Q&A with a Lerner Executive Mentor

Mary Ellen Payne talks with a student who is facing away from the camera with a stage in the background

Mary Ellen Payne graduated from the University of Delaware’s Lerner College with both a B.B.A. in marketing and an MBA thinking that she would never look back at her alma mater. She entered the world of business, effectively moving up the ranks until she was a vice president at Verizon. It wasn’t until her son and nephew began attending UD that Payne came back to campus.

During these visits, she gained a new appreciation for the University and decided to get more involved. She served as the Lerner Undergraduate Convocation speaker in 2015 and was a panelist at this year’s Lerner Women’s Leadership Summit. Payne is currently a member of the Lerner College Advisory Board and is very involved with the Lerner Women’s Leadership Initiative. Payne also became one of the first mentors for the Lerner Executive Mentoring Program and has mentored several students, becoming one of the program’s greatest advocates and supporters. We sat down with Payne to get her perspective on what makes the Lerner Executive Mentoring Program so valuable.

Q: You have been an incredible supporter of the Lerner Executive Mentoring Program at UD from the start. Why have you chosen to dedicate your time and resources to this particular program?

A: I think that this program clearly benefits students by giving them a really clear view of what their opportunities are and what they need to be taking advantage of. At one level, it appealed to me because I had children about the same age as the first students I was being matched with for mentoring, and my own kids didn’t necessarily want to hear my advice. I jokingly always tell people that this program lets you share the advice you would want your children to hear with students the same age who actually want to hear what you have to say.

Also, as a woman, when I was coming into the business, there was no one for me to ask those kinds of questions and learn from. If someone had given me an idea of some of the realities or encouraged me in certain areas, I think my start would have been a little easier. Everything turned out alright for me, but I think it would have been an incredible advantage to have someone to turn to at the beginning to help me understand some of the processes and things that were going on in business.

Q: How do you approach mentorship through this program?

A: I see the role primarily as a cheerleader, encouraging students to explore what they think they want to do. I always start with finding out: How do they define success? Because not everybody wants the same things that you (the mentor) want.

I start with an interview to find out what’s going to make them happy, what are their areas of interest and what do they see as the challenges to getting there. From there we kind of figure out what it is that they want to be when they grow up, asking questions like: “What do you have passion in?” and “What classes do you like?” I go into the situation like a journalist, figuring out what they are interested in and where I can provide them some insight.

I am retired so my mentees can’t come and shadow me at work, but I have a lot of contacts that I can connect them with. One of my mentees was interested in arts marketing, and although I have a lot of experience in marketing, I didn’t know much about arts marketing. I went to my network and sent out an email to my friends to see who knew someone in arts marketing. Through that email I was able to connect my mentee with someone who worked in the field at the Chicago symphony. That student was able to get a 15-minute interview to learn about their interest. Those types of industry connections allow the student to learn from someone’s first-hand experience what they need to do to get into their field of interest.

Q: Why do you enjoy being a mentor?

A: I get a real kick out of working with these incredibly talented young men and women. It gives me great hope that the future is very positive.

I’ve also had so much fun as a mentor because it has allowed me to make even greater connections with my network and my friends. It’s really kind of cool because that network builds as I learn more about the skills and experiences everyone has.

It’s a win-win in so many situations, especially when you talk to your mentee and you learn about what they are interested in and what they’re doing. I get so much out of it because it’s made me stop about think about, “How do you promote an orchestra?” or “How do you get into arts marketing?” To think about all of the aspects of that field has allowed me to learn something new as well.

My first mentee and I still get together and it’s really fun because now we talk about industry issues and how things are going at work, and build on the relationship we started when she was a student. Mentoring has really been the gift that keeps on giving for me!

Q: What value do you think this program offers to students who participate?

A: This program truly differentiates Lerner College from any other business school. Most students don’t get the chance to work with top-level business executives at the undergraduate level. Industry mentors give students a different perspective than an academician or career services faculty member can give you; it’s another point of view. It helps the students early on to get an opinion and advice, and helps them start to sort out how to form their path.

I think that the broader the program is, and the less exclusive, the more opportunity we have to have an impact on a student who is maybe just doing OK. By building that personal connection, help move them along towards success.

I think the students who aren’t necessarily the top of their class could benefit from this program the most. Students whose parents don’t work in business or who are intimidated by the idea of talking to an executive. For them, to have that personal connection could make all of the difference in the world.

Q: You have been a mentor multiple times. Why do you choose to continue to mentor, and what would you say to other executives considering joining the program?

A: It’s 30 minutes a month of phone contact, so the commitment isn’t major. All of my friends who have gotten involved in the program are just delighted with it.

It’s their ability to share information that, as an executive, are no-brainers but could be so valuable to students. Natural networking, things like sending a thank you card that basically become muscle memory for executives, are things these students need to be taught.

I really encourage executives to suggest this program for their middle managers too. I have a nephew who is a president of a financial wealth management business who told me he feels that being a mentor in this program actually helps him to be a better manager, because he’s learned how to listen better. Because your mentee is someone who isn’t working for you in your industry, you spend more time listening to figure out how you can provide value to them, which will translate well into your managing.

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