Webster's definition of mentor (the noun) is: "1. a wise advisor 2. a teacher or a coach." The Microsoft dictionary definition of the verb mentoring is: "To serve as a trusted counselor or teacher, especially in occupational settings." My definition of mentoring is: "to offer encouragement and guidance and to share experience and knowledge to enhance the success of others."
No matter how you define it, mentoring is the epitome of The Golden Rule: Love your neighbor as yourself. How often do you find yourself in the roll of mentor?
At first thought, especially if you are relatively new to the window coverings industry, you may not think you know enough to pass on information to others. Wrong! I have been in the industry for more than 22 years, and I often learn new techniques and tricks and gather wonderful resources from the newer folks. No matter how long you have been in the industry, your information as well as your questions are needed to enable this industry to grow.
It's perfectly OK, however, if you feel more comfortable in the role of mentee most of the time. You are not likely to find this word in Webster's or Microsoft's dictionary. By my definition, it is "the recipient of the advice and wisdom from a mentor or mentors." Mentors must be furnished with the questions and needs of the mentees so they will know how best to help the individual and the industry as a whole.
The perfect example of the mentor/mentee relationship is magnified in the Internet chat rooms and e-mail lists. The volume of sharing and caring expressed on a daily basis is astounding. The success of the businesses involved in these groups exemplifies how critical the mentor/mentee role is for the growth and strength of the window coverings industry.
Who is Your Neighbor?
I have written before on how difficult it has been for older generation workrooms to share their expertise with direct competitors. Fear of losing business and not retaining enough business to survive has been the prevailing motive for this reluctance. But the reality of competition is that it is good for everyone. And, ironically, the physically closer competitors are, the better for each of them.
In my town, we used to have two hardware stores in our downtown mall. Both had been there for many years. A couple of years ago, one moved out to a larger location. Then, just last year, the other one folded. When I expressed my sadness over its demise to an owner's son, his response was that they couldn't survive because their closest competitor was now too far away.
You may notice, generally like businesses cluster together-fast food restaurants, car dealerships, office products retailers, etc. By being close together, they become acutely aware of what features are stronger with their competitors.
Close proximity also makes it convenient for customers to shop for the business that will best suit their needs, and I don't necessarily mean price. We all learn from our customers. They tell Store X that they can get a widget at Store Y, and want to know why Store X doesn't carry it because they would rather deal with Store X. So, Store X starts stocking widgets and increases sales because of it. If there hadn't been a Store Y to fill customers' needs originally, then Store X would have lost out on this additional profit. Not only that, but if Store X and Store Y joined together to order widgets in bulk, then the vendor could give each of them a better price further increasing profits for the stores and the vendor. Competition is good!
Yes, it sounds like "keeping up with the Joneses." But the bottom line is that you want to be the best you possibly can be for your customers. If your competitor is doing something better for the customer, then you ought to be doing it too.
Likewise, you should share your expert fabricating methods with your competition. The more companies that follow the same custom methods, the more educated customers will be and the better they will understand why custom prices are what they are. As each workroom improves in quality or service, then the better educated customers will be and the better the products they will be getting. In the end, you probably can charge more money for your products and make more profit from them. Everybody wins!
Another benefit of sharing your custom fabrication methods with your competitors is that someday you may need to farm out work to them. If you are faced with an enormous job you cannot possibly deliver by deadline, you have two options: Turn down the job and loose that income, or farm it out to a neighbor. If you and your competitor have shared quality, custom techniques and beliefs, then you can confidently farm out part of the job to him. You both make extra income and you both are repaid for mentoring-another win/win situation!
It boils down to this: Everybody is your neighbor-the customer, your fellow industry professionals, your direct competition and your vendors. Help one and you help them all. Help them all and you magnify the success of the industry!
Have I convinced you yet to help your neighbors? Think about your local associations, e.g. Rotarians, Lions Club and the Chamber of Commerce. These all are made up of business people working together to better their community. Yes, they are helping other people and businesses in the community, but they also are direct competitors who get to know each other through their community work. They respect and assist each other as one human to another, caring for each other. As the old cliché states, "What goes around, comes around."
While I encourage you to join such local organizations, especially your Chamber of Commerce, I emphasize the greater benefits of joining the Window Coverings Association of America (WCAA).
WCAA is a group of professionals established for the advantage of all. Because they are a legitimate national organization, they can enjoy discounts and benefits offered only to groups, e.g. insurance, long distance service, credit card merchant accounts and discount coupons from partner vendors. Members also have the advantage of using the distinguished and recognized WCAA logo.
But membership in WCAA can go beyond that, right down to establishing local chapters where true mentor/ mentee relationships can manifest themselves to the max. We most often think of mentor/mentee as a one-on-one relationship, which is good, but more can be done in an association setting. Working together in local chapters, whose members include workrooms, decorators and designers, not only will increase your knowledge and professionalism, but raise the level of professionalism for the whole industry.
The members of the WCAA board are very dedicated individuals and mentors who donate an astounding amount of their personal time to work for the betterment of the window coverings industry. They recognize that workrooms, which are essential to this industry, have many needs not being met by any other organization. They sincerely wish to do what they can to meet the needs of the workrooms and promote and raise their professionalism and respect in the industry.
I have been a WCAA member for a couple years now with my main motive being to support its goals and mentoring relationships so it can grow stronger. I have been honored by being asked to represent workrooms as the at-large member of its board. I can't tell you how excited I am to accept this position, but even greater is my excitement that WCAA will be focusing on helping and mentoring workrooms.
One of my goals is to work toward a certification program for workrooms. This program not only could set you above competitors, but increase business as more people recognize the value of working with certified professionals. However, I and the board need your input to make this happen. We also need any and all ideas you have as to how WCAA can assist you in making your business and the industry more successful. I am your direct contact to take your ideas to the board, but any board member would be glad to hear your thoughts personally.
This is a golden opportunity-the chance for workrooms to come together and work together as mentors and mentees to increase the status of workrooms in the marketplace. This is the opportunity to bring together the numbers necessary to entice more workroom suppliers to partner with WCAA and offer purchasing savings. As many of you are well aware, a workroom business is easy to start, but to make it profitable is another matter. This is the opportunity to learn more about business management and to increase individual profitability as well as that of the industry as a whole.
If you think you are an island unto yourself and have no effect on this industry, think again. Your behavior, your methods, your skills and your pricing reflect on every business in this industry. If one company does not produce quality work it degrades all of us. One separate or weak link reduces the strength and effectiveness of the whole chain.
Even though I am a consultant who charges to provide information to industry businesses, I feel very strongly that it is my duty to provide, at no charge to anyone who asks, information about the major resources in our industry. Mentoring is not really a choice, it is an obligation to the industry.
I would like to share this quote by Benjamin F. Fairless: "What is the recipe for successful achievement? To my mind there are just four essential ingredients: Choose a career you love. Give it the best there is in you. Seize your opportunities. And be a member of the team."
If you want happiness and success from your business, don't be a loose link. Be a mentor. Link to the rest of the industry and become a member of a winning team! As Ralph Waldo Emerson said: "To know that even one life has breathed easier because you lived. This is to have succeeded."
Kitty Stein, WCAA, is a 20-year veteran of the drapery workroom field, having owned and operated her own business for 18 years and having taught classes on window treatment construction. Until 1990, Stein and a partner owned a workroom with nine employees. She since has opened her own smaller workroom, Workroom Concepts, that has just one employee. She also does workroom consulting, seminar speaking and is the author of Order in the Workroom available through Draperies & Window Coverings.