Steve Cooper, CEO at Exelaration, a software company based out of the VT Corporate Research Center in Blacksburg, Virginia. The Exelaration Center addresses the STEM skills shortage by connecting young people of varied backgrounds with the technology workforce.
Their award-winning internship program provides students with hands-on experience to expand their skill sets under the mentorship of the Exelaration Center’s technologists, helping shape the future of technology.
This mentoring series of interviews is brought to you in partnership with National Mentoring Day, taking place on the 27th of October each year to recognise and celebrate the benefits of mentorship.
Richtopia is shining a light on the invaluable contribution that mentoring makes.
Steve Cooper: Full Q&A Interview
1. How has mentorship helped you in business and life?
To me, mentorship means higher everything. Higher expectations, higher confidence, and higher capability.
Without mentorship, these would all be lower, and here’s the worst part:
I wouldn’t know what I was missing. Mentors trigger me to ask myself the hard questions, like “How can you be doing this better?”, “What else can we try?” or “How would she look at this situation differently?”
Their influence endures far beyond their history; they’re the tap on my shoulder and the voice in my ear. As often as not, it’s the whisper I don’t want to hear.
For weeks, an early boss traveled around with me visiting dozens of companies as we peddled our firm’s new software product. I endured criticisms, I learned by doing, I witnessed how to negotiate a deal, and I learned the psychology of business.
But all those nuggets were dwarfed by one monumental truth: he cared about my growth as a professional and as a person.
Throughout multiple companies, I’ve had the privilege of being co-owners with over ten colleagues.
I’ve emulated behaviors of each of them, ranging from asking incisive questions when no one else speaks up, to being transparent when confronting conflict.
Petty pride prevented me from officially designating my peers as mentors, but secretly, I appointed each to the unofficial position.
Mentorship means so much to me that we formed our Exelaration Center business model around it, even articulating “Mentor” as part of our job titles.
I’ve witnessed students become expert software developers alongside the sharply honed guidance of our senior engineers.
It’s refreshing that mentorship thrives in our university setting, but too often, it seems to fade away at the moment each graduate crosses the threshold and becomes a professional.
It serves as a steadfast reminder to me that the power of mentorship is diminished whenever I let the veneer of self-reliance supplant the strength of vulnerability.
2. Why is it important for people to pay attention to mentoring?
Mentorship, whether explicit or implicit, is how learning happens best.
Mentorship is the perfect blend of experiential learning and expert shadowing. Whatever it is, you’re doing it yourself, hands-on, with real consequences. But you’ve got a confident resource you can turn to who genuinely cares about your performance.
Even when it’s not formalized through official mentor “designation,” it works because there’s a guiding voice you hear. It harkens back to every person’s early formation when parents and teachers showed the way and made the impossible – like tying shoes or writing words – seem attainable.
What distinguishes mentorship from other forms of learning is that it shifts the weight from “teacher” to “student.” It’s the mentee’s challenge, it’s their environment, and everything is their decision. That dynamic is magic for learning and change.
3. In which ways can organisations use the process of mentoring to advance their workforce and society more effectively?
No matter how much documentation and training an organization provides, the real character and impact of a company are found in the unspoken “feel” of how it does things.
Our Exelaration Center internship program has worked where so many others have failed because we’ve prioritized student development equal to client service.
Other programs have been unable to capture that balance, which is passed along across our organization organically and tribally, mostly through behaviors.
A unique recipe for success is most effectively transferred this way, and mentors are the perfect vehicle for this transference.
In a time when “culture eats strategy for breakfast” (Peter Drucker), mentorship is the buffet where culture is most effectively served.
4. What is your definition of success?
Everybody wants to measure success externally with awards, accolades, and assets, but the truest indicator of success lies inside each achiever, and it can’t be faked.
Success means you can answer yes to these two questions: “Did you earn your weekend?” and “Can you sleep at night?”
5. If you had the chance to travel back in time and have two mentors from history, who would they be? And what would you want to learn from them?
John DeLorean and Ellen DeGeneres.
You learn far more from failure than from success. Brilliant folks who have failed brilliantly provide lessons and scars that far outweigh the monumental stories of glory.
A bottle of bourbon on the veranda with John DeLorean would be hard to top for me. I’m a car guy, and John DeLorean is an undisputed titan…he invented the muscle car, shook up GM, and developed his own independent company against the resistance of many, ending his career with a drug bust and bankruptcy.
I’m eager to hear what lessons he learned and to hear his own “autopsy” of his long career.
As for a second mentor, I would select another whose wisdom has been honed in adversity: Ellen DeGeneres.
I’ve always admired comedians, and here’s someone who’s wickedly funny that’s still taking punches. Her most recent challenge involves her own leadership (or lack of it) of her TV show, marred by accusations of bias and rock-bottom morale.
Comedians are notoriously self-examining, so I’m sure she’s analyzed every move she’s made.
I’d love to rifle through the lessons she’s learned, as well as hear the funny take she must have on all of them.
To have access to both DeLorean and DeGeneres as ongoing mentors (and not just one-time interviews) would be an unimaginable privilege.
6. What steps do you believe people could take to become good mentors?
Being introspective is probably the most important measure.
Analyzing what happened and performing an “autopsy” of each project or event confers the gift of remembrance and transference, to benefit future mentees.
NextUp is a leading Agile company, and a key Agile behavior is the “retrospective,” a meeting where stakeholders openly provide feedback about what could go better.
Good mentors develop a habit of instinctively performing a retrospective on their life’s events, openly and without blame.
Another key attribute of mentors is they have a vested interest in their mentee. This is what distinguishes your mentor from the author of the self-help book you’re reading: the mentor truly cares about your success.
Folks will say they’re in the tech business, the retail business, or the banking business, but the best mentors are the folks who instinctively understand we’re all in the people business first.
7. How do mentees best leverage the opportunities of mentoring?
Actually listen, and actually change. The first is very rare, and the second is even rarer.
So much of today’s dialog is spent waiting to talk, and positioning your next message. The role of the mentee is to listen and to really feel what the mentor is offering to convey.
As a mentee, it’s tempting and common to feel that your situation is unique, and therefore requires you to convey why it’s different from anything the mentor has encountered. There may be aspects of a mentee’s situation that differ, but that’s the mentee’s role to figure out, not the responsibility of the mentor.
To gain the most from a mentorship, one must see beyond the challenge of the moment, and listen to what the mentor is offering.
Once a mentee learns to fully hear the mentor, the second challenge is even greater: to act on it. Applying that wisdom means habits must be broken, and the zone of comfort must be surrendered.
A mentor once suggested that I stop emailing people, and to start meeting with them face to face. This seems simple on one level and insurmountably difficult on another.
I discovered that sometimes the mysterious sage wisdom we crave is just elementary-school level stuff. Hearing it is one thing, but modifying behavior is another; it’s not hard for me to remember this one nugget, but it’s still challenging to actually do it.
8. What excites you the most about mentoring in the 21st century?
Mentorship can happen over thousands of miles. How amazing is it that within the civilized world, anyone can mentor anyone else? This may be possible, but realistically, it’s far more likely that the best mentors will be people we’ve shared space with at some point.
With that disclaimer, what’s exciting is that technology and its recent COVID catalyst now allow work relationships to sustain and flourish across miles, with distance no longer an excuse for relationship dissipation.
Ironically, we’ve had this technology for quite a while, via phones and videoconferencing, but it has sat there mostly unleveraged, like a dusty umbrella you discover in your car as a storm rolls in. Because mentoring takes so many shapes and forms, it can be a meal shared over a Zoom session, or a simple weekly check-in meeting that contains subtle guidance once in a while.
9. If you could share only one of your favourite quotes, which would it be? And why did you pick that one?
My favorite TWO quotes are both captured in Bob Dylan’s lyrics:
There’s no success like failure
Maybe Edison captured the wisdom of this quote more eloquently when he said,
I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.
Even when a plan fails, you learned a lesson in the most powerful and permanent way. This is one reason mentorship is so effective: it dramatically reveals that real-world scar of failure to the mentee without that scar having to be incurred again.
As a child, l asked my grandmother to tell me the story of my uncle getting lost on his tricycle miles from home again and again, because I found it so interesting.
I could feel the anguish and stress of this almost-disaster so vividly that it taught me not to venture too far from home as a youngster.
You gotta serve somebody.
It’s unavoidable in life that everyone, no matter their status or position, must serve some entity.
It may be a customer, a boss, a cause, or the public. It may even be a relative who funds your trust account, but you’ve got to provide some value or benefit to someone along the way.
Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett must serve their stakeholders. Given that universal constraint, you might as well find a way to enjoy this service and take pride in it.
Sometimes, you may disdain stakeholder demands, but serving them is a rich source of self-worth and identity.
Seeing your life through the purposeful lens of service is a clarifying and richly rewarding perspective.
One act of a good mentor can be to remind us to view every role through this prism.
10. We know mentoring is often beneficial; however, what are the harmful or risky types of mentoring people should know about too?
Both mentee and mentor should acknowledge the differences between their respective domains.
It’s dangerous for anyone to assume that guidance and advice transfers from one context to another.
Avoiding such “inadvertent cross-context” mentoring isn’t as easy as it might seem: one might assume that an established executive like John Sculley from Pepsi would be an ideal mentor to help Steve Jobs transform Apple from startup to titan. However, as widely acknowledged in hindsight, this mentorship didn’t work in all contexts: Sculley’s expertise transferred magically in areas like Wall Street relations, but not so in innovation-fueled areas like product development.
Mentees ought to second-guess mentor guidance and consider the background before applying it to a new domain or age.
11. How can people go about finding the right mentors?
First of all, being open to finding any mentor means knocking yourself down a few pegs and being vulnerable.
Acknowledging that someone else could pilot any part of your life – professional or personal – better than you is a tough first step.
Once you’ve done that, you’ll find mentors everywhere. People love being asked to help a good cause, and if you can frame the ask right, you’ll harness a team of mentors, some official and some folks you just lean on from time to time.
12. Here’s one for a laugh: If you were hypothetically abducted by aliens and they made you their mentor, what would you start with first?
If aliens are able to travel to earth and successfully abduct me, I would be best served by making them my mentor.
13. Please summarise your mentoring experience in three words.
Vulnerability, Serendipity, Honesty.
14. How do you think mentoring can help with mental health issues?
Gandhi observed that we often think the world’s biggest problem is hate, but in reality, it’s fear. I agree.
Fear is the worst force in the world and is responsible for all the other evils.
Often, mental illness is rooted in physiological issues, and fear usually plays a role.
Mentoring is a powerful antidote for fear because it provides companionship and trust, two elements that can give comfort when mental health is threatened.
15. Last, what is the one thing you want everyone to know about Steve Cooper?
I love to work with anyone, on any project, in any domain, for any worthy cause.
The one dealbreaker for me is this: I want to work with people who take a lot of pride in what they do.
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Disclaimer: Richtopia is not an intermediary, broker/dealer, advisor, or exchange and does not provide services as such. The opinions about mentoring in this post are those of the interviewee and for informational purposes. Please conduct independent research when making decisions and do not rely on the views published on this page.