Q&A: Tom Burrell, 2018 Betsy Plank Lifetime Mentoring Honoree


The Plank Center recognizes and promotes the critical role mentors play in helping to develop leaders and advance the profession and honors leaders throughout the profession who, by word and deed, have demonstrated a superior commitment to mentoring others, and who are committed to accelerating the success of others in the field at its annual Milestones in Mentoring Gala.

Our question and answer series introduces the 2018 Milestones in Mentoring award recipients.

Tom_BurrellMeet Tom Burrell.
Tom Burrell established Burrell Communications in 1971 and led the company through 2004. Burrell, known as the leading marketing communications firm, is noted for its expertise in reaching African American and urban youth markets. By recognizing the unique qualities of the African- American consumer market, Tom spearheaded some of the most memorable campaigns in advertising history. A reel of Burrell’s Advertisements for Coca-Cola is currently archived at the Library of Congress for its historical significance.

What is your role as a mentor? What inspires/motivates you to mentor?

My role as a mentor is to be available, accessible to those people seeking counsel that I am able to provide. What inspires and motivates me to mentor is seeing the positive cause-effect relationship (AKA Results).

What advice would you tell your early-career self with respect to finding a mentor?

I didn’t have a mentor, I actually rebuffed people trying to mentor me. What I would tell my earlier self is to allow people who want to be helpful to be helpful.

What have you found to be the most important key to having a successful mentor/mentee relationship?

The most important keys: being accessible, attentive and empathetic with one another. As a mentor, I want to give people room to think and make decisions for themselves.

How has your mentoring style changed over time?

I don’t have a mentoring style. I wasn’t aware that I was mentoring, it is up to the people who are benefiting from interacting with me.  I don’t decide, they decide.

There is a myriad of changes around us. What issues have or will become a “wake up call” to the profession?

One issue that will become increasingly important is that people in the communications arts business are going to have to be fully aware of the power of media messaging to shape attitudes and behaviors, especially among young people. Increasingly there will be a need to use that power to do good while doing well. To do well is not enough is not good enough when you have the power through persuasive media messaging to do good.  In other words, you can’t have it both ways…  saying I am in a profession where I demand high salary and benefits and at the same time watch the world go by in shambles and say I can’t do anything about it. In this industry, the business of persuading people to do things/buy things/not to do things, people with this power can bring inclusion and diversity to its own profession.

What’s your favorite way to spend a Saturday?

Depends on the weather. If forced to be inside, I listen to music, play and practice music. If it is beautiful, I like to take long walks with my wife or when alone, take a walk and listen to Pandora.

Favorite drink?

My favorite drink is an occasional Vodka or Tequila cocktail.

If given the choice to trade places with anyone (living or dead) for one day, who would it be and why?

Out of intellectual curiosity, I would want to get into the mind and soul of someone who was willing to risk/sacrifice their life for a cause. Martin Luther King Jr. comes to mind.

Favorite place to vacation and why?

Martha’s Vineyard. Because it is a place you can be with kindred spirits, remove your armor and lay down your defensive weapons.

My leadership tip is… delegate responsibility, authority with commensurate accountability.

My mentorship tip is… listen.

Every mentor is… capable of screwing it up if they are not careful.

Go-to news source… Comedy Central.

Lesson that took you the longest to learn… That I was as smart and creative as I was pretending to be.

Habits in your daily routine that strengthen your leadership skills… I exercise and try to eat wisely for physical well-being. I use resources including books, podcasts, the news, Google, people, and Alexa & Siri to gather knowledge. I enjoy writing and reading. I study, play, and listen to music… gaining discipline by engaging in practices that sharpen deductive reasoning and keep me in line with a full range of emotions.  The more you engage in deductive thinking, the more in position one is to lead. I also practice the full expression of emotions, including joy through laughter… I LAUGH. It is CRITICAL to practice the art of FEELING. I think all of this strengthens leadership skills.

Published: August 17, 2018

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