Jonah Shacknai

Here’s why Jonah Shacknai will never be anyone’s mentor

By Jonah Shacknai

Although there is certainly significant value in giving back and helping the many smart and talented folks entering the workforce or at the early stages of their careers, I do not personally believe in the concept of mentorship. 

Why I’m Not Anyone’s Mentor

On paper, I likely seem like an ideal candidate for the role of mentor. I founded Medicis Pharmaceutical, where I served as Chairman and CEO for nearly 25 years and oversaw the company’s rise to the top of the industry before its acquisition in 2012, and I am now a partner at Dermaforce, a company I helped start shortly thereafter. Despite having what I’m told is a highly-qualifying resume, however, I do not serve as mentor to anyone—at least not in any official capacity (though some may disagree).

I’m by no means against offering advice and guidance to those who are junior to me; in fact, I have done exactly that for many promising and intelligent people over the course of my career. Instead, it’s the terminology that I take issue with, specifically the word “mentee.”

In my opinion, if a person possesses the potential to succeed and the wisdom and determination required to do so, there exists a natural mutuality and equal footing to the relationship. Just as he or she can learn from my professional experience, I, too, am gaining from the exchange, and it is therefore far from a one-way street.

Most would look for a “mentee” who is smart, energetic, and ambitious, but these are the very qualities of the types of people I would want to learn from. It could simply be that they ask questions of me that encourage me to think in a new or different light, or it might be that their knowledge of pop culture is deeper than mine, which, as my kids often remind me, isn’t hard to be. Whatever it is, though, there is always something to be gained from the dynamic beyond their career advancement, which is why I consider such folks collaborators rather than “mentees.”

How I Identify Collaborators

While there’s no litmus test to identify the people I would want to actively keep in my life, I have found that the best way to determine this is by observing. As I meet and engage with new faces, there are certain qualities that routinely stand out to me: I am drawn to people who are spirited, who go above and beyond what is expected or asked of them in order to help others, who are cognizant of what is important to those surrounding them, who are sensitive to their environments, and who are respectful and pleasant to be around. And although I’m more often than not the elder member of new professional relationships, collaborators by no means have to be younger than I am; as they say, age really is just a number.

How I Work With Collaborators

To foster these relationships, I believe it’s best to maintain as casual an attitude as possible. I don’t make a big announcement that I’m aiming to collaborate with them or sit them down for a lecture. Instead, I might approach them to ask advice on how they would deal with a situation I’m confronted with, soliciting their opinions and thereby making the conversation interactive and constructive. Even if I already have an idea in mind, by making this a back-and-forth discussion rather than an oration, I can learn something from them while they are simultaneously learning something from me.

I’ll know I’ve succeeded in creating a truly collaborative relationship when the person comes to me to discuss something that is important to them, poses a challenge, or even in some cases, a situation that might be embarrassing. I pride myself on being a vault and always abide by complete and utter discretion, and in my experience, the people around me know they can discuss anything with me and that it will remain between us.

Lastly, I try to make sure that we spend time together and interact whenever possible, if not in person, then on the phone, and I’m always available if someone wants to text me. The relationship is not solely about me or on my time.

How It Plays Out

Through one such relationship, I met Meg Driscoll, a young PR professional, who was in her 20s at the time. I immediately recognized Meg’s extraordinary potential, and her ability to go above and beyond at her job made it clear that she was and still is a leader in an extremely saturated industry. Today, Meg is 40-years old and owns Evolve MKD, a very successful public relations agency in New York, and I’m lucky to be one of her clients. “I speak to Jonah Shacknai almost daily. He gives me advice on everything from questions about running my business on a day to day basis to issues I’m having with clients,” Meg says. “Ours is truly a collaborative relationship.”

While I have often provided her with advice on starting and running a business, as well as offered the client perspective in various situations that are unfamiliar or challenging to Meg, she has helped me equally over the course of our more than a decade-long relationship, if not more. When I approach her with an issue, she helps me to see a fresh perspective and often one that is outside of my personal or generational viewpoint.

Ultimately, these collaborative relationships are somewhat selfish because if the person is truly promising, it benefits me to learn from them. Sure, they can learn from my career and my experience, but they can also surpass my accomplishments and, at the end of the day, teach me even more than I’ve taught them.

Los Angeles-based Jonah Shacknai is CEO of Dermaforce. He founded and heads the charity MaxInMotion, which provides scholarships to young athletes.