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The CEO as a Mentor

Why look for upperlevel executives outside your company if you can nur ture exist ing employees and give them the resources and tools to learn, excel and grow into your top jobs?

Consider Digital River, a global e-commerce outsourcing company based in Eden Prairie, Minn. Founded in 1994, revenue swelled to almost $350 million in 2007. From an online software-delivery system to an allencompassing e-commerce leader, Digital River has grown its client base to more than 40,000 software publishers, online retailers, distributors, manufacturers and affiliates, including Microsoft and Skype, on four continents.

Founder and CEO Joel Ronning attributes the accomplishments to staying ahead of the curve and mentoring employees, empowering them to succeed and they, in turn, make the business succeed. Ronning, 52, is an avid mentor; at quarterly lunches he allows employees to pick his brain, and he regularly attends the weekly Entrepreneurs Council, which teaches management strategies to executives and directors.

What is it like to work at Digital River? Describe the company culture.

“We’re very employee-centric and analytically driven, but at the same time we try and make it as fun a company as possible. We have what’s called beer Fridays. Every Friday we break out kegs of beer. Sometimes it’s martinis. Once a month we have dog day Thursday, when everybody can bring in their dogs, and there are dogs all over the place. We have regular outings. Every Wednesday there’s a barbecue during the summer months. Every quarter we have an all-associates meeting, when we go through the metrics of the organization and re-explain what the goals are.”

Why do you think it’s important to have mentoring/training programs?

“For us it’s an incredibly important process. We’re in a market [that] we pretty much defi ned—meaning we’ve invented what we do. And fi nding someone who understands what we do is almost impossible.”

What are the different kinds of mentoring techniques you use at Digital River?

“We do these Lunch and Learns [where] an executive will sit down and talk about his business. We buy lunch for all the employees. [It’s] first come, first serve, and I think there’s a maximum of 30 people. And on a quarterly basis, I generally sit down and do one of those as well.

“Every Friday we have what’s called an Entrepreneurs Council [for executives and directors]. Many of [our directors] have been with us for a long time and don’t have a lot of experience from a management standpoint—meaning the experience they have is within Digital River.

“It was really important for us to train them to be good managers. So we bring in outside trainers to talk about HR issues, how to handle confrontation, how to handle your winners and people who are struggling, how to do a good review, how to hire, how to work interdepartmentally, manage confl ict, manage time zones, manage projects across time zones. So we have a pretty formal process that every Friday goes on for an hour and a half.”

How did you implement these programs companywide?

“How do you take a one-to-one training program and scale that across many cultures and many time zones? That’s been our challenge. I think we’ve addressed it well through a formal process where we have quarterly meetings, and we have those quarterly meetings here in Eden Prairie as well as in London and Shannon and Cologne—in virtually every one of our major offices. Executives fly all over the globe to do those presentations, and they’re pretty much identical to what we do here in Eden Prairie at the headquarters, but they’re also modifi ed to be regional in fl avor. So we’re making sure that we’re addressing the concerns of the global team.”

How do people at Digital River make time to participate?

“It is absolutely required. If you want to be a manager here, you have to do these things. I think it’s fun, actually. And I think when people don’t do these things, they end up [suffering] the repercussions.”

How do you monitor the effectiveness of these programs?

“Survey your employees. That’s how we do it. And just watch their behavior. If they’re saying they’re not getting enough training, we’ll train them to the point where they tell [us] they’re getting enough training or they quit showing up—and, honestly, we’ve used that as a measure. We pay a lot of attention to the attendance [at] these programs. If attendance falls off, we’ll kill a program.”

How have you benefited from mentors throughout your career?

“Mine have been really one-to-one mentors. There are a number of people who I’ve worked with historically who have just taken me under their wing, and that’s been really helpful. I find that they can be really useful for finding out how to handle HR issues—conflict within an employee base, performance of someone who is reporting to you or a peer.”

How did you find your mentors?

“I didn’t so much seek them out as through my business dealings I just ran into people I liked. And because I liked them, I called them and ended up going out to lunch with them, and they ended up inviting me over and one thing just turned into another. I did have an intention of fi nding a good mentor. Once I recognized the value, I just kept my eyes open.”

How did you know that your mentors were a good fit?

“If you don’t like them, it doesn’t work. I liked them. They were older. They were smarter.”

What advice would you give people interested in mentoring someone else?

“Make sure you have the time, and if you’re going to do it, commit to it. Make sure you fi nd a person who is someone you want to be with, who you like. I think the chemistry is critical. Otherwise it doesn’t work over the long haul.”

What is your proudest moment as a mentor?

“There isn’t a single one [moment]. I think mentoring is a process. It’s the constant small infl uences that add up that people think about a year later or six months later. It’s rare that I would sit down with a mentor and go: ‘Oh my gosh that was a breakthrough idea.’ It’s more of, I think, a patient process of capturing that new idea and then letting it roll around and putting it to use.”

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