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  • Gail Townsend

Nine lessons my mentors taught me about meaningful work

MeaningSphere's cultural and business advisor Dr. Gail Townsend has enjoyed a long career helping organizations build and sustain meaningful structures. In this piece, she reflects on the biggest lessons her mentors have taught her so far about meaningful work.


A woman looking at a map

I recently reflected on a sunny day, rocking chair conversation I had with one of my mentors. She was legendary in her area of expertise related to human development, team development, diversity and inclusion, and change. She was always present for me when I thought I needed her presence. She cared about me personally and professionally. I spent many weekends in her home. The time spent was filled with easy dialogue, laughter, and a lot of learning. I was learning even when I was not aware I was learning. I became more conscious of the insights she was helping me to acquire the next day, after I’d slept on the conversations we’d enjoyed.


I’d like to pass on some wisdom from these mentoring relationships with you, and also share some tips for finding, or becoming, a mentor.


I have been fortunate to enjoy a meaningful career. For 43 years I worked for W. L. Gore & Associates, Inc., a high-technology, materials science enterprise and the inventor of GORE-TEX fabric. Gore has the mantra, “make money and have fun while doing so.” During my time there, I had a lot of fun and the enterprise grew from 2,000 associates to 10,000. Gore makes products that improve the quality of life for individuals, businesses, and society. This enterprise was also one of the first to pursue a culture of no titles, no bosses, and no chain of command. In 1958, when the company was founded, mechanistic structures were dominant. Gore’s organic, flat structure was groundbreaking. Meaningful structures help organizations create, cultivate, nourish, and sustain their aspired-to cultures.


I retired—or as I prefer to say, graduated—from Gore in February 2023 and now am pursuing my next chapter in life! Now I have been employed for about two years at MeaningSphere, an enterprise whose purpose is to help others find meaning in their work. How fortunate I am to once again be working in another enterprise that has an organic, flat culture and no titles, no bosses, and no chain of command! I am delighted to again find meaningful work. My aspirations are to focus on giving back to others and to be a multiplier for the mentoring and coaching insights I acquired from those who cared about me, and this enterprise is a perfect match for my aspirations to help bring meaningful structures to organizations so individuals and teams can thrive. Through all my working years, I have been in the company of people who cared about me and my career.


I feel humbled to have had the privilege of several significant mentors during this life journey. A few of the highlights are listed below.


1) Always be curious.


Listen with the intent to understand what is being stated and also what is not being stated. This is especially true when I feel uncomfortable in a situation. Where there is discomfort, this is typically a circumstance where I can learn, if I remain curious. Seek questions, not answers. Be curious, explore and learn. It will not always be comfortable.


2) Trust your instincts.


Those feelings deep within our stomach are informative. Pay attention to them! Gut instincts, combined with relevant experiences, knowledge, and skills are a very powerful combination.


3) Always think of the entire system, not just one component of the system.


Everything is connected to everything else. Human systems and work systems consist of interdependent parts that rely on one another. They are like wind chimes. If one part of the chime shifts, the entire chime shifts.


A close-up shot of gears


4) Develop a safe and sound support system.


Build a network of allies who care about you as a human as well as your career aspirations.


5) Learn from differences.


Seek out people with differing backgrounds, ethnicities, and perspectives. We must be intentional about seeking out these differences. This is the way we learn.


A mature man and younger man at work


6) Know the importance of the power of choice for yourself and create space for the power of choice for others.


Humans are creative and possess the capability to find solutions for themselves. One of my mentors told me this: “Do you want some good advice? Don’t give advice!”


7) Give and receive feedback respectfully.


In the words of organizational psychologist Margaret Wheatley, “have the courage to start a meaningful conversation.” I was fortunate to have been able to teach communication skills at W. L. Gore & Associates, Inc. I was trusted to lead these skill-building workshops for over 30 years! I learned so much from others and we embarked on the journey of learning skills together. Respectful feedback and attentive listening build trusting relationships. We need trusting relationships in our personal and professional lives. They just make life rewarding, fun, and meaningful.


Two young women speaking at a table


8) Be an ally.


Become an advocate for others. Both will grow in that relationship.


9) Find your flow state.


Seek opportunities where you get lost in the work; where time flows and you lose track of time because you are having so much fun.


A dancer leaping in the air


So where does one find these wise and wonderful people? Check out part 2 of this piece: How to find, and become, a mentor.


 

Dr. Gail Townsend holds a Masters degree in Organization Development from American University, a Masters degree in Human Development, and a Doctorate degree in Human and Organization Systems from Fielding Graduate University. She contributed as a global OD specialist, as a global HR business partner, and as an internal educator while employed at Gore. In addition to being a business and cultural advisor at MeaningSphere, she is also adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware and at Colorado State University, Global. Her areas of expertise are in leading change; leadership development; team effectiveness; diversity, equity and inclusion; individual development and coaching; communication skills, intentional use of self; and, as an educator in skill development in these areas. Most importantly, she is the mother of two wonderful daughters and grandmother to four beautiful grandchildren.


Image credit: Shutterstock

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