Voices of Experience: Mentors and coaches point the way to success 
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Voices of Experience: Mentors and coaches point the way to success 

Voices of Experience: Mentors and coaches point the way to success 

In the mid-1980s, Shane Paul was talking to his sergeant in the Army National Guard when the senior soldier dropped this pearl of wisdom: “Only a fool learns from his own experience. The truly wise person learns from the experience of others.”

It’s a timeless maxim with several variations. When a young and inexperienced Paul heard the quote for the first time, it was a lightbulb moment. The future Jack in the Box franchise operator realized that he didn’t need to figure out everything on his own. He could pick the brains of others, learn from their mistakes, and emulate the qualities that made them successful.

He tells the story when explaining his approach to professional development. The sergeant’s words led to Paul’s career-long practice of seeking out mentors to advise him and help sharpen his interpersonal skills, and he’s shared what he’s learned again and again.

He also has another story. It’s about an incident that happened when he was working as a restaurant manager in the mid-1990s. He made a mistake calculating food costs. The blunder was memorable because of what followed. “My district manager took me out to the Dumpster area and cussed me out for 10 minutes,” Paul says. “I teared up, and I was a grown adult. It hurt.”

That encounter also informed his career. He realized that if he wanted to coach employees to great job performances, he couldn’t just point out their weaknesses. He had to notice their strengths.

Whether they are on the receiving end or the giving end, mentoring and its more results-oriented sibling, coaching, are powerful tools for franchisees. Formal and informal mentoring and coaching aim to build skill sets through personal interactions. When done right, they can effectively enhance professional development and improve job satisfaction.

How do mentoring and coaching differ? Matt Maiorino, managing partner of Merion Health Partners, which owns seven American Family Care locations in the Philadelphia area, says there are key distinctions.

“To me, mentorship really involves being a sounding board for someone less experienced. Coaching is probably more directorial; it’s a this-is-how-you-do-it kind of approach,” Maiorino says. “Coaching feels more like training to me, whereas mentorship is like an ongoing, interactive relationship where you’re saying to someone, ‘This is what I’m thinking, but what are you thinking? Is this how you could approach it?’”

Omar Simmons holds similar views on mentoring and coaching. He’s a founder of Exaltare Capital Management, which owns 110 Planet Fitness gyms, seven Urban Air Adventure Park locations, and more than 30 Good Feet stores. Along with Conscious Capital, he’s the franchisor for Uni K Wax.

“I was captain of my track team in college, and I’ve always valued coaching. I think of coaching as a little bit more objective and task oriented. It’s a little bit more specific and usually driven toward a particular objective,” he says. “I think of mentoring as being more holistic and more relational: ‘I’ve had some experiences that might help you think through a situation and help you develop more broadly.’ I think of mentoring as distinct from coaching. You can be a mentor and a coach, but you have to be clear on what hat you’re wearing at any one time.”

Asking for help

Paul was a consultant for McDonald’s and Burger King before being hired by Jack in the Box as a division vice president in 2012. He then took over franchisee operations on the West Coast. He decided to become a franchisee in 2017. Now, he owns seven Jack in the Box locations in San Diego and will soon expand to Louisville, Kentucky.

When he was new to Jack in the Box, he found someone to help him understand the company’s culture and workplace dynamics and to act as a sounding board. “One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen is people just trying to do it on their own,” says Paul, who’s sought out mentors and had them assigned to him. “They’re afraid to ask for help. They don’t want to look like they don’t know what they’re doing.”

His advice to franchisees who are struggling is to ask for help because most people are willing to give it. Over the years, he’s mentored quite a few people. “When somebody genuinely wants to do well, and they’re asking for help, nobody says no,” he says.

Mentors vet ideas and talk through challenges that arise. Often, they share their professional network and give advice and encouragement to their less-experienced mentees. “Mentoring requires you to actually adapt over time to the style of the person learning from you,” Paul says.

It’s a relationship that sometimes has no end date. Ray Pepper, one of Paul’s mentors at Jack in the Box, retired five years ago. “And to this day, we still meet three or four times a year,” Paul says, “and I’ve been seeing him for over a decade.”

Investing in people

Coaching carries a different connotation. It’s often seen as corrective. But “when you coach, it’s not always correcting bad behavior,” Paul says. “The best coaching action is given when you see someone doing something well, but they can maybe do better, and it’s positive.”

He also sees coaching as part of his job. It doesn’t require the same level of buy-in from the other party as mentoring does, he says. He can coach someone whether they want it or not. 

“In a multi-unit franchisee environment, there are usually specific ways you do things,” he says. Tasks and processes are spelled out, he adds, “and that’s where I see a lot of coaching on the spot come into play because they’re doing something, and you know they can’t do it that way.”

Feedback should be delivered in a palatable way because some employees don’t want it. On the other hand, many franchisees don’t shy away from feedback—negative or positive.

Simmons’ businesses grew fast, and his background in private equity played a large role in that. He understood strategic value creation and how to secure financing. “What I had to learn was how to manage the human beings who actually deliver the service to the customers that we care about,” he says, “and that’s where I got a lot of help.”

As a first-time CEO in 2012, he scouted mentors and joined organizations that catered to CEOs with entrepreneurial leanings. “I’ve also benefited from coaching. I tried executive coaches and got help from experienced board members. I’m a big believer in investing in people, including myself,” he says.

Being the efficient business operators that they are, Simmons and his wife, Raynya, came up with a vision for how to scale their investment in others. They started and provided the seed funding for the Franchise Ascension Initiative, a new effort announced at the International Franchise Association’s annual convention in February. The initiative focuses on identifying talented people from underrepresented communities and preparing them to become franchise owners.

“We wanted to create a program where we could systematically and structurally get people mentoring and could scale an entire program to help people be their best selves,” Simmons says. “It’s not just training in how to be a business owner and how to be a franchise owner. There’s also a mentoring and coaching component that happens after the six-month training program.”

Brands have thrown their support behind the initiative. Soon after the announcement, franchise leaders began volunteering to be mentors. The response has been overwhelming, Simmons says.

“It’s been incredibly heartwarming—the number of people and brands that are like, ‘How can I help?’ Some people are offering business services. People are offering their talent,” he says. “It feels great to give back. It feels even better when you see other people working shoulder to shoulder with you, committed to making a difference.”

Identifying the experts

Maiorino of American Family Care has been in franchising for five years. Before that, he worked in real estate and private equity for about 15 years. He said he was drawn to the urgent care and walk-in clinic model because of the industry’s impressive growth and because he wanted to be in a service-oriented business. “I just really liked the idea of enhancing people’s lives and improving health,” he says.

While he understood the site-selection side of franchising, he knew he’d need to quickly bone up on other aspects of the business. “There was a lot on the operation side that I needed to learn,” he says, “and, in that respect, finding the right mentors was key.” 

He began identifying the experts inside the American Family Care network with deep knowledge of business development, marketing, and finance. He found a mentor in fellow American Family Care franchisee Jack Fromm, who’s in a partnership that owns multiple clinics in Tennessee and North Carolina.

“Very early on, he invited me down to tour their clinics and to get an understanding of how they approach business development,” Maiorino says. “I would come down and pick the brains of his team.”

It was an incredibly fruitful relationship. As Maiorino’s knowledge of operations grew, he started to give back by becoming a mentor to others in the brand. He also shares ideas with Fromm that could help improve his operation.

Maiorino encourages franchisees who need a bit of guidance to look around their franchise network and take stock of the experts there. Franchise advisory councils and franchise associations are great for meeting brand leaders.

“All these franchises have what is essentially a board of franchisees, and they often have many subcommittees,” he says. “Just getting involved and finding a way to contribute and having a willingness to contribute, to me, is an excellent way to network and find people that know more about something than you know. It gives you an opportunity to learn from them. I think approaching it with humility, in kind of a hat-in-hand way, goes a long way.”

Setting goals

Greg Atwell is the director of operations for Mosquito Squad and also a franchisee with ownership of the El Paso-Las Cruces territory in Texas and New Mexico.

“There’s a lot of informal mentoring, where people build relationships at meetings and connect that way,” says Atwell, who has been a franchisee for KFC and Taco Bell in the past. “My group of business advisors and I will help hook different franchisees up together. We’ll take a new franchisee, and if we see they’re struggling in a certain aspect, we’ll have another franchisee connect with them. That’s been our system for a while now to help guide them through some of those struggles.”

Atwell has been a mentor and a mentee. Trust is key to a successful mentoring relationship. Both sides need to invest the time it takes to build the necessary comfort level.

“It’s definitely a time commitment,” Atwell says. “At a minimum, to be a good mentor, depending on what you’re doing, it’s at least two or three hours a month. Anything less than that and you aren’t really connecting with the mentee.”

Conversations should be mentee driven, he says. However, even in an informal arrangement, it helps to impose some structure on the meetings or calls, and it’s important to keep up with what the mentee wants to accomplish.

“You want to make sure you set goals so that when you’re doing your monthly calls, they, the mentees, are letting you know how they are,” Atwell says. “Are they on track, off track on the goals that we set to drive them forward?”

The payoff comes in watching the growth of the mentees as they become more comfortable doing things that they had struggled with in the past. Atwell says he gets satisfaction from knowing he played a part in helping someone else grow.

“It doesn’t matter what profession you’re in or what you’re trying to do,” he says, “I think anybody can benefit from mentoring.”

Words of Wisdom

At heart, mentoring is about sharing wisdom and experience with others to help them develop as people and business leaders. Check out these insights: 

  • It’s important to approach the relationship as a mentee with what I would refer to as mental liquidity. What I mean by that is the ability to change your mind without getting stuck in a particular point of view despite what your prior experience might lead you to believe.”—Matt Maiorino
  • “… (M)entoring is very relational. What works in one relationship might not work in another.”—Omar Simmons
  • “For mentoring, just know that you’re giving advice. You’re not giving specific directions. When you talk about coaching, understand your tone. Understand they may not want the coaching, so it makes a difference how you deliver the message.”—Shane Paul
  • “Communication. Two-way communication.”—Greg Atwell
Published: June 15th, 2024

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