January marks National Mentorship Month which is a great opportunity for me to talk about my dad, Bill Mackey. He was an original investor in Whole Foods Market, a long-time board member, and my greatest mentor. There is no doubt in my mind that Whole Foods would have failed in its earliest days if not for his mentorship.
When I co-founded the company in 1978, I had almost no experience in business, and I’d taken zero business classes in college. Fortunately, my dad was a former professor of accounting at Rice University and he later became CEO of a public hospital management company, Lifemark, until it was sold in 1984 to a larger corporation.
For the first sixteen years of Whole Foods’ existence, I consulted with him before making any important business decisions. But, once Whole Foods went public in 1992 and the company entered an era of rapid expansion, tension developed in our relationship. My father and I didn’t see eye to eye about the company’s growth path. I was on fire about Whole Foods’ growth and wanted to expand rapidly. Our previous cash constraints were no longer a barrier to expanding the business and I wanted to MOVE! My dad, on the other hand, favored a grow-slow approach. I believed he was way too conservative, and we were constantly arguing about whether or not we should make certain decisions.
So, in 1994, I asked my dad to resign from the board of directors. This was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I had agonized over the decision but saw no other way. I had to overcome a lot of fear because I was emotionally and intellectually dependent on my dad. I also knew that this decision hurt him a lot – he felt rejected – and I felt guilty. It was a painful decision to make, and that pain lasted a while on both sides. It took time for our relationship to repair, but we finally reconciled within a year. As hard as this decision was, it ultimately proved to be a win-win-win solution – good for me, good for him, and most importantly, good for Whole Foods. I was able to become more independent as a leader, my father benefited financially from a company he helped nurture, and Whole Foods was on its way to becoming the industry leader.
My dad’s mentorship was invaluable during those 16 years and helped me learn that sometimes you can outgrow a mentor and that’s ok. I never really had a formal mentor from that point on, but I have encountered many people who impacted me by sharing their wisdom and experiences. Mentorship comes in many forms, so don’t miss out on the opportunity to learn from those with experience who have walked in your shoes.