J.P. Suarez: Making Mentoring Work
J.P. Suarez’s experiences show how successful mentoring leads to successful careers. Suarez worked for several corporate law firms as a legal assistant before receiving his J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1991, and spent the next decade honing his strengths in the public sector. In 2004, Suarez made the leap to the private sector to become vice president and general counsel for Wal-Mart Stores, SAM’s Club Division. Suarez shared his thoughts with Diversity & the Bar® concerning how mentoring-both as a giver and receiver-has affected his career while cautioning that misunderstanding the practice helps no one.
Upon graduating from law school, J.P. Suarez, currently vice president and general counsel of Wal-Mart Stores, SAM’s Club Division, thought he knew exactly what he wanted to do: Join the U.S. Attorney’s Office, prosecute bad guys, and make a difference in society. However, there was only one problem: The Justice Department did not hire people directly out of law school. Subsequently, nearly everyone Suarez talked to advised him to defer his dream, pick up a job in the private sector, and try again in a few years.
But that wasn’t good enough for Suarez, who decided to take the risk and push for the job anyway. It paid off. Subsequently, he spent the next several years prosecuting highly complex white-collar fraud cases.
“Looking back, it was a pretty big risk,” says Suarez, speaking from his office in Bentonville, Ark. “And I was pretty happy there; I would have been happy to have stayed 20 years.”
However, things did not work out that way, and after five years of putting individuals behind bars, Suarez accepted a position working for former New Jersey Governor Christie Todd Whitman, becoming one of the highest ranking Hispanic Americans in the state. Whitman, a Caucasian woman, also turned into one of his best mentors—teaching him a lot about the subject in the process.
“[Former] Governor Whitman’s style of leading and mentoring was centered around giving people advice and encouragement,” Suarez states, adding that when he followed Whitman to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to work as assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance, his mentor was instrumental because, “She shared what she had learned at the agency with me as soon as I got there.” This was important, says Suarez, because it allowed him to avoid the traps associated with highly charged issues in Washington that, had he fallen into, would have left many people questioning his abilities.
Suarez also believes Whitman’s transparency as a manager did the most to shape his own feelings about networking. “I think some of the best learning takes place by observing,” he says when asked to provide advice on how mentors should best convey their knowledge to mentees. “When you give someone a chance to interact with you on a regular basis, sit in on meetings, and just see how you do things on a regular basis, you are being just as—if not more—effective than if you have regularly scheduled mentoring lunches.”
Suarez admits that this informal style of mentoring is not suitable for everyone. He explained that it can be more time-consuming, and it also assumes a certain knowledge base on the part of the mentee. “More traditional mentoring can definitely be helpful for someone who is just starting out in an organization and needs help avoiding making major missteps,” he says.
This type of a formal mentoring relationship occurred in Suarez’s career when he was working in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey and was asked by Paul Zoubek, the director of the Division of Criminal Justice, to join him as a special assistant. While holding this position, Suarez was tasked with serving as Zoubek’s representative on a number of issues, including some particularly sensitive projects that needed extra care, which required this young attorney to check in regularly with his superior. As indicated by Suarez, the job turned out to be a golden opportunity.
“Coming from the role of a federal prosecutor, I was definitely a little rough around the edges,” Suarez recalls. “I certainly did not appreciate a lot of the political issues that were swirling around the office. I figured that if the boss wanted things done, I could go get them done, period.” According to Suarez, of course, this was often “easier said than done.” Suarez also contends that as his mentor, Zoubek, a white male, taught him to seek consensus and conveyed early on that as his boss’s representative, “everything I said or did would be a reflection on his [Zoubek’s] leadership, and how critical it is to think before acting.”
This type of a more formalized mentoring relationship paid off: “As I have grown as a lawyer and manager, I see that my style is markedly different from Zoubek’s. His mentoring style allowed me to develop a strong set of skills that has served me well, and it has allowed me to lead organizations in both the public and private sector.”
Suarez has also, over the years, come across a few potential mentors who seemed more interested in passing off unwanted work to junior staffers than in actually helping them to grow in their careers. He recalls one particular instance when, not having a formal mentor, he sought out his immediate supervisor to inform him that he was interested in learning more about money laundering cases. Suarez thought this would pay off when his boss promised that there were interesting investigations to come. Unfortunately, things did not work out quite that way. “A few days later, he summoned me to his office to meet with an investigator who was pitching a case with potential money laundering implications. While the investigator was informing us about it, my supervisor said, ‘I don’t know if you’ve got a case, but it’s J.P.’s now.’ ”
As a result, says Suarez, he wound up with a lousy case (it finally closed after two years with no outcome) that gave him little useful experience and taught him nothing about money laundering. “About the only thing it did teach me was not to seek out any extra work from my [then] supervisor, because he would just give you whatever junk he had on his desk!”
Suarez says that being a mentee has helped him become a better mentor. For example, as assistant administrator for enforcement at the EPA, Suarez conveyed that he would generally have several attorneys working for him as special assistants. They would help him manage the incoming and outgoing workflows of the office. However, Suarez wanted to help them experience more than just bureaucracy. Thus, he attempted to engage them by “constantly involving them in the decision-making processes of the office, and also by sharing with them concerns I had as I worked through various issues. More importantly, I regularly made sure that they were finding the work challenging and that they felt like they were growing in their abilities.”
As stated by Suarez, it does not matter if a mentoring relationship is formal or informal because the keys to making it work are the same, which includes a commitment to ensuring that the mentees are given interesting and challenging work, providing helpful coaching and development, and having respect, commitment, and humility.
J.P. Suarez shared his thoughts with Lloyd M. Johnson, Jr., the founder of the Minority Corporate Counsel Association and Publisher Emeritus of Diversity and the Bar® magazine. During 2005, Johnson will pen a column on the topic of mentoring across differences-spotlighting how lawyers of different race, gender, and cultural backgrounds build successful mentoring relationships.
Lloyd M. Johnson, Jr. is currently the vice president of national sales at Areté Legal in San Francisco, Calif. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From the January/February 2005 issue of Diversity & The Bar®