The Greatest Mentor I Never Realized I Had… Until It Was Too Late

“You have to teach kids to think. It’s not automatic. They need to start the day off thinking.” — Principal Helena Nobles-Jones via The Washington Post

As a very ambitious and goal-driven millennial, I’ve quickly understood that the idea of being self-made is a complete lie. No one makes it on their own and everyone needs help.

The African proverb of “It takes a village to raise a child” actually carries on after you leave your “village” and become an adult. Who taught you how to file taxes? Who taught you how to tie a tie? Who coached you on interview tips before you landed that breakthrough job opportunity? Odds are, you didn’t go it alone and there was someone who either coached you through or invested in you before the opportunity presented itself. That person who invested in me before opportunity struck was my high school principal, Mrs. Helena Nobles Jones. As we mourn her passing, it dawned on me just how impactful she was on my life — and the life of my classmates. I didn’t stop to reflect on this until she recently passed away but I want this post to encourage you to thank the people who are a part of your village before it’s too late.

The irony of this slip up is that anyone who knows me knows this one thing: I’m passionate about mentorship. So much so that I speak across the country — both in-person and through my podcast and blog — about professional development, HR, startups, and leadership and the most important message I leave with my audiences is simple: If you want to go far in life, find a mentor who can help you get where you need to go. Even as I’m writing this post, I’m hard pressed to find one successful leader or innovator who got their by him- or herself. Can you? If you can, I’d quickly find an investor, mentor, partner, teacher, or guide that helped them. Like I said — no one gets through life successfully alone. defines a mentor as:

1. a wise and trusted counselor or teacher.

2. an influential senior sponsor or supporter.

Principal Helena Nobles-Jones of Charles Herbert Flowers High School was both of these for me and my fellow classmates. Her poise was always firm yet graceful and her vision for the development of her students was years ahead of our time. You always knew she was in charge and never had to choose between respecting her, loving her, or fearing her (in a good way) because she harmoniously kept her regal demeanor even under stress. Not only was she a model of excellent leadership, she invested in the willing and gave all she had in the process. Whether that mean stopping by her office just to soak in some wisdom or catching her in the halls yelling something to keep somebody accountable to what they needed to be doing.

Back in high school, I thought the most influential people in my life were (in order): God, my parents, my big brother, my teachers, friends, and trends I saw on BET and MTV — lol.

While all of these people did have a significant place in my life, how did I miss my principal? In 2000, I was a part of the first freshman class of this brand new school and the unique thing about Flowers when it opened was that it had only a freshman and sophomore class. Before it opened, our school had no identity, no expectations, and no name since the school had no name until after construction. It’s the equivalent of opening a massive corporation with staff from different backgrounds and expecting to make immediate impact that’s in line with your competitors. Flowers was the first new high school in 26 years so to say it was a big task is huge understatement!

As a business leader now, I finally realize what role she played in our collective success and why success in the first four years of the school was such an accomplishment. As the principal, she set expectations, held staff accountable to goals, cast a vision that we all had to believe in (or get out the way), and she was our biggest critic and best cheerleader when we needed a figurative kick in the pants or won an award or competition on behalf of the school. Helena Nobles-Jones embodied mentorship and accountability in a way that I wish I saw more of in corporate management. We as students were in engaged in learning because our principal was engaged in developing us.

Under Principal Jones’ leadership, one of her first acts of mentorship was developing a shared messaging we could all believe in and work towards. She branded us a “Mecca of Excellence” from day one and the seeds of this mindset continues to grow. It’s what I remember most about high school and it really set the tone for what happened in the four years while I was a student. In high school, she saw to it that we were given AP courses, real-life internship experiences, competitive sports teams to play on and cheer for, a philosophy club that greatly impacted the way I look at the world, and countless other ways for students to express themselves and grow into the person they wanted to become. Her students -my friends and classmates — have gone on to positions of leadership in government, media, academia, and business. You’ve seen us on television and read about us in magazines. More importantly, we carry with us a commitment to our families and communities to make the world a better place than we found it. All of us keep close her sayings that remind us to aim for excellence every day.

I’m forever grateful that she instilled in us that “Mecca of Excellence” is not just a place, but an attitude and approach to life.

On behalf of the Class of 2004 and many other students you’ve touched: Thank you, Principal Jones. Rest in Peace.

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