Mentors Extend Our Reach

Mentors:  To Go Far … Go Together

If you want to go quickly, go alone.  If you want to go far, go together.  – African Proverb

Mentors help us go farther … and many times go faster. 

Virtually none of us would be where we are today without the help of others.  The question is … do we seek out help … or wait for it to be offered?  No doubt about it.

Mentors have helped make me who I am:

Took an interest in me

Willis Heath was my geography professor at the University of Washington.  After flaming out in engineering, Dr. Heath took an interest in me and got me interested in map making.  That was sufficient to keep me going for two degrees, my BA and MA.  Dr Health helped rekindle my love for learning.

Took a chance on me

Charlie White hired me for my first administrative position – in Alaska.  Then within weeks he urged me to become a superintendent and told how he would support me in that endeavor.  Less than a year later – at age 30 – I was superintendent of Denali Schools.  Dr White saw a brighter future for me than I could imagine at the time.

Took time for me

John Pepper was superintendent in Anchorage a district of 30,000 students.  I was superintendent of a 300 student district.  As I left Anchorage for the 300 mile drive home, I often stopped by John’s office and somehow he made the time for me.  Dr Pepper became a lifetime friend, a great listener and sounding board.

Practical advice

Curt Horne was the first non-superintendent to be elected as president of our state association.  Also an assistant superintendent at the time, I met with Curt to ask him about lessons learned.  Although several years later and by then a superintendent, I was elected state president.  Curt helped me with down to earth practical how to advice.

Pushed me to stretch and grow

Dennis Ray preceded me as state president.  He assigned me to state committees that would expand my network.  Little did I understand at the time how important it was to stretch and grow.  Dr Ray taught me about political realities and how to network.

Said Yes to my rash ideas

John Gott and others said yes, when I asked to take on major state-wide projects.  Dr Gott helped me discover a world of opportunity that awaits those who are eager and ready to roll up their sleeves and pitch in.

Opened doors to new opportunities

Walt Gmelch, Washington State University professor, sought me out and had me co-teach educational finance with him, which we did for ten years.  And he urged me to apply for the Kellogg National Fellows Program – which provided me with three years of leadership development and a world-wide network.  Dr Gmelch expanded my horizons.

Taught me to reach out to others

Brian Benzel, Steve Fink and Jack Dale exposed me to a national network of educational leaders.  And they gave me the courage to pick up the phone and call – reaching out to those I admired but didn’t know.  That took me to Montgomery County MD (Jerry Weast) and District 2 NYC (Tony Alvardo) to learn from the leaders in school district reform.  They taught me seek out the experts that I needed in order to grow.

Taught me more about superintendency

Joe McGeehan took me in when I was between superintendencies.  He took a risk on me, hiring a former superintendent to work under him.  From him, I learned how to work with school boards, how to work through difficult issues and how important humor and comradery are.

Believed in me

John Fotheringham believed in me even after I stumbled and was out of the superintendent’s seat for a time.  He helped me rebuild networks and relationships and reframe negative experiences into lessons learned.  Dr Fotheringham rebuilt my confidence and reminded that I still had something to offer.  Because of him, I went to become WA State Superintendent of the Year and eventually Superintendent of Seattle Public Schools.

Lessons Learned

Here are some of my “lessons learned” from a lifetime of mentors.

  • Confidence:

    Listen to and stay close to those who believe in you.

  • Next Steps:

    Ask about and learn how to take the next steps in your career.

  • Reach Out:

    Take the initiative and seek out mentors; ask for help.

  • Breadth:

    Seek out diverse mentors; each one helps you stretch and grow.

  • Circle Back:

    Say thank you … AND let them know how you have applied their learning.


And one final thought

Don’t let the word mentor throw you.  You may never find that warm and fuzzy person that will stay with you and guide you through your entire career.  If you see someone that you can learn from, ask to buy them coffee.  Nearly once each week, I reach out to someone that I don’t know and ask to learn from them.  At the end of those chats, I almost always ask, who else can help me learn more about …


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Larry Nyland – Leadership Coach and Consultant.
Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

To talk about growing extraordinary "high capacity" leadership for your team …
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