Want Stronger Leaders? Start with Mentorship

Novi, Michigan
Want Stronger Leaders? Start with Mentorship

To recognize the importance of mentorship, Tony Elenbaas, VP and General Manager of YF North America, shares how his career journey and daily work are affected by his early experiences with mentorship.

My career in the automotive industry began more than 30 years ago in Michigan as a 2nd shift supervisor. It was already in that role that I began learning what contributes to successful leadership and people development. In my various roles, both at Yanfeng and with Johnson Controls, mentorship was the most impactful experience, shaping my growth and career path.

I would not be who I am today without mentorship from a few people who took a special interest in me and my development in the early years of my career. I had two mentors who offered the support I needed to grow to take on the big challenges and opportunities I faced. Between the two of them, they provided room to gain experience and skills to take calculated risks, as well as the freedom to fail.

Some people are afraid to try because they don't want to fail. Team members may feel intimidated in meetings because they lack experience compared to others or are otherwise holding back from sharing ideas. Part of the risk in doing anything is that there is no guaranteed outcome; learning, growing, and failing are all a part of becoming a stronger leader. The freedom to fail is a critical aspect in creating strong future leaders, and as we develop better leaders, we're also providing a brighter future.

The mentors I had early on instilled a passion for mentorship in me. They reminded me that the value of mentorship is not one-sided: mentors and mentees benefit and learn from each other. It’s cyclical, in a sense. When I invest in others, their insights and experiences can inspire how I lead and communicate. The way I see it, personal experiences, regardless of anyone’s position or tenure, add immeasurable value to the company.

I recently connected with our Young Professionals Network (YPN), one of the Employee Resource Groups at Yanfeng, to hear their perspective and input on a business challenge we were facing. I came away from that meeting inspired by the creativity and the unique perspectives their varied backgrounds offered.

Spending the afternoon with the YPN and reflecting on how the business accomplishes its goals reminds me how important it is to be willing to try, venture out and experiment. There has to be an intrinsic desire to grow, add on and take a few risks – often in areas you may not be comfortable. My best growth and mentoring experiences involved a connection – this can't always be forced, but there has to be an authentic desire to learn. I try to approach each day by asking myself if I can learn something new. During my time with the YPN and working at Yanfeng, I've seen myself (and have watched countless others) show up willing to take the risk to be heard or learn something new.

Working for a global company only increases the importance of stepping outside your comfort zone to learn something new. In the early days of the Yanfeng and Johnson Controls joint venture, I was called to spend time with our incoming leaders in China to discuss some of the nuances around commercial operations in Europe and North America. Even now, years later, we're still striving for continuous improvement by including cross-regional perspectives when making business decisions.

Mentorship doesn’t require a formal program or process. The intention of mentorship is to help others succeed and grow. If you’ve found yourself in a leadership position, odds are there are a few key people that championed your talent and efforts to help you get to where you are. Now, it’s your turn. I can assure you, seeing your teams succeed, grow, overcome challenges, and take risks is an honor and opportunity – I encourage you to pursue it. I’m glad I did.