Jack Pycik, 59, was a combat officer in Viet Nam, held CEO positions for 8 years, taught an MBA course at the University of Notre Dame, served on the boards of 15 different companies, and has held leadership positions in community and religious organizations. Most recently, he led the turnaround of a troubled bank. He describes his family role as serving in a co-leadership position with his wife, Nancy for 37 years while raising three children. One of Jack’s most rewarding roles is found in his work with members of the younger generation in family firms. As a family business consultant who has seen the results of his work, I asked Jack to share his philosophy and methods. 

Steve McClure: You have had mentors of your own for many years, several throughout your career. What have you gained from these experiences?

Jack Pycik: Whenever I have had a significant, new challenge, I have repeatedly found that others have faced similar circumstances. For example, my current mentor has taught me two things. First, deal with any unpleasantness in a relationship early, get it over with and you will then be free to enjoy the relationship. So, at the beginning of a business meeting, if I have a concern about confidentiality, I’ll start with it.

Second, he taught me to find out what the horse wants, then feed it to him. What I mean is, if I am facing a challenge with a person, I find out what they like and give it to them to put them in a receptive mood. I used to use one approach: head on, no matter what I faced.

Steve: You have been a mentor to successors and leaders in family firms for several years. What is it that you most enjoy about this role? What do you get out of it?

Jack: I have had my 15 minutes of fame and enjoyed my time in the spotlight and walking at the head of the parade. I believe that to whom much is given, much is expected. I want to give back. I enjoy watching younger people learn and develop. By helping others, I may in a small way be able to influence the next generation. For example, everyone begins by asking me, “How do I get Dad to retire? How do I get into the President position?”

I stop them and ask, “How are you getting along with your spouse, your children and your father and mother?” The point is that, I want them to begin with the important things. I have learned that one is often in a hurry to accomplish what is less important and takes the place of what is. If I can teach this to another, I am rewarded.

Steve: What are your rules for a mentoring relationship?

Jack: Everyone has to understand that my obligation is totally to the one I am mentoring. For example, at our first meeting a young man whose father owned and led the business asked me if I wanted to meet his father, tour the office and see the business from the inside. I said no, and to this day, I have never done any of those things. I may be paid by the business or family, yet my loyalty is to the one I am mentoring. Now, that said, on several occasions I have met a spouse or visited a business. It is sometimes a matter of pride on the part of the protégé that they will want to introduce a business or person to me. I greatly respect that and oblige. With regard to other things like confidentiality, they make the rules for themselves, but I follow this one: Anything that I say can be repeated to anyone but nothing that the protégé says to me will be repeated to anyone without their expressed approval.

Steve: How would you advise a successor in a family firm to find and evaluate a mentor? What would you advise against?

Jack: I am not sure how to go about finding mentors. For me, forming a mentor relationship has always been informal and unintentional. I never went out looking for one. I found people I admired, and it evolved. Often, I have not realized that I had a mentor until well into the relationship. I can only suggest for someone to look around and ask, who do I respect? Are these people successful in business, in their families, or in something I am now striving toward? For what to avoid, I can be much more definitive. I would discourage using professionals that currently serve the business or some other part of the family, like a lawyer or accountant. I have found there are no angels or perfect 10s in this world. Once trust has been established it must be maintained. There must be total independence for trust to survive over time. A second kind of individual to avoid is the family friend of a parent. Ultimately, loyalty is to their friend and trust cannot survive a choice in favor of the parent when it means infringed loyalty to the protégé.

Steve: What kind of contractual agreement guides you; either verbal, assumed or written? For example, when is it time to terminate a mentor relationship, how do you go about it?

Jack: I have no contractual relationship. In every meeting, the relationship is up for termination. I figure that I am only as good as the last meeting. I always ask at the end of the meeting if they would like to schedule another. They are always in control. In several instances, I have sensed a lack of effectiveness. If I am not working hard or they are not working hard, then the relationship should end. I always leave them an opportunity for a gracious exit.

Steve: How do you generally start with a new protégé? How often do you meet and where?

Jack: Generally, in a new relationship, I suggest we meet frequently. For example, the pattern has often been a two to four hour meeting every two weeks, if permitted by the geography of our locations. I like to finish and share a meal. After that, the typical arrangement is more or less monthly. Often, a week after the last meeting, the protégé pill call me to schedule the next meeting. This works very well as the ball is in their court and we are avoiding what I consider unproductive, regularly scheduled meetings. I always meet away from the place of employment. When they travel, we meet in my office. If I travel, we meet somewhere neutral. There is an advantage to the protégé traveling. They can decompress from their work and family situation on the way to the meeting and reflect on our discussion on the way back. I believe they get more value this way.

Steve: Finally, what are the qualities that you would recommend in a good mentor?

Jack: There are six that I order from vital to important. Above average listening skills are particularly important early in the relationship. There should be a lot of non-judgmental listening. Confidentiality is next and it will often be tested, first with little things, then with much more important issues. Integrity is third. The mentor should be honest with the protégé and there should never be a time when the information gleaned from a discussion is used for advantage or against the protégé in anger.

Next is experience in business, family and society. You just have to have it. A history of success in different environments is fifth. And finally, a mentor must be financially secure. The fees earned are important, but secondary. I feel the best arrangement is when a mentor wants to teach and develop, and a protégé wants to learn. The need for financial benefit should never influence the decision to begin or continue a mentor relationship.