Most successful people have had mentors, but not so for Jo Ann Langer, a senior level retail executive whose personality is one that she prefers to do things herself. Langer essentially mentored herself, however she was very fortunate in her career, and she was given a huge break which took her to another level. In Malcolm Gladwell‘s Outliers: The Story of Success, he shows us that hard work is not enough, you also need opportunities, and Langer had many. She was also flexible and willing to relocate.
Invisible Mentor: Jo Ann Langer, Senior Retail Executive
Avil Beckford: Tell me a little bit about yourself.
Jo Ann Langer: I’m an American now living in Canada. I was born and raised in New York and left two years ago with my dog to come to and live in Toronto. I survive with my puppy, and I like the city, job and I maintain relationships and friendships as best as I can back in the States including a very special boyfriend. I’m a senior level executive for a large retailer. That’s basically where I sit today.
Avil Beckford: What’s a typical day like for you?
Jo Ann Langer: Basically it’s incredibly challenging. The type of work I do is all about multitasking, and the priorities would be the priorities of the day, other than growing a business. It’s incredible fast-paced. It’s anything from management issues, people and HR issues to product issues in dealing with the actual commodities we sell and try to make sure that they are sent on time, they are the right thing and that we sell them. It’s merchandising and management, and at the same it’s never ever the same each day.
Avil Beckford: How do you motivate yourself and stay motivated?
Jo Ann Langer: I’m self-motivated almost to a fault. I’m not a half-full glass but a three-quarters full glass kind of person. Anything that’s a problem or has a creative aspect to it becomes a challenge for me and I love challenges. I basically take on anything so I’m hyper, type Triple A I suppose. I’ve been told that too, but I’m very easily motivated by the things that are most creative, and that’s where I spend most of my time.
Avil Beckford: If you had to start over from scratch, knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?
Jo Ann Langer: If I could pick a place, I’d probably be in the exact same place. I have been very fortunate. I wouldn’t want to be the King of Siam or anything like that. I enjoy what I do but I would get to where I am a little differently, and the difference would be having more confidence in myself earlier in my life because that came with time, experience and age, and I wish that had happened earlier in my life because at times it was painful, tortuous and just frustrating, and at other times it was great. There is no other place I’d rather be right now.
Avil Beckford: What’s the most important business or other discovery you’ve made in the past year?
Jo Ann Langer: There is still life after 60! I took some big steps in changing my lifestyle at this moment in my life and in some ways it’s a little bit richer for me because I am more mature and I am more experienced. It was a real risk for me to do that, and the fact that it’s working is really terrific for me.
Avil Beckford: What are the three threats to your success, and how are you handling them?
Jo Ann Langer:
- For my current success, being table to be this mature and being able to thrive is great, however on the other end of it there is always that issue of health. I’m healthy right now but the chances of me having health issues at sixty than when I was forty are greater so that’s a big issue for me.
- And I do balance – and it seems to be working for me – my personal relationship here with someone in New York, and he’s a real partner for me, so it’s potentially a threat. I do not see it as a threat but in the back of my mind I have to make sure that works out.
- The other threat is being bored. You don’t want to be around me when I get bored so I have to stay stimulated.
Avil Beckford: What’s unique about the service that you provide?
Jo Ann Langer: I bring my energy and people skills to the job and I’m a good leader. And in the environment that I’m in it has great value.
Avil Beckford: Describe a major business or other challenge you had and how you resolved it. What kind of lessons did you learn in the process?
Jo Ann Langer: I have always been pretty successful with jobs. About twenty years ago I was thinking of getting married to a wonderful guy and I wanted a job. I went for the job because it was so important to me and has always been important to me, and I left the guy behind thinking that he would follow, and eventually he did, but that was the biggest challenge. What I learned from that was about balance. That was a pretty selfish thing for me to do and I did that. I ended up with him but the reality that I just assumed that he would follow me instead of trying to figure out how we could get this done together. That was a huge issue for me. Even now when I left someone back home in New York again, this time it’s very different because we have shared goals, we have a plan that we are working out together. He visits, I visit, it’s not about let me get settled and we can figure it out. I learned to not be so selfish. It was a lesson because it almost cost me my marriage.
Avil Beckford: Tell me about your big break and who gave you.
Jo Ann Langer: I was working for a company and I was in an EVP type position, and I took a new job and the gentleman gave me the opportunity to be CEO and a president and that was my big break because it was the most encompassing responsibility I had had and he had the courage to let me do it and it was great for me, and it took me to the next level for what I wanted to be when I grow up. It wasn’t just being a president, it was more about being better rounded, having more things to do, more depth in my life, and a different outlook based on the breadth of the responsibilities.
Avil Beckford: Describe one of your biggest failures. What lessons did you learn, and how did it contribute to a greater success?
Jo Ann Langer: Being too hard on myself for too many years too early in my life. It made the road more difficult than it had to be. I learned that that was inappropriate. I had a therapist once many years ago and she taught me the value of truth. I lived trying to make everybody happy, saying all the right things and not being myself. She taught me the value of truth, and when I started dealing with truth I found my way up and out and that was critical. It works at home, at work and everywhere to have integrity.
Avil Beckford: What’s one of the toughest decisions you’ve had to make and how did it impact your life?
Jo Ann Langer: The toughest decision I had to make was walking away from that marriage. It was making that move, it was really tough decision to make when I was married because I left everything behind.
Avil Beckford: What are three events that helped to shape your life?
Jo Ann Langer:
- Unfortunately the most important was the death of my husband.
- The promotion – that senior position that I mentioned before.
- Making the move to Canada, that was a big move for me.
Avil Beckford: What’s an accomplishment that you are proudest of?
Jo Ann Langer: I’m most proud of the relationships I have with the people in my life. I have wonderful relationships and great people in my life, from business to personal and it means everything to me. And I’m most proud that I have such a network, and no matter what, I have tremendous friendships, tremendous love and support, and hopefully I return the same back to them. That’s huge for me because that’s what life is about.
Avil Beckford: How did mentors influence your life?
Jo Ann Langer: I’m not a mentor person. I grew up trying to figure it out myself so I was not very much influenced, other than by Madeline Albright who is an amazing women, but I really didn’t have mentors. I’m the type of person when the computer breaks down, instead of calling for help, I’m the person who has to figure it out myself. All I have to do is pick up the phone and dial seven or eight digits and they’ll tell me how to fix it but no, no, no, I have to figure it out myself.
These questions are interesting because they make you think about yourself. But when I thought about this question, I never aspired to be someone else. I never looked to someone else to solve things for me, so that by itself made me “mentorless” if you know what I’m saying.
Avil Beckford: An invisible mentor is a unique leader you can learn things from by observing them from afar, in the capacity of an Invisible Mentor, what is one piece of advice that you would give to readers?
Jo Ann Langer: Listen and have patience.
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