What would Tom Ballard do?

By: Cortney Piper, President

Good mentors don’t need to look or operate within traditional, one-on-one mentoring structures. In my experience, some of the best mentoring relationships are observational. 

These mentors don’t have to actively teach and coach you. You can witness how they work and approach challenges and successes. For me, one of the most significant influences on my career has been Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer of PYA.

Connected through a mutual colleague, I first met Tom when I was 28-years-old and looking to grow my newly launched strategic communications firm. At the time, he was the Director of Partnerships at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, after already having a successful 35-year career at the University of Tennessee.

Despite his level of expertise, importance to the community and not knowing me from Adam, he was more than willing to block off an hour of time in his busy day to answer my questions, offer suggestions and start connecting me with key stakeholders in the Knoxville-Oak Ridge region. 

That’s the thing about Tom. He doesn’t underestimate or dismiss people. He’s brilliant and genuine and takes the time to forge meaningful connections and relationships with people, whoever they are. As a young professional, I believe his kindness and attentiveness set me up for success, imparting crucial knowledge and connections I needed to grow my business and knowledge base. 

Over the years, he’s always been willing to pick up the phone and meet with me to hash out problems and come up with new ideas. But it is the important life lessons he has taught me since our first meeting that have been even more valuable. As a result, when faced with any seemingly insurmountable challenge, I often ask myself, “What would Tom Ballard do?” Two of the most influential Tom Ballard lessons for me have been the importance of socializing ideas and a unique approach to networking and relationship building. 

First, I have learned that when making decisions – big or small – the process is more of an art than a science. There is immense value in a group of people coming together in a room to brainstorm, strategize and imagine multiple possible outcomes. Bold ideas don’t typically emerge in silos. It has been the times that I have met with others or brought people together to hear what we have to say, share our expertise and really socialize emerging ideas that I have come up with some of the best solutions or ways forward in my career.

Next, Tom taught me how to form meaningful and lasting networks and relationships in this industry. It’s not just about having good people skills. Tom has a genuine drive to learn more about those around him and then put ideas into action, which is evident through his writing at Teknovation.biz and being involved with numerous nonprofit boards across the state.

Essentially, Tom sees potential in people and partnerships where others might not. In attempting to apply this same approach, I try to keep an open mind when meeting with anyone new and focus on what they may have to bring to the table without any preconceived notions. You never know what kind of work or lasting partnership could come from a simple meeting. After all, he took a chance on me several years ago not knowing  what we would accomplish in the years since. 

From helping in the early days of the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council to fostering the Innov865 Alliance, I and so many others in this community could not be more grateful for Tom Ballard. If there was a way to capture and replicate Tom’s approach to making things happen and forging and fostering relationships in this city, our community would be set for life. Instead, I’m trying to follow his lead and embody his best characteristics to help move our community forward alongside so many others who are equally honored to know and work with Tom.  

I think most would agree that “the Tom Ballard experience” is incredibly memorable. My own life has become even more full because of this unexpected, unintentional mentorship. For all that you do, have done and will do, thank you, Tom. 

Additionally, so many other people have coached me along my unexpected business journey, and I am extremely grateful for all the coaching I have received along the way. There might even be future posts about others who have shaped my professional growth – so stay tuned!