You Never Know Who You’re Mentoring

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By Richard Friedman

Be careful, the young person you’re mentoring today could be your boss tomorrow.

That’s what I’ve been thinking as I‘ve entered a new period of my career.

My new boss, Larry Brook, editor and publisher of two Birmingham, AL-based magazines where I now work, Southern Jewish Life and Israel InSight, remembers me speaking to his sixth grade class at our Jewish day school about journalism. I was a reporter in my late 20s working for the Birmingham News, Alabama’s largest newspaper.

Larry to this day talks about my visit to his classroom, and the favorable impression I apparently made on this curious young student, one of the factors that led him to begin thinking about a career in journalism.

I left the Birmingham News a few years later to become executive director of the Birmingham Jewish Federation. I wouldn’t encounter Larry again until almost ten years later. He came to see me as he was about to graduate from the University of Virginia.

This young guy had an idea and he wanted to see what I thought and seek my advice. He was thinking about coming back to Birmingham after graduation to start a Jewish newspaper.  

Our chat focused on two areas: Did I think there was a need for such a publication in Birmingham? And if I thought he could maintain the delicate balance needed for an independent Jewish newspaper to succeed journalistically – being part of the community while being apart from the community?

I told him yes to the first, that our community needed the kind of newspaper he envisioned – one that would cover the community in a fair and informed way. I told him that I thought the second area would be a challenge – maintaining his journalistic independence in view of his many pre-existing connections to the Jewish community and his family’s longstanding involvement in many of our Jewish institutions.  

What I did promise him was that I, as Federation director, would never attempt to interfere with or influence his coverage, and that I would educate others about the importance of creating a climate where Larry could function as an independent journalist, which ultimately would be in the community’s best interests. 

Over the years, Larry would tell me that at national Jewish journalism conferences he attended, one recurring frustration among his peers was the degree to which Jewish institutions and influential Jewish leaders would strive to influence their coverage. Larry told his colleagues that he never had that challenge in Birmingham, speculating that part of the reason may have been due to my own journalism background.

Larry’s publication grew from a small monthly newspaper serving Birmingham, a community of 5000 Jews at the time, into a highly-successful monthly magazine, Southern Jewish Life, that covers a four state region – Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Northwest Florida.  

Southern Jewish Life is now in its 30th year, having garnered national Jewish journalism awards along the way.

Despite the challenges many in the journalism/publishing industry have faced, particularly in Jewish journalism, Larry has succeeded. He is also positioning himself to embrace new challenges. These include expanding the coverage area for Southern Jewish Life and starting a new website/magazine, Israel InSight, geared toward Israel’s Christian supporters, of whom there are an abundance in the Deep South.

As I have watched him over the years, I have concluded that he has achieved success the old-fashioned way – by working hard, being entrepreneurial and innovative, earning the trust of those in his coverage area, holding down costs, relying on a small but highly effective staff, and outlasting and eclipsing the competition.  

So back to the beginning of this story – about never knowing if the person you mentor will wind up being your boss one day.  

Well, Larry is now my boss. I have recently retired as executive director of our Federation and have joined Larry’s staff as associate editor of both magazines. He and I played with this idea over the years and as my retirement date approached, began talking seriously. Little did I imagine that that sixth grade day school student, listening attentively to a young reporter talk excitedly about the news business, would become my boss 40 years later.  

I tease Larry and call him Perry White – you Superman fans will know who I’m talking about – and call myself Jimmy Olsen. After all, like Perry White, Larry is the editor (and publisher), and I like to think of myself as Jimmy Olsen, a hopefully fresh-faced young reporter who needs his boss’s advice.

However, I really think there are two takeaways from this story. Yes, you never know if that young person you mentor will be your boss one day. 

But also if someone comes to you for advice, particularly a young person starting out, try to make time for them. Listen carefully, be supportive and offer insights without being intrusive. Not only is this the right thing to do, it also has an impact on these young folks, who hopefully will remember it.

Especially if they become your boss. 

Richard Friedman, retired executive director of the Birmingham (AL) Jewish Federation, is associate editor of Southern Jewish Life and Israel InSight magazines.