The Importance of Mentorship with Michelle Olson
With more than 30 years in the public relations industry, Lambert’s managing partner Michelle Olson, APR is no stranger to mentorship. She has been on both ends of the mentorship spectrum, both as a mentee and mentor. In honor of National Mentorship Day, Michelle shared insight into her personal mentorship experiences and the value mentors have played in her career.
Q: How important of a role did mentorship play early in your career?
Mentorship was vital for me. My earliest mentors were college professors who were professional practitioners serving as teachers and advisors. When I was young, I joined PRSSA, the student PRSA organization. I attended Morehead State University, and our chapter was small, so it was easy to have a personal relationship with the PR advisors. We didn’t come from affluent families, so they taught us basic professional etiquette like which fork to use at a formal dinner, resume building, and other fundamentals to help us become polished pr professionals.
Q: Who is one of your favorite mentors, and what did you take from that relationship?
One of my favorite mentors was my boss when I first moved to Phoenix. Her name was Barbara DeMichele, and she owned BJ Communications. She had this sophisticated professional style. I came from Minneapolis, which was buttoned up. I mean, I wore suits with shoulder pads! When I got to Phoenix, it was hot, so I bought short sleeve suits. My leaders were like, Jesus, you need to lose the suits—this is Phoenix! What I was taught by my mentors in Minneapolis, didn’t work in Phoenix.
Barbara was so cool! She was smart, strategic, and commanded an audience. We would walk into client meetings, and she’d take her sunglasses off and prop them up on her head and begin the meeting with her hair brushed back like she didn’t care. She had a very casual but hard-hitting style about her. She was warm, welcoming, and fun but knew her stuff. I watched how she moved around the public relations world, and I absorbed this when I started working for her at 26.
Everyone always knew where they stood with her, and I wanted that for me too. You knew what she was thinking, where we were headed, and what her expectations were because she laid it all out on the line.
When transparency is there, you know how to live up to the expectations. I didn’t have that level of mentoring before her. I strive to be that for others and students that I mentor.
Q: I’ve been told there is a correct way to approach someone about seeking mentorship. What is the proper way to do so?
A: I don’t care if a person reaches out to me through email or face-to-face. What matters is that they’re prepared and know what they want so that I can provide them with the resources they need or point them in the right direction to someone who has the answers.
In my experience, people often reach out to me at speaking engagements. In the chance that someone wants me to be their mentor, I always follow up by asking, what do you want to get out of a mentor relationship? What is your goal? My job is not to control their career—my job is to be a resource to help break down possible career barriers. When the person has a clear understanding of what they want, it makes it easier for me to determine if I am the right choice. Furthermore, I know how to be helpful by sharing resources and connecting them with someone who may be a better option.
Q: Mentoring takes dedicated time and effort. As a leader with limited free time, how do you like to engage with your mentees?
I don’t think much changes month-to-month in a young person’s career. Meeting with your mentee every quarter is a good cadence because you can get to know them and provide assignments they can accomplish before the next meeting. That way, you have those commitments and can follow up on their progress at the end of the quarter. Assignments can help guide them to reach their career goals and build accountability in the relationship.
There are many settings in which you can meet, but I LOVE inviting mentees to professional development opportunities! I may invite them as my plus-one to an award ceremony or a dinner that they may not have access to at this stage in their career. That lights them up more than anything! It gives them a bit of bragging rights and exposure to other industry professionals. I encourage them to follow up on that experience by writing a blog or sharing what they’ve learned with fellow PR professionals.
Q: I often hear that mentorship is a reciprocal relationship. What do you expect to learn from your mentees? How can your mentee show up to support you in the mentor-mentee relationship?
I learn as much from young professionals as I hope they learn from me. Many of them have had a different journey than I had. Many of them are graduating as digital natives, while digital is my second language. I have a hard time communicating without fear in videos or using apps to become more efficient. The skillset that people in our profession are coming out of college with is helpful to me because then I can share something with them, and they can provide feedback.
Finding a confident young practitioner is important because they shouldn’t be fearful of providing the constructive criticism that I need. I value someone capable of doing that to expose blind spots for me in my career. It’s vital to build trust within the relationship and bring the mentee into a safe space to offer suggestions and feedback. You want the mentor-mentee relationship to run in both directions because I am investing my time and resources into them as a future leader.
Q: How important is it to you, as a woman, to mentor other women in your field?
A: Paying it forward is a big deal. Anyone who works with a mentor should follow the law of reciprocity. As women, we need to pay it forward and give someone a hand to pull them up to the table. We still live in a very male-dominated world. The public relations industry is more than 70% women. However, only 30% of global PR firms are led by women—there’s a major disconnect. As leaders, we need to uplift the people we believe will be good leaders and that can start with mentorship.
Q: Seeking mentorship can be scary for someone early in their career. What would you say to someone ready for mentorship but afraid to take that next step?
A: Honestly, if I could talk to 26-year-old Michelle, I would tell her don’t be afraid. They admire the people who speak out and ask for what they want. The hardest part is defining what you want. When you have a clear vision, reach out. They are more likely than not willing to help you if they have the time. Everyone likes to teach, share their wisdom and experiences. Have the courage but be prepared—know what your goals are, what you want them to do, and what kind of relationship you want.