One of my favourite stories is about the inventor Thomas Edison. When he was in school he brought home a letter to his mother. Fighting tears, she read the letter to her son, telling him that the school was saying that he was so smart his teachers could no longer teach him and adding that they thought that he was going to change the world. Arming herself with books, she started to homeschool him and undoubtedly shape him into becoming one of the most famous and successful inventors of all time.
After his mother’s death, the story goes, he found the letter and discovered the truth about its contents. In it, he read that his teachers told her that he was too stupid to learn anything and that he was never going to amount to anything in his entire life. He shed tears himself – not of anger, but for the compassion his mother had for him. It’s a wonderful story and really demonstrates how you really only need one person to believe in you to create genuine self-belief and attain the goals you set yourself.
We can all look back at people who have mentored us and appreciate how their belief in our abilities, support and encouragement helped us. One such mentor for me was the late, great Pamela Goff, who sadly recently passed away. Her legacy lives on with me and many others to this day. I first met her when I was a young regional manager for a large chain of hair and beauty salons.
“It’s invariably the person who
PUSHED YOU TO ACHIEVE,
and didn’t soft-soap the hard talk, who you remember with the
Pam was head of education for L’Oréal, and she joined us at our annual conference. When she walked into a room, she had a command and a presence that was unmistakable. Nobody dared mess with her, but amidst her formidable air, she was kind and empathetic. She had an uncanny ability to spot talent and nurture it, and her team of glamorous technical educators reminded me of something akin to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the book and film adaptation about a Scottish teacher and her devoted students.
Years later, when we started our own company, her belief in me undoubtedly helped shape our future. She got us in front of the right people and as a result we were lucky enough to experience opportunities that otherwise would have passed us by.
I still use her presenting methods today – for instance, dealing with the negative disruptor in a group meeting (leaving them seated, just continuing to present while standing behind them) works every time.
As the person responsible for the L’Oréal Colour Trophy, her legendary marking system is still used in numerous hair and beauty competitions too (arrows in all directions on first glance – up, down diagonal up, diagonal down – then go back and award points) – so famous she could have trademarked it.
Sometimes, the people that truly mentor us don’t get to find out until years later just how much they’ve influenced us. One person I worked with messaged me just recently saying that I had been like a mother to her during a difficult time and that she often thinks of me and how I helped get her back on track. Nothing is more satisfying than hearing how much you could have positively impacted another human being. But dishing out the “tough love” can be just as impactful. In fact, I can remember that this person didn’t just get the soft, caring words from me, but the truthful harsh assessment, too, which she later described as the kick she so badly needed.
Keep it real
When we think back to our favourite teacher, it’s never the person who let you get away with murder who is top of the list; it’s invariably the person who pushed you to achieve, and didn’t soft-soap the hard talk, who you remember with the most fondness. Miss Harmes, my English teacher, was a rollie-smoking, Gothic-looking Kate Bush type with flaming auburn hair and a passion to match. She was the first person who told me that I could write professionally, maybe even for a living, and encouraged my own love affair with the written word. Suddenly, I found punctuation fascinating and listening to her read The Crucible or Macbeth awe-inspiring.
Before she read my essays, I’d never even contemplated writing, but although I didn’t choose journalism as a career, I’ve always loved writing my column and textbooks, and every time I do so, I think of her.
Making a difference
She wasn’t easy on me; mentors should never be easy on their protégées, and I didn’t want her to give me an easy ride. But her belief in me helped me to achieve the best grades across any subject in school.
As salon owners and managers, we will invariably work with different generations – from Gen Z to Millennials. It’s easy to think the resulting age gap is a clash, but I know that we can use our wisdom and experience to be mentors for our teams, and sometimes their personal circumstances mean we are the closest thing to a role model that they have. How wonderful if we can use that to inspire and nurture them to achieve their dreams and accomplish their goals, just as somebody once did with us.
Hellen Ward is managing director of Richard Ward Hair & Metrospa in London, vice president of The Hair & Beauty Charity and co-founder of Salon Employers Association (SEA).