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On their struggles breaking into business, the mentors who helped them succeed and how they’re extending a hand to the next generation. We also talked to some of those up-and-comers (and one former prime minister) about what they learned from those relationships

Ralph Gilles on taking a moonshot

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Ralph Gilles, head of design at Fiat Chrysler. His mentee is Marvin Washington.

Gilles grew up in Montreal and joined Chrysler in 1992, where he moved up from junior designer to hold various executive positions, including president and CEO of the Dodge brand. He has an MBA from Michigan State University and was named head of design for all of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) five years ago. He’s also the executive sponsor for the company’s African Ancestry Network, FCAAN.

I grew up in downtown Montreal, which was super-diverse. When I came to Detroit, I saw the same thing. But when I joined FCA, I was definitely one of very few Black people. At the time, I thought the right thing to do was to keep my nose clean, just be one of the guys and maybe overperform a little bit. That was always my thinking: If everyone else has five sketches, I’ll have seven sketches. My dad raised me with a heavy emphasis on excelling – that as Black man, you have to do extra. I carry that to this day.

Tom Gale was my moonshot mentor. He used to be the head of design at FCA. He was so high up in the company, I thought I was a speck of dirt to him. But I thought, What the hell – I’m going to reach out. He had an MBA, and my dad was giving me heat about getting an advanced education, so I asked his advice. He told me to go for it, and I did. We’re good friends to this day, though we couldn’t be more different.

Today I mentor at least 12 people, if not more. I have a reputation for being easy to talk to, and I have a very open-door policy. People who are new to the company, senior executives, young executives – they look at me as someone who made it through the system as a Black executive, and they want to understand what I went through. Sometimes they happen to be young white designers, but most of the time it’s not design people – it’s young Black executives from other walks of life who want to know what it’s like. So I spend a lot of time coaching them on how to carry themselves. But by me mentoring them, I’m getting mentored myself.

I’ve been part of FCAAN for 15 years. Part of the organization is social – we have bakeoffs, fundraisers, an annual gala, and we bring in performers, too. We also hold educational events and panels with executives from across the company, giving younger employees a platform to speak to senior management. And we’re really focused on mentorship, because many of our members are high potentials who want to excel and are looking for guidance. I got to know Marvin Washington through FCAAN, and I learn so much through people like him, because I can be insulated in my little design bubble. I learn the struggles people are having in other departments, the frustration an executive might feel around advancement, maybe just because the leaders don’t know their name. With Marvin, the brilliance is there, the commitment is there, the energy is there. All he needed was a little sunshine shone on him.

The biggest challenge around diversity is volume. In all big corporations, there is a dearth of Blacks at the highest levels. At FCA, we’re recruiting more than ever, and the diversity at the entry level is much, much better. The key now is retaining them and having them see a path forward. The No. 1 priority is just getting them seen by other leaders in the company.

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Marvin Washington, mentee of Ralph Gilles. He is director and head of electrical, electronics and e-mobility purchasing at FCA Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.Handout

Everyone is realizing this moment in our history is different. Everyone has someone in their lives who is tugging at their coat saying, ‘What are you going to do about this?’ So I would say go right to the top of your organization and demand a meeting about some of these initiatives. We’re all busy, but it’s worth it. I mentor two or three people a week, and I just fit it in. And people who wouldn’t normally seek you out – you seek them out, because it makes you richer. I rarely feel like I’m spewing wisdom. I always leave learning something."

Mentee quote: “Ralph gave me the opportunity through FCAAN to lead events, which helped me grow as a leader and be seen as someone who’s also doing more for FCA. And I ended up being promoted to director. Ralph is an example for me and other minorities in that he leads by being himself – and it shines. So instead of trying to duplicate certain leaders, they become themselves, and that provides diversity in the organization. The way he takes time out to mentor others and show up at events and just be there so people can aspire to one day attain that level – I try to do the same for the next generation of leaders.” – Marvin Washington, director and head of electrical, electronics and e-mobility purchasing at FCA Fiat Chrysler Automobiles

JP Gladu on the importance of mentors who don’t look like you

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JP Gladu is president of A2A Rail, former president and CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business and has an executive MBA from Queen’s.Steph & Ethan/The Globe and Mail

JP Gladu, a member of Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek, on the eastern shores of Lake Nipigon, Ont., is president of A2A Rail. He’s the former president and CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business and has an executive MBA from Queen’s. He also sits on several boards, including as chair of Mikisew Group of Cos.

"Mentorship is important, but sponsorship is more important. Mentorship is great because you can spend the time getting to know somebody, and you know you’ve got somebody to talk to – but you want someone to do more than talk with you and share experience. You need somebody who’s also going to sponsor you in the next room and who’s going to help give you a voice.

That’s even more powerful when it’s the typical white executive who does the sponsoring. I do 50 speaking engagements a year, so I have a big platform to yell from. But it would only penetrate so far. And that’s because I’m an Indigenous person. These issues are important to me and my people. There’s a segment of the population that I’ll never get to. However, when I get Suncor Energy CEO Mark Little at the front of the room, Mark is able to get that population by saying, ‘Listen to JP. These issues are important to me; they should be important to you.’

That’s why we need to strive as Black and Indigenous people to build relationships with the segment of the population we have a problem with. We’ve got to have those champions. As Indigenous people, for the longest time we weren’t allowed to leave our communities without permission from Big Brother – the government. We weren’t allowed to hire a lawyer. We weren’t allowed to get educated. But we needed help in the courts. And there were white lawyers who came to our defence. We wouldn’t have gotten to where we are today, or at least it would have taken longer, if we didn’t have that support.

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Former prime minister Paul Martin, mentor of JP Gladu.The Globe and Mail

There are still challenges to having mentors who don’t share your cultural background. I’m reading this book called Traction: Get A Grip On Your Business by Gino Wickman, about the importance of the ‘entrepreneurial operating system.’ One of the big things is that the CEO, to empower his or her team, has to make sure everybody understands what the vision is and uses the same operating system speak to each other. And if you don’t have the same operating system and the same lexicon, you’re constantly miscommunicating. If you don’t understand Indigenous people, how are you going to work with us, and vice versa? So, in mentorship, if you come from different backgrounds, if you don’t take the time at the very front end of a relationship to listen and understand and ask questions and be vulnerable, then it’s not going be an effective relationship, because you’re communicating it to a different operating system."

Mentor quote: “The fact of the matter is, if I was a mentor to JP, he was also a mentor to me. I was very actively involved in education programs for Indigenous students, and I went to JP and said, ‘Take me through every facet of Indigenous business.’ And he did it, and I learned an enormous amount from him. I think that when you’re a mentor, you learn an enormous amount from the mentee, whether you’re a person of a certain age, like myself, and you’re mentoring young students, or whether it’s the kind of work JP and I did together.” – Former prime minister Paul Martin

Claudette McGowan on her à la carte approach to mentorship

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Claudette McGowan, global executive officer for cybersecurity at TD Bank, seen here in 2018.Natalia Dolan/Handout

Claudette McGowan is the global executive officer for cybersecurity at TD Bank. Before joining TD, she held senior tech roles at BMO. She’s also the founder of the Black Arts & Innovation Expo and has written several books for children.

"I challenge anyone to think about something they’ve done that’s been super meaningful and that they’ve done completely on their own. I can’t point to many examples like that. At every stage of my life, before I even got into the workplace, there was always somebody helping me to grow and develop.

I’ve found that having one mentor is good. Having many mentors is great. So, taking an à la carte approach to mentorship has been the secret to my success. You might need somebody who’s really great with finance, someone who’s really great with digital marketing or interpersonal skills or cultural elements. For me, it hasn’t been about looking for one person to be a magic elixir.

I’ve been in tech all my life, so the majority of my mentors were male. It was actually through some conversations with an HR leader who said, ‘Hey, have you considered diversifying?’ that I started finding mentors who were female – sometimes not in tech. Looking outside my area of expertise helped me become a better tech leader, because I was getting good counsel and advice from non-technical leaders with more of the business view.

But none of my mentors looked like me. And I never thought anything was wrong with that. As I got older, I began to build relationships with some global leaders I could learn from. It was great to have somebody who looked like me. But it was also great to have people who were different. It goes back to needing that diversity of thought, diversity of background, diversity of expression.

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Karlyn Percil, CEO of KDPM Consulting Group and founder of SisterTalk, seen here in 2020. She is the mentee of Claudette McGowan.Handout

I was talking to another business leader, and they had noticed somebody who’d only been hiring in their own image. But the results weren’t there – until that person started diversifying their hiring. And I think it’s the same thing for mentoring: Having a blend is where the magic happens."

Mentee quote: “As a Black immigrant woman on Bay Street, I didn’t see myself represented – not on boards or in senior leadership positions. No matter where you are in life, we know that having access to possibility models increases your sense of belonging, amplifying your career aspirations. And that matters. Claudette’s mentorship showed me what’s possible and allowed me to take bigger risks, like launching KDPM Consulting. She taught me to trust my track record – to use my skills, talents and gifts fully, and learn from the failures to keep building. Because of her, I’m dreaming bigger and affecting the lives of more women through our own mentorship program. I see it as a way to keep building on the legacy our ancestors started." – Karlyn Percil, CEO of KDPM Consulting Group, which focuses on diversity and inclusion, and founder of SisterTalk, a diverse women’s group

Michelle Kisil on building a real relationship

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Michelle Kisil is vice-president, Canada key accounts, at energy technology company Baker Hughes.

Michelle Kisil is vice-president, Canada key accounts, at energy technology company Baker Hughes, where she also leads Indigenous relations.

I was raised in a very urban community, and I didn’t face the same challenges other Indigenous people may have experienced entering the business world. I’ve also had both informal and formal mentors over the years, and for me, it was a safe conduit to seeking insight and guidance. One of my mentor relationships – one where we truly knew each other – led to a great new opportunity. We’d parted ways from a business standpoint, but we stayed connected because we had built that level of trust. He joined the board of the Women in Need Society, and when it was time to recruit diverse new members, I came to mind. Now I’m the vice-chair.

I’m also a mentor to Indigenous youth, and I can honestly say I’ve learned equally from my mentee, Tricia Young. Our relationship started off very structured. In the beginning, I approached it as, ‘I’m here to help you.’ But when the relationship didn’t evolve as quickly as I’d anticipated, it forced me to take a step back and look at how I could build a deeper connection. I had maybe jumped in too eagerly, without remembering that building trust is so critical to building a relationship.

I cued into how important family was for Tricia, so we exchanged stories and photos of our parents, grandparents, siblings, friends and even my pets. I shared stories about what was going on with my kids, and I welcomed her perspective. I think by doing that, it showed that I valued her opinion and insight.

Our relationship turned into a very authentic one, in the end. When it came time to apply for university and prepare for interviews, and maybe seek out funding, that comfort level was already established. I like to think we made a pretty good team. And I’m extremely proud of her accomplishments today. She’s an amazing mother, a thoughtful friend, an active member in the community and she’s excited to be starting school at Mount Royal University this winter."

Mentee quote: “I feel like if I had not had a mentor, I would still be learning the ropes slowly. And what Michelle taught me, I brought back to my community. I help youth when they need support with jobs, résumés and school. The biggest lesson I have learned from Michelle is to always be kind and help those around you. Being a First Nations youth has its ups and downs, but we are strong and resilient, so we push ourselves to thrive with a helping hand.” – Tricia Young, university student

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Tricia Young, a university student, is the mentee of Michelle Kisil.Blaire Russell/Handout

Wes Hall on learning how to read the room

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Wes Hall, executive chairman of Kingsdale Advisors.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

Hall is the founder and executive chairman of Kingsdale Advisors, and has worked behind the scenes on some of the country’s biggest takeovers and activist campaigns. He’s also the founder of the BlackNorth Initiative, whose goal is to eliminate anti-Black systemic racism.

"There are a lot of insecurities that come with being Black or being the only Black person in the room. When someone tells you, ‘We believe in what you have to offer’ – and keep telling you that – it builds a lot of confidence.

My first mentor was Glenn O’Farrell. He was general counsel for CanWest Global. I was in my 20s, and it was my first real job – he brought me in as a law clerk. It’s because of him that I’m here. He had the confidence in me to say, ‘You can do this,’ even though I did not know I could do the job he hired me for, and other people were telling me I couldn’t. But he kept on giving me more responsibility and started to help me to navigate what the business world should look like.

I’m fortunate that there were so many people along the way who were helpful to me, and none of those people made me feel as if they were helping me because I was a project to them. It was never: I’m going to take this Black person who came from this place in Jamaica, who worked his way up, and I’m going to put him at the top of the ladder, and I’m going to prove to someone it can be done. It was never like that. Maybe they saw colour, but they never let me feel as if they saw colour. I never felt I had to bend and twist to accommodate what they wanted me to become.

The biggest lesson I learned was how to read people and read a situation. When you get into a room, you have to figure out what the temperature is and be able to adjust accordingly. And when I say temperature, I mean the personalities, the people, the mood. If you’re negotiating a deal, for example, how do you make sure you can read the room the right way to get the right outcome? In a lot of cases, as Black people and Indigenous people, we’ve never been in that room before. So we need someone who’s been there before to tell us, ‘When you find yourself in this situation, here’s how to take advantage of it.’ Having those little conversations is absolutely critical.

Once you accomplish certain things in life, you’re going to find people reach out to talk about your experience and how you can help them. I try to be generous. I always respond to people’s e-mails. I always make myself available. I don’t want people to feel that I don’t have the time because I’m too busy. You’re never too busy to help.

And I still have mentors today, by the way, because there are still people who have accomplished so much more. Not only in the business world, but also in the philanthropic world – that’s where I look for mentorship today, because that’s the next frontier."

Mentee quote: "The legal profession is built on the idea of apprenticeship and mentorship, but for Black lawyers, finding strong mentors is a big challenge. I’ve had only one mentor of note within the profession, but I’ve been lucky to also have mentors outside of it, like Wes Hall, who is much further along on the journey as a business leader and entrepreneur than I am, and who somehow always finds the time to listen and provide invaluable guidance to me from his own experience. A difference exists between mentorship and sponsorship. A mentor talks with you; a sponsor talks about you. All sponsors tend to be mentors, but not all mentors are sponsors. I’ve been lucky to have had both.” – Marlon Hylton, founder of INNOV-8 Data Counsel and INNOV-8 Legal, and a former partner at Cassels Brock & Blackwell

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CEO Marlon Hylton, mentee of Wes Hall, seen here in 2020.Handout

With files from Dawn Calleja

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