Oral Histories

Bill Nielsen

Interview Segments on Topic: Mentors

Bill Nielsen Biography

Consultant to management of for-profit and non-profit organizations; retired corporate vice president of Johnson & Johnson.


INTERVIEWER: Can you talk a little bit about your own experiences and perhaps—key people and experiences that helped you develop what is obviously a very strong set of values that you operate by and did operate by in the profession? Can you just talk a little bit about the key experiences and figures that helped you arrive at some of the values that were key for you?

NIELSEN: Maybe we could start along the lines of if you pick and choose what you want. I think fundamentally our values come from family originally and parents teaching right from wrong. Do I believe I would have been a bad person without my parents? No, I don’t. But certainly that was a place where we saw demonstrated things like truth and not lying and being faithful to one another. It’s all about how you build up your own self-confidence about who you are so I’d have to acknowledge that. And my current family is terribly important to me. I have three daughters and as I’ve said, there’s nothing like three daughters to keep an old guy honest. They don’t let you get away with much. Especially they don’t let you get away with the grouchiness that comes with age. They keep you honest. I’m saying that lightly but it’s very, very true. They represent for me, together with my wife, my red-face tests and what I do, what I decide. There’s a check there someplace. If I did that—would they understand that? Would they accept that? Or would I embarrass them? So, I think those are important dimensions to count on; who you are and how you grow up, how that begins to develop in you.

One of the privileges of getting along in years is that you can turn around and decide who it was who influenced you. Frequently in life you don’t really understand that somebody is having an important influence on you. It’s only when you look back on it. Where do you want me to start? Alexander Hamilton, whom I didn’t know, had an important (influence)—on reflection on what he did in a very short life. He lost a gun battle with Aaron Burr and it sounds to me like Aaron Burr had every right to take a shot at him because he embarrassed him in public and he wouldn’t say he was sorry. So anyway, before that happened, he was an attorney, he was the first secretary of the treasury of the United States, he signed the Constitution. He was involved in the most significant act in the creation of the Federalist Papers which were written in order to persuade residents of New York to ratify the Constitution of the United States. So I’ve referred to him before as kind of a revolutionary PR guy. That’s precisely what we do in advancing policy; trying to get people to understand why things are written a certain way or what they mean, what they don’t mean, what your recourse might be—that’s all about what Alexander Hamilton did. The Institute for Public Relations is giving a Hamilton Award and it was the people in that organization that came to the realization that, ‘hey, we’re overlooking an important figure in history.’ That’s given me a lot of meaning and the sense of purpose that Alexander Hamilton brought to his work and the commitment to the formation of the nation and how it was going to be governed; the law that would emanate from the constitution. It is very impressive what he accomplished in his life. I’ve taken a lot of lessons from him. Kind of growing into that understanding of who he was has helped me understand other dimensions of our business.

Carl Byoir was one of the founders of our practice. I didn’t know the man but I worked for the company, Carl Byoir and Associates, for 17 or 18 years. Again, as I got older in that agency and began to understand what he was doing, I had enormous respect. That was a counseling agency and at the time, we limited our clientele to about 30 or 40 and we provided all of the public relations services for those clients. Many of the biggest names, including RCA and Honeywell and Allied. Their PR departments were, in effect, people from our agency. We did the whole work and that was the design that Carl Byoir had for that company. So I guess my advantage early on was that I saw, in my career, that this function is very important to these big organizations. And many times we were housed in their facilities even though we worked, for example, out of the New York office of the agency. That made a huge impression.

Harold Burson has impressed everybody he’s ever met or ever touched. The stamina of the guy. The energy of the man. The creativity of his brain. The curiosity that he has about so many things have made a huge impression. He’s a good friend, as he is a good friend of many, many people. I don’t believe Harold has ever had a corporate job and that’s a fun distinction to make with him when we’re out. I have enormous respect and so many of us have learned so much from him.

They’re very good, I’d put John Iwata right up there, Roger Bolton, Gary Sheffer; good friends of mine. Contemporary colleagues. I’m certainly older than they are but their careers are—Margery Kraus, Beth Comstock—they’re very impressive people.

INTERVIEWER: Let me ask you a general question about the role of influential people in the workplace, and that’s about mentoring. And I just want to know from you how important you believe mentoring is to the fostering of ethical decision making and values in the workplace?

NIELSEN: I think the whole aspect of mentoring, not only young people but people in mid-career and above is very, very important and perhaps this is a theory that we haven’t explored to enough depth. There may exist, but I haven’t been aware of, checklists or the dimensions of topics that ought to be brought up in a mentoring relationship. Where I see it being really important is the opportunity to encourage people who already have the right idea, to pursue that idea. Or if they’ve already got a strong notion about a position they want to take, to encourage them to move ahead with that. I believe in the power and the accuracy of first instincts among bright people. Their first instincts are usually correct and they may find themselves in cultures that cause them to always rethink. And the problem with rethinking good instincts is your ideas get marginalized because you put them in a way that made them more acceptable. You take all the best facets of diamonds and you dull them—to use a probably lousy metaphor. But I think the value in mentoring young people and older people, is to give them that encouragement. The reason a lot of people seek mentoring is that they don’t have enough people around them who they feel are smart enough to hear their good ideas. That might sound very brash but it’s the truth. So I think those of us who have been around for a while, we may not be the smartest but we gain respect because of our age and the time and people assume we’re smarter than we are—and that’s okay. We make ourselves available increasingly to young people who have good ideas. To hear them out, to help them articulate, to hear an explanation of something and say, ‘that would be more powerful if you put that last sentence first;’ and do those kinds of things. Certainly to help them with networking and all those other things is important. But it’s the counsel and it’s the discussion, the conversations that I think are probably the most important aspect of mentoring.