Great mentors and role models can come in almost any form. They can be the tunnel-visioned master of their respective field, or learn by jumping from one big challenge to the next. Erwin Rezelman is the latter. He’s lived on four continents, worked at one of the largest global enterprises (SAP), started his own company, jumped from finance to tech, and mastered a myriad of skills along the way.
To top it all off this jack-of-all trades has been a mentor with Everwise for the past four years, helping people find their ideal career path and build a plan to succeed. The key to any kind of mentorship, Rezelman says, is listening and sharing. And asking the right questions. “I found people learn so much faster through self-actualization than when somebody points it out to them.”
The challenge for young professionals (especially) is when they assume there’s a clear and objectively correct answer. When it comes to careers, that’s almost never the case. “Very often when working towards a goal, they may think, Okay, what is the book I should read? What should I do?” But that’s unlikely to help, Rezelman says. Instead, he recommends they focus on where they want to go and then he helps them work their way backwards.
We caught up with Rezelman to get his advice for young ambitious professionals who want to build a challenging, varied career full of adventure.
What would you say was your career trajectory?
I had the opportunity to go to an international school, which fuelled my curiosity to explore the rest of the world and get to know other cultures. That has been driving a lot of the things I’ve done in my life, always looking for a new challenge. I’m not interested to just do what I do well, I want to add something that I don’t know how to do yet so that there is a challenge. I’ve got to learn something. When I joined SAP, it was in Japan, which was odd of course because at the time I could only count to 100 in Japanese and I’d never been there before, but that was part of the challenge. I was offered another job at a bank in Luxembourg, which my parents thought was a wonderful opportunity because I could stay close to them. But that would have been too easy, not the challenge I was looking for.
Did you have a career plan when you started out?
Initially, no. There was nothing written down, but I knew what I wanted to achieve, just did not yet know how. Every time there was an opportunity to choose, I would think, “how can this add value?” Or, “Where does this fit in the overall plan?”
What was that thing that you wanted to achieve?
My goal was to get to a position with end-to-end responsibility for a company. Not so much to have the power, but the ability to make things happen. But I knew that meant I first needed to do the small pieces before I could get to the big picture.
How has a global perspective impacted your leadership style?
Above all it taught me patience, tolerance and respect. Importantly there is more than one way to get things done. I come from a great culture, educational background and value system, but it doesn’t mean that my way is the right way or only way. Just the different ways people think and ask questions already drives innovation leading to new ideas that they hadn’t thought of before on their own. A great example is SAP’s global development centres located around the globe.
What’s been the biggest challenge of your career so far?
Going through the reverse American dream — the American dream being, you know, success as long as you have a good idea and keep persevering. I left SAP in Brazil, to move to New York to join another technology company. And at some point we started a spin-off out of the company where I was the COO. We had a great product, a solid business case, some very good clients, but unfortunately something went wrong with the financing and funding of that organization, and all of a sudden we were all on the street. That experience where you’ve got something that has the opportunity to be very successful and you put in a lot of blood, sweat, and tears and then it just disappears, is shocking. But it actually spurred me on to say, “Well, maybe it’s a good time to build up my own company,” and that’s what I did.
How did you make the shift from that challenge into starting your own business?
In America, the experience of having gone through a failing business is not necessarily a negative mark but can actually be a credit for you because you’ve managed to go through that. From a European perspective, when you fail, you’re out. Luckily having lived in so many different countries, I think my mind was much more open. Living in New York at the time, seeing all these opportunities and people doing extraordinary things — it gave me the energy to try something new. But, of course, initially it’s like, “Oh oh, what am I going to do? I’ve got family to feed.” You have to put that aside and start thinking about opportunities. That was important for me. It didn’t help me to read books. It was more helpful for me to speak to people who’ve actually gone through a similar experience.
Tell us about your first mentor.
When I was in high school, I was working in a pizzeria and I was working at McDonald’s. My manager at McDonald’s was a very nice guy but he would go in overdrive when it got busy. He would start barking orders to everyone around him, which meant a lot of things went wrong. The owner of the pizzeria had a very different approach. Once when we were busy, I was making meat on the grill plate for lasagna, and by accident a whole bottle of grappa fell on top of it. But instead of complaining, he asked, “How can we can we fix this and prevent this from happening again?” He didn’t reprimand me, he helped me explore ideas on how we could do it differently. Ask the right questions and then you can see it in the right context.
And what has made you decide to become a mentor yourself?
I was building an organization in China, and the average age was about 22 years old. People who believed they could be vice president by the age of 24 — very enthusiastic, but lacking business experience. We started aligning those younger employees with more senior people. Not to manage them, but just to share their experience. And of course I was also involved in that. When I moved to Brazil, I further developed and formalized that whole process into a way where we actually helped them define what their career path would look like, with a mentor assigned to help them make sense of what is realistic and what’s not by sharing experiences. I always enjoyed being able to do that. I learn just as much from them as well, through the shared ideas and their approaches and career dreams.
One of your proteges mentioned that you helped them develop a career plan. What should a career plan look like?
It’s no longer common to spend 30 years doing the same thing in the same company, neither is a career plan set in stone. With this volatility in careers especially a career plan is a good way to start planning. You set a goal and work out how to get there. However, the goal has to be something very ambitious, it will require a stretch to achieve. I use the Ishikawa diagram (fishbone diagram), with on top part the business goals and below the personal goals. These make up the steps to get to the career goal. Think out of the box and put aside the limitations. What is that you would you really like to be and do? And that’s important because it adds the passion in your career plan.
What makes a protege successful and what makes a mentor successful?
I think there is a lot of similarities between the two. Key is that both need to be open-minded but with a set outcome. Still, it might not turn out quite the way you expect — that’s where the open-minded part comes in. Both parties need to be able to use critical thinking. If something is not clear or doesn’t make sense, you need to ask, “Why?” There should not be inhibitions. You’re not on trial. You’re not being interviewed for a new job. And it’s a time investment: It requires effort and preparation to make the mentorship work. Sometimes it will be a discussion around specific challenges at work and sharing experiences, at other times it will be applying a tool or going through self-discovery, but in all cases it will follow a common thread and get us closer to the goals.