Archive for October 28th, 2014

Mentors and Vintage Oar

Wednesday Oct 22, 2014 by Jim McHugh – Experienced Executive & CEO Coach and member of Gerbsman Partners Board of Intellectual Capital


This is a picture of my 55+ year-old wooden oars after I opened up our boat this past spring. They looked pretty beat up: chipped and peeled paint…cracks in the wood…and they were graying at the edges.

Were they past their useful life? Would I need to replace them with a brand new pair?

Before trashing them, consider this –> these oars have a rich history that you could never imagine by catching a glimpse of them lying on a dock or in the bottom of a boat.

These oars have done their job quietly and well in rowboats, dinghies, motorboats and sailboats. The type of boat didn’t matter to my oars.

They were always there when I really needed them.

Doesn’t that sum up a good mentor, senior advisor, or board member? Versatile and at the ready when you need their capabilities.

I’ve been mingling with a large number of established company directors and startup mentors over the last few months. The director crowd was at the 2014 Private Company Governance Summit and the mentor crowd was at the MassChallenge Accelerator Program. MassChallenge runs a ‘mentor matching’ series of events to connect mentors and entrepreneurs who have been selected to be in the startup program.

Hello Founder, Hello Mr. Oar!

The MassChallenge matching events are quick. Founders pitch their company and describe their needs and the mentors rattle off their curriculum vitae in about 5 minutes. Imagine the scene…the founders are staring at the oars pictured above (aka ‘yours truly’). I can quickly tell the ones who look at the oars with disinterest or indifference. Translation: “I want oars that are slick and shiny.” Others, who may be a bit more intuitive, can sense what is underneath the oars’ rich patina, and their reaction might be: “I wonder if the experiences or history that created the chipping or wear and tear could be helpful to me.”

My oars have had 5 major roles over their 55 year life:

  1. Providing Propulsion
  2. Enabling Exploration
  3. Creating Fun
  4. Fixing Mistakes
  5. Being At The Ready

Providing Propulsion: My parents started boating with a wooden homemade rowboat and these oars when I was a young boy. The oars were new and had a fresh coat of marine varnish. Want to go from point A to Point B? It was either get out and swim or use the oars! Rowing took practice, but I learned to get it right.

Enabling Exploration: I loved to poke around the inlet on Cape Cod where our cottage was located. It was a fairly expansive body of water so I had many places to scout out and investigate. After a while, my parents invested in a small outboard engine so boating became much easier; however, the oars allowed me to reach down and check the water depth, navigate the shallows, get around sandbars and push through eelgrass when the tide was uncooperative. The oars extended my reach.

Creating Fun: Ever used oars to whack at crabs (I was just a kid…don’t call PETA) or do some serious splashing? I used to splash my girlfriend (“…don’t do that again!” “OK… splash!”) Note: she still married me…and I splashed her again this summer.

Fixing Mistakes: The oars have helped me recover from boating mistakes (also known as ‘running aground’) and set off on a new, better course. Luckily for me, the Cape Cod waters I frequented were forgiving…sandbars and muck, no piles of rocks like Coastal Maine or Lake Winnipesaukee.

Being At The Ready: Our boat now has a 150HP Evinrude ETEC engine and the oars quietly and patiently wait in the boat to ‘be at the ready’. They are there as backup power, a safety net, to fend off another boat or to help to a water skier who needs a steady object to grab.

Advice to founders and CEOs: Quality, reliable mentors provide startup propulsion, help management teams explore new directions and uncharted waters, inject fun into occasional tough days, offer turnaround advice to fix navigational mistakes, and are there when the founding team needs a steady hand to grab. As a bonus, they are chock full of stories!

P.S. I thought the oars needed a bit of TLC this summer. Here is the new look!

Jim McHugh is an experienced executive and a CEO coach.  You can find this post, as well as additional content on his blog called 9Stucks.  You can also follow Jim on Twitter (@9Stucks) by clicking here.

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