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When mentors leave us…

With the loss of Kobe Bryant, this author remembers important mentors in her life.

Photo by Matt Lamers on Unsplash

With the passing of Kobe Bryant, many people around the world didn’t just lose an amazing athlete, many lost a mentor.  When a mega-star passes away, it sends shock waves through our consciousness.  We now must imagine our life without that star to follow.  Depending on the importance of the lost individual in our lives and the impact they made, we may remember and feel the shock of their passing forever.  When we lose a mentor, the pain of their loss can be like a dull ache that presents itself whenever we think of them.  Turning that ache into a warm wonderful hug, like a blanket of comforting love and support, can be the best way to keep their mentoring with us.  Mentors play such an important role in our development.  People come along in our lives and play this essential role, even when we are not aware. 

When I think back to some of my earliest mentors, my first two would have to be a boss that terrified me and one that silently groomed me. The first was a powerhouse of strength, brains, brawn, brilliance and tenacity like I had never seen in my entire life.  I guess it is perfect that she was only 5 feet tall, long, beautiful, thick, auburn red hair that framed a cherub like face that was as deceptive as anything I’d ever seen.  The second was a young, brilliant, Brooklyn born, NYC raised merchant.  I reported into him.  He reported into her. 

I was a few years into my retail career.   This was back in the day with shopping in a department store, the likes of NYC’s Bloomingdale’s, was exciting, vibrant and fun.  It was the place everyone wanted to be, at least if you wanted to be in retail.  I didn’t know it then, but it was the beginning of retails twenty year run of expansion, using theater and celebrity to create excitement and desire for consumers in the upscale world of retail.  I was there as a young merchant, watching it all happen.  I had no idea the ride I was about to take in my career and life.

I didn’t plan on becoming a merchant.  My dreams focused on finding a career that would take advantage of my love of math, strategy and communications.  I had visions of myself running a bank and being involved in what I thought was “real money”.  Life took different turns for me, as life does, and I found myself in a retail career that had elements of theater, surrounded by fashion and newness in everything, and this industry seemed to embrace my skill with numbers and logic, as well as my even temperedness.  I thought I found the best of both worlds.

Work was easy for me, as a young, assistant buyer.  I was lightning fast on my calculator, speeding through stock distribution and sales plans for 25 stores, dozens of brands, even more stock-keeping-units, sizes, colors, assortments, promotions and sales.  My math and logic skills were a perfect fit for the job. 

My desk was the first desk she would see as she walked into the large open office space that made up our offices.  The larger space was parceled into smaller cube offices formed by moveable partition walls.  The buyers were all around the outer perimeter with 6 ft. walls that formed cubes.  The assistant buyers, like me, sat in front of them.  We were situated just so the buyer, to whom we reported, could see us.  It was the perfect set-up.  We could easily talk to each other about whatever they needed.  The work was done quickly and efficiently. 

To get to her office, the only one with a door, she had to walk near my desk.  I was the first one to see her, although most days she was there much before I arrived and always stayed late after everyone left.  She worked all the time.  Although she didn’t share too much about her personal life, I knew she was married and had young kids.  She was the first person I ever witnessed that would drink a six pack of diet cola, every day and never eat anything.

Her thick, long, red hair was a perfect fit to her strong personality.  At 5’1″, she was a powerhouse of determination, grit and resilience.  She didn’t suffer fools, at all.  She was fit, firm and unwavering in her determination to succeed.  She had a temper and would use it sparingly, like a weapon and never undeserved, from my vantage point.  I was terrified and fascinated by her.  She was brilliant, fast, witty, fierce and sometimes cruel.  I remember one of my “lunch friends” once said to me, after I expressed my worry of not measuring up to her standards, “Don’t worry, she’s not going to shoot you or anything like that.  You’re not worth the jail time.”  Although my friend was trying to be funny, I found some strange comfort in those words.  It was a “reality check” on keeping perspective.  I’ve passed that same skeptical advice to a few people myself through the years, always with a dose of good humor. 

Rumors always swirled about her.  Many would whisper she was having an affair with the big boss who ran the “hard lines” half of the company.  I remember thinking to myself, she’s always working; she doesn’t have time for an affair.   Add in the family she supposedly had (there were pictures of beautiful kids on her desk) why would she want to have an affair?  To me, this nasty rumor was born out of jealousy and shall always be viewed by me as unsubstantiated.

I didn’t have much money.  I remember saving so I could go an buy an outfit of the latest pop-culture look of the time.  I proudly dressed for work, standing in the mirror and thinking, I love it, it’s fun, colorful and comfortable.  In the pit of my stomach there was a sinking feeling it might be too casual.  Throwing caution to the wind, I wore it anyway.  Late in the day, she called me into her office.  “What are you wearing?” was her question, giving me the elevator eye treatment.  I thought, “Is this a trick question?”  The smartass in me wanted to say clothes, but I knew where this was headed so I just stood there and waited.  “Don’t ever come to work dressed like that again.  If you want to be taken seriously, dress professionally…”  with a pause for impact and meaning…”You can leave now.”  And that was it.  I tested the boundaries, she noticed, she didn’t approve, she was not happy, I’m toast.  I remember coming back to my desk.  I looked around, no one lifted their heads, no signs of sympathy from anyone, nothing.  I concluded they had no idea why I was called into her office or maybe they did and they shared her opinion or maybe they just didn’t care.  Whatever the case, I remember thinking “she noticed” and that was my first lesson from the big boss. 

We were a team, my buyer and me.  It wasn’t a team anyone would ever imagine.  I was a young southern woman, good with numbers and fast with answers. Some said I was an enigma.  He was a seasoned New Yorker from great merchant stock and young for his senior post.  It was obvious to me from the stories he would tell me, his father passed the retail genes on down to his son and they were properly placed and appreciated; they stuck and continued to pay-it-forward.  He once shared a small newsprint picture of his father with me.  He carried it with him in his wallet.  I blurted out that it looked like a NYC mafia mug shot (like I would know).  I’ll never forget the hurt that registered on his face.  I’ve always felt bad about my feeble attempt at humor at his father’s expense.  He must have been very proud of his Dad.  If I could relive that moment I would say, “I’m sure your Father is very proud of you, as he should be.” 

My buyer was brilliant.  No one ever told me, I just knew it, and I knew I needed to learn as much as I could from him.  He used to ask me my opinion on what he should select as the next big promotional buy.  When he first did this, I thought to myself, “You must be kidding me.  Why are you asking me?”  I would resist having to answer, fear I would make a stupid statement or at worst make a terrible recommendation, giving him advice he may actually follow.  He would continue to push me.  Out came his favorite line, one I will never forget as long as I live, in his thick Brooklyn accent “You’re drivin’ da bus, Joy.”  I laughed.  He loved to lay it on thick.  Sometimes, I thought I was in a sitcom. 

My buyer continued to push me more and more, every day.  I guess he could sense I wanted more and could give it.  It became our game.  “Okay Joy, I have to pick out the next promotional sheet set to go on the cover of our white sale brochure, what pattern should I select?”  I would sit and think of all the things I had ever heard him say about, patterns, sheets, bedding and customer likes and dislikes.  I was going through the checklist in my mind.  He would push me, “You’re drivin’ da bus!  Come on, Joy! Tell me what to pick?”  I’d reluctantly give him my humble opinion and silently pray I wasn’t completely wrong.

As my confidence grew, my buyer continued to push me.  He guided me, taught me and gave me small words of encouragement.  All the while, I had no idea I was being groomed and mentored.  I just thought it was his fun way of making his job interesting.  We advanced to a point of placing bets on the bestselling sheet patterns.  It was never more than bragging rights or maybe a free lunch, and I was always surprised how many times I would win the bet.  In fact, looking back now, I don’t think I ever lost.  Every time my selection would “check-out” of the store, he would celebrate my good sense and tell me I was a natural.  Every day, he built my confidence in my abilities.  He truly made me feel as if I was “Driving the Bus.” 

My personal life was headed down hill fast.  What was most appalling is that it was playing out in the public eye.  My husband had become a local weather celebrity.  It seemed everyone knew him.  Outwardly, he was handsome and talented, with a beautiful, resonating voice and a twinkle in his grin that made him irresistible.   His star was definitely rising.  And here I was, sitting in the basement of an enormous, theatrical-like department store, crunching numbers and playing “Who’s driving the bus?” with my boss.  I wasn’t in a good place. 

I was five years into a terrible marriage. I had never been exposed to mental illness, so I had no idea what it looked like or how it can so negatively impact the lives of not only the sick, but the people who are around them.  My young life, although not perfect, it was just about as close to great as anyone could ever hope for.  When you marry someone after knowing them for only nine months and never living with them, you should expect some surprises.  I wasn’t equipped for the emotional torture that would hit me over the next few years.  To survive, I focused on the routine of going to work, getting the work done and getting home. 

When I look back now, some memories are so vivid and some so blurred.  I think it’s the memories I want to forget that get blurred together into one big crushing ball of terrible.  His mental and emotional torture took a toll on me.  My personal appearance wasn’t what it could be, my health had eroded and my confidence in my abilities diminished along with it.  I was headed for what I now know was a real emotional breakdown.

One day, I must have been having a great “pity-party” for myself.  She called me into her office and told me to shut the door.  I was terrified.  “Sit down,” she said with her commanding voice.  “I don’t know what’s going on with you and quite frankly, it’s none of my business and normally I wouldn’t care.  Whatever it is, it’s not good, because it seems to be impacting my business.  Whether you know it or not, you are going to need this job one day.  So, you need to snap-out-of-it and pull yourself together.”  I broke into a puddle of tears and through the sobs told her I was married to a monster. 

She sat there with a blank look on her face muttered “son-of-a-bitch” and picked up the phone.  She called in the most senior buyer of the department.  She looked at me and said, “Tell her what you told me.”  Listening intently, I explained everything.  The senior buyer told to me her husband was an attorney.  Her husband would find a divorce lawyer for me who would help me get myself sorted.  She gave me a reassuring smile, got up and left me alone again with the boss.  Before I walked out of her office that day, she looked at me and said, “You’ll be fine.  Now get back to work and give me the quality that I know you can deliver.” 

I’d been an assistant buyer for a year.  Almost to the day, the boss called me into her office.  Sitting there was the senior buyer.  The boss announced I was being promoted to the next level called associate buyer.  It was thought of as the proving ground.  I would move away from my NYC man boss and work for the senior buyer. 

There were over 60 buyers at that company.  Each buyer had one assistant, and some the highest-ranking fashion buyers had two.  Some of those assistant buyers were called “career assistants”, meaning they would never move ahead and would remain experts in their fields their entire career.  The rest of us were the “up or outs”, young college hopefuls with some retail experience vying for our chance at the big buying jobs.  There were only five associate buying jobs in the entire company.  It was a coveted position.  There were no career associate buyers.  In this job, you either made it or you were asked to leave. 

I started work for the Senior Buyer, who eventually gave me my own categories of responsibility by carving out some of her own.  She watched over my shoulder, gave me pointers, tips and advice.  Because I loved being in the stores, on the weekends I would go into my area of responsibility at the flagship store and chat with customers as they shopped.  I’d hear great input on what they loved, what was missing and why they didn’t buy certain things.  On one such occasion, I was in the stockroom helping a store associate restock some shelves when five large men, dressed in dark suits, surrounded the perimeter of my area of the store.  Wondering what was happening, I slid back in the stockroom and peaked out through the small crack in the door.  I was shocked to see The First Lady of the United States admiring some of novelty items I’d purchased for the upcoming holiday season.  I’ll never forget seeing her giggle and some of the funny gifts, one in particular, that made light of a past US President whose presidency that could have used some “cleaning up” (pun definitely intended).  That was an amazing highlight to remember.  Unfortunately, we were asked to stay in the stockroom while she shopped, and we were disappointed we were not able to greet her in person.  Years later, I would have the honor of telling her the story and what it meant to me as a young merchant and executive.

The senior buyer was smart, methodical, steady, dependable and never over stocked and hardly ever out-of-stock in any of her 24 stores and thousands of items.  She was The Master.  I learned so much from her.  Occasionally, we would butt heads about items I thought were important to buy to capture a quick trend, most of the time she would say “No, I don’t want to waste the open-to-buy (funds)”.  I began to feel claustrophobic.  I was so grateful to her for helping me get through a terrible place in my life, but I was definitely not “driving the bus” anymore. 

After being in the job for six months, I thought I was being smart and placed a large order of a brand-new line to be introduced into all stores.  Although I had the “open-to-buy” to make this large purchase, I did it without consulting with the senior buyer, to make matters worse, it was outside of our normal assortment plans for the season.  When the large order showed up on her financials as “in-coming”, she rightly so, went ballistic.  I’d gone rogue and broken her trust.

The next morning, as soon as I arrived at work, I was summarily marched into the boss’s office.  This is it, I thought, the guillotine.  So, this is what rock bottom looks like, divorced and fired.  The senior buyer and the boss told me to sit down.  The senior buyer started first, “I gave you specific instructions about what you can and cannot do.  You were to follow my instructions exactly.  I trusted you and you broke my trust.”  She was right.  I should have been remorseful and begged for forgiveness.  But that’s not what came out of my mouth.  What came out was, “We need to breath some life into this department.  It’s great that we are so consistent, but we need something to create excitement in our stores.  It’s Spring, we have the opportunity to make the stores beautiful with a fresh collection of accessories.”      “That’s not your place to decide,” she said.  “I’m sorry, but you will have to call the vendor and cancel the order.  They will hate you for this, but it has to be done.” 

I was sick.  The thought of calling the wonderful vendor and telling him the order, which we had worked so hard on making sure was perfect for all 24 stores, would have to be cancelled was just too much.  I sat there, in shock, but what could I do?  I’d taken a risk, I went rogue, I had been caught and I had to pay the price.  The boss closed the meeting and asked me to stay behind.  “I get it.  I might even agree with you.  But you went about asserting your independence the wrong way.  You’ve broken the trust.  Now you must build it back.  Learn from this.”   I made the call, devastated that poor man and vowed I would never make another mistake like that again.  I remain true to my word.   

One morning, the big boss called me into her office.  I’d been working hard, keeping my head down, doing my job and staying out of trouble, I couldn’t imagine what I’d be getting in trouble for now? 
“Sit down,” she commanded.  “It seems you are being noticed. The Sr. VP in Cosmetics wants you to be her Men’s Fragrance Buyer.  Congratulations.  You are being promoted.”  I was dumbfounded.  “Your interview is tomorrow morning at 8am.  Don’t screw it up and don’t embarrass me.”  And that was it.  I was on my way.

There would be many mentors in my life over the years.  Some would be the most wonderful people in the world and some would only be a representation of people I vowed never to become.  They all played an important role for me.  When I look back at the most formative, difficult and challenging times in my professional life, I know I would never have made it without my wonderful NYC buyer, the perfect master buyer and the demanding and tough minded boss lady that would only accept the best I had to give.

We all will travel a path filled with mentors, some good, some bad.  Life itself will eventually lead us away from those mentors, winding its way towards something and someone else.  Unfortunately, there are times when our mentor’s life may be taken away, which is always shocking and difficult.  When that happens, it is important to remember their wise advice, life lessons, and their words of encouragement. Finally, remember, their belief in us will remain forever. 

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