Be open to advice: Pride cometh before the fall

One of the most important traits of a good leader is the willingness to allow yourself to be mentored. Even the most successful leaders understand that as individuals, we can’t have all the answers. Problems and challenges will arise that require us to seek the guidance of others in order to respond and effectively move forward.

We’ve all read stories about people who have not been teachable. Perhaps these are people who thought they could go it alone and reach their goals without any support. Or maybe the thought of swallowing their pride and sharing credit with someone else was just too difficult to accept. These attitudes only serve to limit your ability to grow.

My father recently finished a book that details the relationship he had with his father and some of the life lessons he took from it that he would later share with both me and my siblings. He understood the value of mentors and the knowledge that could be gained through those relationships. He was willing to accept help when it was needed and as a result, accomplished great things in his life and put me in a better position to accomplish my goals.

These foundational principles — Leo’s Lessons, as he likes to call them — have stuck with me to this day.

Here are some of the lessons that he taught me:

Character: Protect your nameYou could do everything right in your life, but all it takes is one wrong move, one bad decision to ruin your family’s name. We’re all just one step away from making a bad choice.

Humility: Treat every person equally The people you see on the way up in your career could be the same ones you see on the way down. Remember, pride cometh before the fall.

Confidence: Fortune favors the bull Have the confidence that you can accomplish anything you want to and don’t be afraid to go after ambitious goals, while also accepting help along the way.

Intelligence: The worst enemy you can have is a dumb friendSurround yourself with people who add value to your life and can teach you things that make you better. Stay away from those who could get you in trouble by accident.

Trust: Constant honesty leads to instant credibility Be truthful at every turn and you’ll quickly build trust with those around you.

Wisdom: I’m a generalist in a pluralistic society of specialists As those around you focus on details, always keep the bigger picture in view. You can’t be good at everything.

Generosity: Take care of the little guy and the big guy will always take care of you Make the effort to help those less fortunate than you and you will always be provided for.

We should all think about the impact mentors have had on our lives and ask what we can do to provide the same support to the next generation of leaders.

“Bootlegger’s Son” by E.G. “Leo” Koury is due out this month and is available at and Barnes & Noble.

Big Brothers Big Sisters mentors make a big difference in lives

Yolanda Armstrong owes much to the people who mentored her in her youth. Her elderly grandparents tried their best to raise her, but it was the family down the street that took an interest in her and guided her. And she speaks loudly and clearly on the importance mentoring had on her.

“I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for people who mentored me, even though I didn’t participate in Big Brothers Big Sisters,” says Armstrong, the president and CEO of the Greater Cleveland affiliate of that organization. “I was a ‘we baby.’ So many people had invested their time in me so I didn’t become a statistic like other girls in my neighborhood.”

Armstrong was able to attend Ohio University and earn a degree — despite her high school guidance counselor’s conclusion that she wasn’t college material. She didn’t want to accept that judgment and made it her mission to believe in herself.

“Who would’ve thought many years later that I would run one of the largest mentoring programs in Cuyahoga County? I was offered jobs in other major cities, and I told them I wanted to come to Cleveland because I wanted to give back that which was given to me,” she says.

“You might say, I’m a poster child!”

The experience in her youth and her background of 24 years in social service administration and leadership serves Armstrong well. She knows what it is like for a young person to lack self-esteem and to turn that around into healthy self-esteem. That is the goal of Big Brothers Big Sisters.

“We are about creating that vision for our young people, that they can succeed,” she says. “They must have hope, the belief they can accomplish something and that they’re able to attain that and be inspired through our mentors and staff.”

How mentoring works

The organization, which is observing its 60th anniversary in Cleveland this year, serves about 450 families in Cuyahoga County. Volunteers from the corporate and private sectors, churches and individuals give four hours a month minimum to a child that has been identified as a Little. Mentors are called Bigs, and people are always sought who want to have an impact on a child’s life.

Bigs and Littles are matched for similar preferences, such as both being sports fans. Many go bowling, try paintball, and/or play basketball, volleyball or ice hockey together. The majority of the youths are from low-income households or single-parent households. There is a waiting list since it takes time to match Bigs and Littles.

“The goal is to keep these kids out of trouble, but also to give them a life-changing experience of friendship,” Armstrong says.

“Most of our matches stay together 23 months or longer. That’s what makes our program different from other mentoring programs that may have popped up in the last several years,” she says.

Of former Littles surveyed, 67 percent agreed that their Big played a role in their decision to attend college, and 83 percent agree that their Big instilled values and principles that have guided them through life.

Connection with the community

Like many nonprofit organizations, Big Brothers Big Sisters is constantly seeking funds. The group receives some government funding as well as support from foundations. Four fundraisers are held during the year, and a Young Professionals Association allows younger executives from area businesses to help raise funds and find mentors.

A Community Connectors grant from the state of Ohio supports the Cleveland Coders mentoring program at Richmond Heights schools. This program was started last year under Armstrong’s leadership.

“We have mentors who come in and work with the kids with their computer coding activities, their school work activities and every day during the week, except for Wednesdays,” she says.

A federally-funded program called Amachi provides adult mentors for children whose parents are in prison.

“I love this program because when I first started last year, I received a letter from a man who was so happy that his son was in this program because he didn’t want his son to end up like him,” Armstrong says. “We are making strides with the kids whose parents are in prison and to know that we can get volunteers to support these kids has just been awesome.”

How to reach: Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Cleveland, (216) 621-8223 or

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Cleveland’s 60th Anniversary “Denim & Diamonds” Celebration will take place May 12 at The Corner Bar at Progressive Field. To learn more, visit To register, visit

Five things a discerning mentor should consider before investing in a mentee

As someone with a number of years of experience in your career, you probably recognize the importance of giving time, insights and advice to up-and-coming professionals. You fundamentally understand how important a mentorship was for you as you progressed in your own career.

You might also remember your initial apprehension in developing mentor relationships. Clearly, mentorship helps mentees make better career moves, improve their work product, increase their professional self-awareness and understand organizational nuances.

It is also important to ask: what do you want to give? In mentorship, you can be selfish, too. Are there subject areas you enjoy talking about more than others?  What is your vantage point on career management and career advancement? Do you prefer speaking about management and leadership approaches? Or perhaps you were the first in your family to go to college and enjoy talking about persistence as well as your evolution as a leader?

In juggling all different kinds of initiatives and priorities in your leadership role, you can consider mentee selection similar to your investment style.  Just as you evaluate investment decisions, you can take a similar approach to mentoring decisions.  So, how should you invest in your “mentorship bucket?”  As an experienced investor, you likely seek to balance risk and return as well as bring diversity across asset classes. Here are some investment criteria to consider in taking on a new mentee:

  • Try Before Your Buy Recognize that mentor/mentee relationships do not need to last indefinitely. Give each of your potential mentee a trial period to see if the relationship is working both for you and for them.
  • Are They Eager? Has the potential mentee shown some amount of enthusiasm in learning and accepting your insights, wisdom, counsel and coaching? Are they showing initiative and follow-up in a way that fits your schedule?
  • Are They Organized? Does the person come to you with specific, thoughtful questions? Have they sent you an agenda in advance of your meeting? During your conversations, do they show a logical thought process?
  • Do They Respect Your Time? Will your potential mentee respect the boundaries you set? Is the potential mentee reaching out more often than you would like, or are they willing to interact with you on a quarterly or semi-annual basis?
  • Are They Different Than You? Ethnic, gender, sexual preference and cultural understanding are the 21st century currency for the modern executive. Simply put: diversity matters.  Are you keeping your mind open to offering mentorship to someone who does NOT look like you or talk like you?

The most important piece to investing is an incremental, consistent commitment. Some investments need a little more time than others.  Just as in investing in the markets, not all of your decisions generate similar yields. By taking a playing “portfolio approach” to mentoring, you will certainly find your investments generating a great return.

Jason Levin founded Ready, Set, Launch, LLC®,, after a career in brand management at Unilever, consulting at Accenture and employer branding sales at  You can email Jason at [email protected] and follow him on twitter @jasoncareers.