Mentorship is defined as the guidance provided by a mentor, especially an experienced person in a company or educational institution. In my 16 years working with the Boys & Girls Club, I have had many people provide me mentorship and support. Their willingness to make time for a young, energetic leader was motivated by the end result, which was to ultimately make a positive impact on people in our community. During January, National Mentoring Month, I wanted to reflect on this subject.
It starts with my CEO predecessors, Stan Kocos and Ryan Scheel, who taught me valuable lessons on how this job is done well in Fond du Lac. Or other Boys & Girls Club leaders like Kevin Quevillon and Greg Lemke-Rochon, who have provided infinite wisdom from their years in operating landmark Clubs in other Wisconsin cities. Throw in incredible insight and strategic wisdom shared by Jim Spannbauer, Dr. Alan Patterson, Kevin Baker, Wayne Matzke and Steve Little, and you have a recipe for incredible development as a leader. Later in my career, I realized what the true essence of mentorship was, and I learned it from Ralph Stayer. Let me tell you how.
For those who may not be familiar, Ralph Stayer is the owner of Johnsonville Sausage, the largest selling sausage brand in North America that currently sells its brand in more than 50 countries worldwide. He has worked in multiple levels of the organization over the years, culminating to his retirement from the Chairman role in 2019. His decades of success in business were accented by his focus on building a strong company culture and numerous charitable efforts designed to make communities that he cared about, better.
In 2006, Ralph and his wife, Shelly, started to take in interest in the organization I was working for, the Boys & Girls Club of Fond du Lac. They wanted to make sure an organization was paying attention to the needs of at-risk and underserved youth in the community. From there, the relationship developed. Shelly Stayer co-chaired our capital campaign building project in partnership with the Fond du Lac Family YMCA, and in January 2011 we officially opened the Johnsonville Boys & Girls Club building in Fond du Lac, a state of the art facility, and one of the top Boys & Girls Club/YMCA partnerships in the country.
I didn’t have the opportunity to meet Ralph personally until I assumed the CEO role at the Club in 2013. I was in awe of being in the room with this exceptionally successful man who had done incredible things with his business and charitable endeavors worldwide. Those first few meetings were interesting for the both of us. I would have told you we left those meetings having “knocked his socks off.” He may tell you that he wasn’t that impressed. However, he saw something in me and our Club. He saw passion. He saw drive. He saw a willingness to improve. So, Ralph did what Ralph does, in a way only he can. Ralph pushed. He challenged us to always do more… do better… and to never be satisfied. The 34 year old version of myself was pretty happy with where I was as a leader, and Ralph helped me realize I had so much more growing left to do.
Ralph has long been preaching the Johnsonville Way, as well as teaching Johnsonville members what it means to live it – at work, at home and in their communities. The Johnsonville Way is about people – not just the people of his company, but also the people in their local communities. People living the Johnsonville Way are eager to help others, to unlock potential, take accountability, and to make this a better world! Without making it known to me, or maybe even himself, Ralph started working to unlock my potential.
We used to meet on an annual basis, as many donor relationships exist. We would march in there and tell Ralph all of the great things we were doing. We would tell him how many kids we were serving and how many lives were being changed at the Boys & Girls Club of Fond du Lac thanks to his support. With our heads held high we would await his praise for a job well done and partnership (donation) commitment for another year. In those early years, more often than not, the first two words were usually, “So what?” Continuing, he would say, “So you’re serving 1,500 kids per year in Fond du Lac Clubs… so what? What about the other 7,000 kids in the city of Fond du Lac, why aren’t they coming?” Followed by, “Sounds like we still have work to do.”
On the surface, this was deflating. I came in thinking we had the world by the tail, only to learn we weren’t there yet. Then I started to look deeper. He didn’t say “you” have work to do. He said “we” have work to do. He was taking ownership in what we were doing; I had to feel good about that, right? Every year as we left his office, he would challenge us. “Show me what this looks like for your company,” or, “Consider thinking this way on a topic and report back to me what you’ve learned.” His challenge was actively coaching me, and in the Johnsonville Way, when you care enough to coach, you will help others succeed.
So, like every successful leader and organization, we took that challenge seriously. We analyzed the questions, we strategized a solution, and we implemented the final result. Again with pride, we started returning to meet with Ralph annually, with a report back on his challenges to us. One of my most memorable moments of my career was when Ralph asked us to prove to him that attending the Boys & Girls Club of Fond du Lac would result in participants becoming good people, who loved their neighbor, and contributed positively to society. Tall task, right? How do you prove that? Well, in summer of 2017 we presented Ralph our new, core organizational values that explained conduct expectations for everyone who participated, worked for and/or led the organization. We presented the materials, and afterward, I will never forget, Ralph stated, “I asked you to perform a task. You embraced it, and have far exceeded my expectations.” I will never forget this moment. It has defined my commitment to this mission and my relationship with Ralph. You could see the pride in his eyes. He was happy for us, and for the Club, but he had transferred the Johnsonville Way to our organization, because keeping your promises, easy or not, is vital to living The Johnsonville Way, and we had done that.
Fast forward to 2021, and those once annual meetings are now happening quarterly, or, whenever Ralph feels the need to challenge us. He meets with multiple members of the organization now, sharing his wisdom to staff on all levels. We discuss the good and the bad in our organization and Ralph always finds ways to challenge us to get better, or to change our perspective, or to think bigger. What once was a simple partnership between a business and a non-profit has created a foundational family. We are what we are as an organization because Ralph Stayer lives the Johnsonville Way, and cares enough about our Club to teach that to us. I am the leader I am today because of the guidance provided to me by Ralph in our many meetings and conversations over the years. No other human has challenged me to be great more than he has, and for that I am eternally grateful.
In response, I will always pay it forward. I serve as a coach, mentor and sounding board for several other CEOs who have or will encounter some of the same learning opportunities I have experienced over the past 16 years. I have mentored a younger CEO in Wisconsin Rapids, who just completed a capital campaign project with the YMCA in their community, based solely off of the model that Ralph and Shelly helped to create here in Fond du Lac. I hope Ralph realizes the value he has added to our Club, and to my life, and I hope he finds joy in knowing that the kindness he has shown has ripple effects that go on forever.
Thank you, Ralph, and thank you Johnsonville for being a beacon of guidance for this small non-profit in Fond du Lac, WI. Thanks to you, we are leaders in our industry, valued partners in our community, and a trusted resource for the children and families we serve. If you have a mentor, tell them what they mean to you… they may not even know you value them so much.
Dan Hebel, CEO
Boys & Girls Club of Fond du Lac