The dynamics of mentorship

BUSINESS MATTERS (BEYOND THE BOTTOM LINE) - Francis J. Kong - The Philippine Star

Mellody Hobson faced humble beginnings as the youngest of six children raised by a single mother working as a real estate agent. Hobson was deeply passionate about education. She pursued her studies at Princeton University, earning a B.A. from the Woodrow Wilson School of International Relations. Hobson interned at Ariel Investments and T. Rowe Price Associates during college.

After graduation, she joined Ariel Investments, becoming president and co-CEO. In high school, Mellody would attend every recruiting event sponsored by Ariel Investments. In one of the dinners, Mellody was introduced to US senator and former NBA basketball star Bill Bradley.

Dr. Adam Grant tells her story in his latest book “The Hidden Potential.” Predictably, a lot of good stuff in his book is beneficial for leadership studies, and his story on Mellody Hobson is one of them.

Dr. Grant describes Mellody as a “sponge.” Always asking questions, curious, and wanting to know things. Mellody sought out Sen. Bill Bradley and ceaselessly asked questions.

Mellody recalled: “One day, he sat with me and said, you know, Mellody, if you’re not careful, you could be a ball hog. (A ball hog means being a player in a team such as basketball who controls and shoots the ball excessively instead of passing it to teammates). You could step over a lot of people and it has the potential to not be good. And I remember sitting there and telling myself don’t cry.”

Mellody processed Bill Bradley’s advice, and while reflecting on the moment, she reminded herself that Bill wasn’t being harsh; he cared about her growth. Realizing that shedding tears might hinder future feedback, Mellody consciously composed herself emotionally to absorb the advice.

She understood that Bill’s tough love was a testament to his belief in her potential and genuine care for her development. His credibility from his basketball background and political experience added weight to his insights.

Their mentoring relationship allowed him to grasp her skills and shortcomings. Instead of succumbing to tears, Mellody actively sought advice on improvement. “So I just remember sitting and really quieting myself emotionally to receive what he said. And then I left thinking about ways to solve some of the things he mentioned.”

She realized he took the time to give her tough love because he believed in her potential and cared about helping her grow. There was also no question about building credibility from his basketball past. And his political presence. This constructive response not only motivated Bill to continue coaching her but also strengthened their connection.

Years later, Mellody’s introduction by Bill to the Starbucks founder opened new doors, leading to an invitation to join their board. In a poignant moment, Bill walked her down the aisle at her wedding, earning the endearing title of the father she never had. This transformative journey illustrates the power of constructive feedback, personal growth, and the enduring impact of mentorship.

Today, Mellody stands as one of the world’s most influential businesswomen and serves as the chairwoman of Starbucks Corp. Furthermore, she is married to George Lucas, the renowned creator of Star Wars and Indiana Jones.

Dr. Grant synthesizes the lessons one can learn from Mellody’s experience and ascent to leadership. And it can be summarized into the following:

Getting upset isn’t a mark of weakness or even defensiveness. As long as your ego doesn’t stand in the way of your learning. A key to being a sponge is determining what information to absorb versus what to filter out. It’s a question of which coaches to trust.

Dr. Grant breaks trustworthiness into three components: care, credibility, and familiarity.

If they don’t care about you, they haven’t earned the right for you to care about their reactions.

If they’re not qualified to judge the task or are close enough to know your potential, you can discount their views and prove them wrong.

But if they’ve demonstrated that you matter to them and know the domain and your skills, they’re offering information to improve yourself.

The next time you get feedback that cuts you to the core, remember Mellody. And if you want to be mentored and coached, remember Bill Bradley because you need someone who cares, is credible, and is familiar with.

Great book. Great lesson.



(Francis Kong’s podcast “Inspiring Excellence” is now available on Spotify, Apple, Google, or other podcast streaming platforms).

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