where I am against my plan.”

Dalton became director of sales for department stores and new business development at Keds last fall. “Mentoring is incredibly rewarding,” said Bakst. “It’s very fulfilling both in terms of having an opportunity to share as well as to receive.”

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