This essay was originally written for The Atlanta Business Chronicle for a series on mentoring in business.
She was not my boss at the time. But, soon, she would be.
I was an Executive Producer showing lots of promise at CNN. The call, the kind that makes you shake a little bit, came unexpectedly. "Gail Evans would like for you to come to her office.” That was Executive Vice President of CNN, Gail Evans. It's the kind of call that immediately brought to mind one response, “Why?,” but not until the voice on the other end of the phone had already hung up. My first instinct was to brush my hair.
"People are talking,” she said to me as I walked into her office, "and that's not good." Excuse me?” I said. "It's the shoes,” she responded quickly.
Ok, this was weird. I just got called into the office of a top leader at one of the world's most influential media companies, and she tells me people were talking about my shoes?
"You are wearing white shoes.” I looked down at my mostly white shoes with just a tip of blues do uttered “Uh, yes.” She shot back, “It's after Labor Day.”
Now I was lost. I am from LA, and I suppose we were all lucky I was even wearing shoes at all.
"Yes, but you are not in LA," she explained. "And people here, in Georgia, are more proper. No white shoes after Labor Day.”
Gail Evans went on to explain she couldn't personally care less about the color of my shoes. But, she did care that the noise of people talking about my shoes was drowning out the quality of my work. I – we -- women can't afford that. The small stuff counts.
Here was a top female executive in my company reaching down into the ranks to a woman who showed promise, but who maybe would be derailed because she didn't sweat the small stuff. Gail Evans didn't have to do this. She could have watched from the sidelines. She could have just allowed me to walk on clueless in those white shoes. Instead, in just a moment of her day, she spoke words to me that changed my life, and likely the entire trajectory of my career.
That's a real mentor – someone who, without being asked, sees they can make a difference in another woman's life, and takes the initiative to help.