Propane industry network emphasizes value of mentoring

April 11, 2016 By    
Steve Wambold, president and CEO of Ferrellgas, right, says Ferrellgas Chairman Jim Ferrell has served as a mentor. Photo: Ferrellgas

Steve Wambold, president and CEO of Ferrellgas, right, says Ferrellgas Chairman Jim Ferrell has served as a mentor. Photo: Ferrellgas

Assuring long-term success in any industry requires new leaders to step up and replace those who are exiting the workplace. Companies need strong managers and people willing to devote extra time to safety, sales and marketing, and other initiatives to propel the industry forward.

Nancy Coop, business development executive at Ferrellgas and founding chair of the National Propane Gas Association’s (NPGA) Women in Propane Council (WIP), says she sees this transition of leadership as an area of concern for an aging propane industry. Combating this concern calls for the industry to train its younger workers and mold them into future leaders.

Coop says one way to do this is through fostering professional relationships between experienced leaders and workers striving to become leaders. WIP believes it has devised such a program.

The council plans to launch the Knowledge Exchange network and mentoring program during the Southeastern Convention & International Propane Expo this April in Nashville, Tenn. Although WIP developed the network, Coop says the council is extending the program to all members of NPGA.

“I anticipate this could create more diverse leaders in our industry,” Coop says. “It might even be a pathway to attract more folks to NPGA and our industry as a whole.”

A formal program

Developing a mentorship team has been on WIP’s agenda practically since day one. Coop says the group discussed creating a mentorship team at the council’s first meeting in April 2012.

“We asked people what they wanted from the council,” she says. “Out of all input, the highest priority was to form a mentoring program.”

Coop adds that it couldn’t have been a coincidence that nearly everyone in the newly formed group requested the launch of a mentoring group. Coop agreed with the input, as she says this type of network could create the future generation of leaders in the propane industry.

Coop knew it would take WIP time to create a program to benefit all of NPGA. Since WIP’s first meeting, she says, it’s been an “underlying priority” to follow through with developing a mentorship group.

“We were married to this priority,” she says. “We knew [WIP] would follow through with it when we and the industry were ready.”

Coop realized WIP would likely need to partner with an outside organization if the council wanted to make a mentorship program that benefited the whole industry. She says the association researched several possible organizations to help with the initiative and found Liz Selzer, president and CEO of Mentor Leadership Team. Selzer’s organization promotes the development of leaders through mentoring programs. Her experience, communication skills and passion for mentoring made her and her organization seem like an obvious partner for WIP to launch an industry-wide mentoring network.

Coop asked Selzer to present at the 2013 Western Propane Trade Show and Convention to introduce WIP’s partnership with her and the association’s vision for mentoring. From there, WIP worked with Selzer to make a mentoring program. Typically, Selzer says, her company develops mentoring initiatives for individual companies, but WIP asked if she could help launch something that would benefit the whole industry.

“WIP wanted to create a program that allows participants to learn from someone outside of their company,” Selzer says. “There were some issues on figuring out how to do this so that it [didn’t] conflict with companies’ confidentiality, but through forming this, I see how cross-company mentoring can develop so many people. Small mom-and-pops can learn from the [major] companies and vice versa.”

WIP and Selzer’s Mentor Leadership Team worked over the past two years to create what they dubbed the Knowledge Exchange network, which is available to all NPGA members. The program will pair a mentor with a mentee to help the mentee learn how to advance as a leader in the propane industry.

Although mentors in this program might have more experience than the mentees, Selzer has seen mentors learn by gaining a new perspective.

“It’s a reciprocal relationship,” she says. “It’s not supposed to be super hierarchical, even though one is a mentor and the other a mentee. They work together and learn from each other.”

Sarah Knight, vice president of customer experience and employee development at Ferrellgas and council project manager for WIP and its Knowledge Exchange network, says WIP hopes to have 50 mentor and mentee partnerships during the first year of this program.

Beyond comfort zones

Lindsey Allison of Ferrellgas, left, and Tracy Kirkman of Ehrhart Energy at WIP’s 2015 roundtable discussion in Atlanta. Photo: Nancy Coop

Lindsey Allison of Ferrellgas, left, and Tracy Kirkman of Ehrhart Energy at WIP’s 2015 roundtable discussion in Atlanta. Photo: NPGA

WIP is launching the Knowledge Exchange network in April, but Coop admits there are already a good number of mentor and mentee relationships naturally occurring within the propane industry that are worth sharing.

“I am positive if you sit down with about 250 propane industry leaders and ask them how many of them ever had a mentor either formally or informally, they would all raise their hands,” she says. “It’s really hard to be a leader in the propane industry without ever receiving positive influences from someone else.”

Steve Wambold, president and CEO of Ferrellgas, says he wouldn’t be where he is today if it weren’t for several mentors in the propane industry. He says Jim Ferrell, chairman of Ferrellgas’ board of directors, mentored him most in his career.

Ferrell taught Wambold many lessons that molded him both professionally and personally: Treat all employees and customers the same way you treat the CEO of a company; never have an employee do something you wouldn’t do yourself; don’t let bad news slow you down.

“These lessons made up who I am today,” he says.

Wambold adds that Ferrell also helped him to go beyond his comfort zone. He recalls one time during the Great Recession in 2008 when Ferrell invited him on a trip to Paris to meet with a group of bankers. Wambold says the experience felt surreal and that he was more nervous for the meeting than any other he’d had for Ferrellgas.

“I remember we rode up an elevator at the bankers’ headquarters to meet a group of bankers,” he says. “Jim turns to me and says, ‘When we get out of this elevator, act like you’ve been here and done this before.’ With that, the elevator opened, and Jim tells these men that he wanted me to represent Ferrellgas in the meeting. So I sit down for this meeting with some bankers, I can’t talk for a bit, but eventually I remember Jim told me to act like I’ve done this before, and I recovered.

“Truth was, though, only a few years prior, I was just dealing with propane in the field in the U.S.,” Wambold recalls. “But there, I was leading banking matters for a major propane company. My mentor Jim believed in me, and that’s what pushed me past my comfort zone.”

Within a year of this experience, Wambold says, Ferrell passed the role of CEO to him at Ferrellgas. He attributes much of his success to Ferrell’s investment in him.

Keith McMahan, president of Tri-Gas & Oil Co., adds that he had multiple mentors in the propane industry. He says his father, Lee McMahan, was his first mentor, as he joined his family’s propane company. But on a national level, McMahan says, he benefited from listening to leaders involved in NPGA when he began to attend meetings. He looked up to people like John Blossman, Glenn Saunders and Charlie Revere.

“These guys always went to meetings representing not just their company but the industry, speaking in terms of ‘we’ and ‘us,’” McMahan says. “That stood out to me. Honestly, each person I met in NPGA board meetings early on served as my mentor somehow. It’s like I had to have respect for these guys and hope that someday I could give back for what they had given to me.”

Reciprocation

Giving back is a huge part of mentorship. Knight adds that most people who are mentors were mentees at one point.

“There’s an importance to paying knowledge forward,” she says. “You learn both by being mentored and mentoring others. I would say if you mentor someone, you learn almost as much there as you do as a mentee.”

Jill Hopkins, CFO at Sheldon Gas, was surprised to find out she served as a mentor to Lesley Garland. After Selzer’s presentation at the 2013 Western Propane Trade Show and Convention, Garland shared this knowledge with Hopkins.

“She and I worked very closely together when she served as the Western Propane Gas Association’s (WPGA) executive director,” Hopkins says. “I never perceived that I was mentoring her at that time since I always got wonderful knowledge from her in WPGA meetings. But after Selzer’s presentation, she shared with me that she considered me a mentor in helping her navigate WPGA and state association leadership, something that was unfamiliar to her when she started with WPGA.”

While Hopkins taught Garland the ins and outs of state association principles, she says Garland taught her broad knowledge of the propane industry.
Hopkins adds that it’s probably rare that she and Garland had a reciprocal mentorship that naturally developed. She says hopefully others in the propane industry can experience this type of relationship through the Knowledge Exchange network’s launch.

“I’m 100 percent convinced this is something the industry needs,” Hopkins says. “It’s a way for people retiring or experienced in the industry to share what they know and pass on the torch.”


Traits of mentors and mentees

Liz Selzer’s Mentor Leadership Team offers a list of traits to describe who qualifies as a mentor and a mentee.

Mentor: A person leading a mentoring relationship.

  • Good listener
  • Experienced
  • Patient
  • Encouraging
  • Discerning
  • Curious

Mentee: A person willing to be mentored by another expert.

  • Good listener
  • Learner
  • Motivated
  • Humble
  • Accountable
  • Energetic
  • Respectful
  • Curious
Megan Smalley

About the Author:

Megan Smalley is the associate editor of LP Gas magazine. Contact her at msmalley@northcoastmedia.net or 216-363-7930.

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