Tuesday, October 5, 2010

New York’s Business: Mentorship

Today, I met with Tim Gunn, Chief Creative Officer for Liz Claiborne Inc. As the typical New York story goes, I know someone with whom I discussed a project of mine over cocktails. That someone is Tim Gunn’s friend and when he heard of my project thought that Tim would have good advice for me.  Serendipity therefore combined with generosity on my friend’s part who made the introduction led me to Tim Gunn’s office at Liz Claiborne Inc.’s headquarters on 40th Street and Broadway, in the outskirts of New York’s legendary garment district.
Mr. Gunn’s role at Liz Claiborne is to attract, retain, and develop creative talent that will keep propelling the company’s portfolio of brands forward. I am mentioning this because this is a role for someone who, in addition to understanding the industry, brand, product and design process, is also a facilitator, one that can keep the wheel turning even if one or more of the spikes (i.e. designers) break. His reality is to keep in mind the entire operations plan of this creative company and make adjustments daily and until everyone’s efforts deliver the product: smarter, better, more sellable. His role therefore is defined by a thorough understanding of creative processes topped with the resolute decisiveness of a businessman. This is what the public envisions a creative director to do.
What I experienced today expands beyond that narrow scope of the aforementioned definition. What Tim Gunn possesses is a set of highly advanced critical skills. In the most productive twenty minutes of my life, he took my project apart because I admitted to him I felt stuck. He pointed out to me which areas made me feel stuck, he put the pieces back together in a new sequence that makes much more sense, and even elaborated on how he could see the project evolving in one or five years’ time. I call this engineering, a way of thinking that I have used to comment on others’ projects but I was unable to use on my own. I also call it dexterity of the sort academics have. Academics approach questions from a theoretical perspective, solving problems on the conceptual level first and then zooming in to the details. (Tim Gunn spent a number of years at the Parsons School of Design as the Director of Program Development).
In addition to having left with a new blueprint for my project, I observed great leadership skills first-hand from someone who listened to what I had to say, understood the relationships between the various tasks (or sub-projects), and offered direction, suggestions, and inspiration for me to move forward. That’s the type of mentorship everyone wishes to have in business. I recognize it as one instance of kindness and generosity that can be found in New York. 

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