Encouraging by Nature: Jane Baxter Lynn on the Power of Mentoring
Award-winning mentor, conservationist, and strategic nonprofit advisor Jane Baxter Lynn of JBL Strategies believes that intentionally creating mentoring relationships is the key to career and personal success.
It is said that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. A mentor is a teacher who appears at a formative stage in life to show you the way through their example and encouragement. In certain instances, these guides choose us. In others, we gravitate toward them in the hopes of learning new skills or simply being inspired.
In this Q&A, Jane Baxter Lynn shares how her earliest mentors changed the course of her career, and offers helpful advice for cultivating and making the most of these life-changing relationships.
Jane, you’re a leader in the conservation movement. Take us back to your early career and how your mentors influenced you.
Serving as a public relations officer at Natal Parks, Game & Fish Preservation Board (NPB) in the 1970s was my best job ever and gave me some important life lessons that formed the foundation of the rest of my life. The people were so authentic and special, and the cause so valuable. My time there instilled in me a commitment to conservation that has stayed with me throughout my life, both professionally and personally. It also gave me a true understanding of the importance of mentors in one’s life.
Before we get into mentoring, can you share some of the highlights of your career in conservation that came after this formative role?
This position had a considerable impact on my future in conservation. To name a few accomplishments that came later, as marketing & communications director for the World Travel & Tourism Council, I helped develop and launch Green Globes, a global environmental conservation certification program for the hotel industry. I also earned a LEED Green Associate accreditation from the U.S. Green Building Council. For the past 12 years, I’ve been involved with the USGBC Texas chapter serving as an executive director; developing the state advocacy program; leading the merger of the four Texas chapters into one state-wide chapter; serving on the Board of Directors; running the robust intern program, and co-chairing the creation of the Gumby Challenge, a year-long campaign to promote the organization’s mission.
On a personal level, my husband Frank and I built a five-star green rated home in Austin, which is also a certified Wildlife Conservation Habitat.
Having served on a statewide committee with you, I’ve seen how your commitment and expertise have created positive outcomes for our environment and your colleagues at USGBC Texas. What role did mentors play in influencing your leadership style?
During my time at NPB, I had three mentors and role models who set the path for my future in profound ways:
- Ginger Skinner, the NPB pilot, a red-headed character with a great sense of humor and an honest approach, guided me on how to work with the game rangers who thought I was simply ‘a city girl’ and taught me how to handle the game culling story with the media and the NPB leadership, and so much more.
- Peter Potter, the assistant director, taught me how a truly clear and empathetic approach to situations can produce positive results.
- Petal Krog, the headquarters’ receptionist, taught me how no matter where one is in the hierarchy, one can always have influence, which she had.
None of these mentors had any idea of the impact they had on my life until recently when I was able to speak to Petal and thank her for being my mentor, and sharing with Peter’s son Derek what his father had meant to me.
Petal Krog, in particular, highlights the profound impact that informal mentors can make on our lives. Tell us about her.
In a nutshell, Petal taught me so many life lessons – kindness costs nothing, what goes down comes around, no matter the person’s level in an organization, they have an important role to play, so treat everyone with respect, and the most important person in an organization is the person who answers the phone or greets a visitor at the front desk. First impressions truly matter.
Petal’s forever sunny nature, can-do attitude, and willingness to do whatever it took to help us and the NPB succeed meant that we all loved her. When she had a hard time, everyone stepped up to help her. She didn’t do it for any gain, but in the end, she gained. Huge life lesson.
It sounds like the moral support that your mentors provided came at a time when you needed it most. How important is this kind of support in life?
For many of us, the best way to cope with challenging or unpredictable times is to talk to someone we can trust about what we are thinking, feeling, or experiencing. It certainly seems that now, more than ever is a moment when we could all use a mentor, a sounding board, a shoulder on which to vent or cry, some professional or personal guidance, and more. Long-term mentoring builds confidence, enhances skills and knowledge, brings clarity, and perhaps gets you to where you want to be a lot quicker.
How do mentors support mentees’ professional development?
According to a friend and colleague Maura Thomas, author of Attention Management, mentors are “the ultimate social and professional role models.” Mentees benefit from personalized guidance, whether a quick question answered, a résumé reviewed, a specific career issue being discussed, evaluating their business situation, or brainstorming a personal situation.
One of the key benefits of having a trusted advisor with no ties to your business or workplace is that it not only helps your viewpoint, it also broadens your circle of influence and, potentially, your job prospects. For example, one of my most impactful mentors was a leader in my professional communications association, Llew von Essen. The greatest honor I had was when he later hired me. In terms of professional guidance, the head of the International Association of Business Communicators, Carolyn Fazio also took me under her wing when I was based in Brussels and she’s been there for me ever since.
Over the last ten or so years, I’ve had the honor of building robust intern programs and creating and leading the Women Communicators of Austin’s Peer Mentor Program. I truly believe that the smartest way to advance professionally, as well as personally, is to have mentors who can guide you based on their experiences, and be available to you through the ups and downs of your career (and your personal life for that matter).
Mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push in the right direction.
– John Crosby
What, in your view, sets mentors apart from coaches?
To me, a significant difference between the two is whether they have a vested interest or not. At the end of the day, mentors are objective third parties who usually have no vested interest. The relationship can be short-term or longer-term, and is usually ad-hoc. They’re doing it because they care about your success and/or share a commitment to giving back. As sounding boards and trusted advisors, they listen, ask leading questions, give objective, honest feedback, and offer guidance to help you evaluate what steps to take in career decisions, work challenges, or personal issues. It’s usually based on their own experiences. They may also be willing to open doors for you through their networks.
On the other hand, a professional career or life coach usually works with clients in a formal partnership, addressing identified goals over a specified period. The coach might offer emotional support in their work with you. However, often they are not experts or knowledgeable in your specific field or personal situation. They are process experts working with you towards change or self-improvement. They differ in their offerings, certifications, methods, and expertise. You will pay them for their services and they agree to work with you based on a business contract. Therefore, they do have a vested interest.
What advice do you have for those in search of a mentor?
I’m often asked, “How do I know who’s right for me?” There may not be an either/or answer to this question, as many people call on both coaches and mentors at different times in their careers.
When you are choosing a mentor, it is important to choose a person who is where you want to be.
Finding a mentor that you connect with comes down to a few things. You want to search for someone who:
- Is approachable
- A good listener
- Asks great questions
- Is known by you or someone you trust
- Will be straight with you, good or bad
- Is well-connected
- Has been where you are or has had experience in your business or profession
Is there anyone to avoid choosing?
Over the years, I’ve realized there is one position that seems to fall between the two categories, and that’s your boss. Although some bosses can be great mentors, both while you’re working for them and afterward, they may have different goals for you and may not necessarily have your best interests at heart. A good boss can be both a mentor and a coach, setting the example for us from which to learn, showing empathy, supporting our efforts, and sharing good practices with us. They are usually great at correcting negative work behaviors, encouraging additional training, and providing guidance on career paths.
However, a boss can’t be objective all the time. The challenge is that you can’t or shouldn’t always say what’s actually in your head as it may impact your working relationship. If you aren’t careful and/or share too much, he or she may have to choose between supporting you or negatively impacting his or her own position. In other words, they do have a vested interest, so be cautious. Think before you share, although that’s not to say you shouldn’t trust or ask for guidance.
Thank you for this in-depth perspective. Any final thoughts you would like to share?
Throughout my career, I’ve had many mentors at different stages, and of all ages. Some are professionals in my fields of conservation, communications and nonprofit management, while others have business acumen, interpersonal skills or experience that has added value to my work. Some have been with me for years, and I still look to them for guidance today.
While some mentors will come and go, others will become your close friends and long-term supporters. Whichever kind they are, they will be intrinsically valuable people in your life. And, if you choose to mentor someone else, you can become that valuable in theirs.