It’s morning again in Atlanta.
Susan is an LGBT Mom and Executive Creative Director & Partner at a startup agency in Chicago called Pahnke (pronounced pahn-kuh). Susan believes in the power of old school storytelling and new-school technology and has combined both in her 20+ year career working for brands like Disney, Volkswagen and State Farm. She loves mentoring creatives and believes she often learns more from them than they learn from her.
Susan was honored as a She Runs It “Working Mother of the Year” and has published pieces in AdAge, Reel Chicago as well as some literary and wellness pubs you’ve never heard of. In addition to chasing toddlers and starting an agency, she loves to ski, do yoga and chill at the lake. Follow her and her agency (@pahnke_us) on insta.
If you aren’t familiar with the famous Hal Riney ad for Ronald Reagan in 1984 that helped put his agency on the map—well, it really doesn’t matter.
But when three ad execs who worked together at Hal Riney in the mid-90s (and went on to have stunningly successful careers) came together to talk about mentorship and their careers, it was refreshing to know the ad industry would never return to where we were just 10 short years ago (sorry for another Riney rip-off).
The first thing that felt different about this panel was you could instantly feel the friendship between the three women. And if not friendship, at least genuine respect for one another having been through the trenches together.
The panel was led and moderated by Michele Sileo, who is now a Partner and Managing Director at Eleven. She aptly invited us on a journey: “look back, to propel us all forward.”
Michele first introduced Mary Johnstone who is now Associate Partner and COO at Venables & Partners. Michele also shared the devastating reality that Mary had a son born with cerebral palsy on 9/11 and how it had reframed her life and her career. The stakes were instantly high in the room. These women were not going to be discussing flippant mentor relationships that just helped them get to the next level and reminded us of the importance of bringing our whole selves to work every day.
Mentorship for Mary was less formal than it is for many today, saying she was often being mentored when she didn’t even know it. When Mary reported to the CEO and was encouraged to learn new things like finance, she soaked it all in and told us in the audience to do the same. This might not be the mentoring we’ve come to expect today, but with Mary’s HR background, her CEO’s push to broaden her skills and influence has set her up for success as a COO today.
Bonnie Wan, who is Head of Brand Strategy at Goodby Silverstein & Partners and about to publish a book called The Life Brief, is also a working Mom with four kids. Bonnie shared that mentorship is advocacy. Early on when Bonnie received a stern review from one of her female managers, another female manager in the room stepped in to advocate for her and help take accountability for what she had not yet taught Bonnie.
Bonnie went on to say as a working Mom in agency life, she (and all the working Moms on the stage) were underrepresented. She shared that at the time, women were encouraged to be a parent or a leader, but not both. When she went to her managers at Goodby and told them she needed to work four days a week and move to Portland for her family’s well-being, remote work and four-day-weeks were a rarity. Thankfully they said yes, and as a result she “busted open the gates for other Moms,” both at Goodby and throughout the industry.
Michelle echoed a similar bold narrative 15 years ago when she asked to leave work at 2 p.m. every day and work from home so she could be with her family. Her agency, Eleven, said yes – and together the women paved the way for many other working Moms. “Peer bravery is a catalyst for change,” she said.
The women also mentioned you don’t always need to see yourself in your mentor, and asserted we should all use our power and privilege to help others.
As an Asian American, Bonnie said part of the cost of not seeing herself in agency leaders forced her to assimilate to a narrow path. Years later she is now empowered to own her “quiet confidence,” and encouraged listeners to reach outside their agency to find mentors. I greatly appreciated how she also asked agency leaders to help connect their underrepresented employees to others in their broader network.
Near the end of the chat, Michelle asked the women to summarize their thoughts on mentorship. Mary reiterated “mentorship is not just about work, but the whole person.”
Bonnie quoted her CCO at Goodby, Margaret Johnson, who—quite simply—says: “lift as you rise.”
Next, Michelle did one of the most impactful things at the conference. She challenged us all to take out our phones and text a mentor or mentee and ask to find time to connect.
I’ll be honest, I hate this shit. I have never been good at networking or asking for help. But I did it. And I’m happy to say I not only warmly heard back, but we’re having a virtual coffee next week.
Now that is mentorship.