We hired Dana Reynolds as Groupaya’s administrative assistant in the middle of 2012. She was a recent college graduate who had all the attributes we were looking for — hard-working, competent, detail-oriented, learning-oriented. She was also ambitious and aggressive, two attributes I love and relate to. She wanted to become an organizational development consultant, and she was looking for a place where she could learn the trade.
This past year, as I started to explore what I wanted to do next, I thought a lot about Dana. I knew she was learning a tremendous amount from working closely with Kristin Cobble, my former business partner, but I also knew that actual practice opportunities were few and far between.
My new mission, in many ways, can be boiled down to this: Creating practice opportunities for people like Dana. Changemaker Bootcamp has been my primary experiment, but I’ve been playing with other ideas as well.
Dana participated in my most recent Changemaker Bootcamp pilot, and I got to see first-hand how much she’s grown in the year since I left Groupaya. After my exit interview with her, we discussed her career goals, and I saw how hungry she was for practice opportunities.
A few weeks later, an opportunity unexpectedly cropped up. Meghan Reilly of Code for America reached out to me and asked if I would facilitate their staff retreat. I explained that I no longer do that sort of thing, but I asked if she’d be open to having someone less experienced facilitate the retreat, with me serving as backup. She very graciously said yes.
We had done this together once before. Meghan had reached out to me two years earlier about the same thing. I had just started Groupaya with Kristin, and I saw it as an opportunity to give our associate, Rebecca Petzel, some practice with me as backup. Meghan graciously agreed, and Rebecca killed. The difference was that Rebecca was far more experienced then than Dana was now, and she had known a lot more about the organization and the civic innovation space. Having Dana do it was risky, and I did not take the faith that Meghan and the other leaders at Code for America had in me lightly.
So we prepared. Dana worked really hard and put in extra time to make sure she was ready.
The day before the retreat, Dana and I were supposed to meet to complete our preparation. At the last minute, I needed to find a different location for our meeting, so I reached out to Rebecca to see if we could use her coworking space. Rebecca said yes, and she also found time to sit in on part of our meeting, which was an unexpected bonus.
At one point, Dana asked me if she could keep time during the retreat on her cell phone. I opened my mouth to respond, but Rebecca jumped in beforehand. She took off her watch (which her best friend had given her), and she handed it to Dana.
She explained, “When I did their retreat two years ago, I realized that it was hard to keep time with my cell phone. I didn’t have a watch, so Eugene loaned me his. Now I want to loan you mine, so you can use it tomorrow.”
It was a beautiful gesture, and the spot where I was sitting may have gotten a little dusty at that point. Dana ended up doing an amazing job, far exceeding my expectations.
I’ve been thinking a lot about mentorship this past year. I worked very hard to get to where I am, but the reality is that I was also incredibly lucky to have mentors who believed in me and who opened doors for me. The most important one — the one who set me on this path in the first place — passed away earlier this year. I feel a huge responsibility to create opportunities for others in the same way that he did for me.
I very much hope that my professional peers feel the same way. The kind of work that we do around collaboration is urgent and necessary, and a lot more people need to learn how to do it effectively. We have a responsibility not just to pass on our knowledge, but to create opportunities for others so that they can learn the way we did.
Seeing Rebecca “pass the watch” to Dana meant a lot to me, but what has been even more gratifying has been watching Rebecca work. This past year, she led a six-month collective learning process with a group of civic engagement funders that was innovative and transformative. There are only a handful of people in the world who could have done the work as skillfully as she did, and that handful does not include me.
I want to live in a world where there are thousands of people like Rebecca doing the kind of work that she’s been doing as well as she’s been doing it. Dana will get there, but we need many, many more. In order for this to happen, those of us who are already doing this kind of work have a responsibility to share what we’ve learned and to create opportunities for others so that a new, better generation can emerge.