Be More Podcast: Personal and Professional Mentorship With Wagner Denuzzo

Wagner Denuzzo, vice president and head of Capabilities for Future of Work at Prudential Financial, discusses personal and professional mentorship, the importance of these relationships, and how mentorship has changed over the years.


Be More is a weekly one-on-one podcast about how everyone can thrive in the new world of work, hosted by Workday’s Patrick Cournoyer. This week we’re joined by Wagner Denuzzo, VP and Head of Capabilities for Future of Work at Prudential Financial, to discuss personal and professional mentorship, the importance of these relationships, and how mentorship has changed over the years.

For Wagner Denuzzo, the basis for successful mentorship — both as a mentor, and a mentee — is empathy. That ability to consider how someone else’s life experience differs from your own, but still being able to learn and share constructive insights is a beautiful thing, and the cornerstone of a productive professional life.

Wagner has built an impressive career in the world of HR over the past twenty years. He is a passionate leader focused on developing people, personal growth, development, and mentorship. As VP and Head of Capabilities for Future of Work at Prudential Financial, he’s continually looking for new ways to help his employees and people leaders grow together.

If you want to learn more about what it means to be a mentor, then tune in, check out the key takeaways, or read the transcript below.

"The future workplace will be led best by those who understand the importance of letting their people fail and learn as they experiment with new ways of working and being. But the work always starts with the development of self-awareness and empathy."

Wagner Denuzzo Vice President and Head of Capabilities for Future of Work Prudential Financial

Key Takeaways

  • Wagner’s career and passion for mentorship. Wagner immigrated to the United States with little English skills and no money, looking for a new life. He started work as a “bus boy”, but his professional career took a turn once he was hired as a social worker. After a while, Wagner became an HR consultant and an executive coach. He also joined IBM, where his mentor helped him understand how to position his passion for success and to pay attention to others’ expectations and perceptions of himself.
  • Mentorship relationships, opportunities, and experiences. Wagner acknowledges that for a mentor, it’s crucial to empower people. He also believes that a person needs multiple mentors since you gain something specific from different people. The relationship you have with a mentor can address both personal and professional aspects of life because people sometimes lack a constructive connection with somebody who has the same vulnerabilities.
  • How can more senior leaders look at being mentees? Wagner assumes that leaders are having a difficult time dealing with future problems and opportunities. We live in a fast-changing environment that requires leaders to start being more open to learning from each other. 
  • Focusing on the growth of employees. Wagner believes that businesses are accountable for showing employees the skills they need and their expectations of the future. They also need to create conditions in which growth can happen. It’s an important process that needs to scale the ability to develop everyone.


Patrick Cournoyer: I have a question for you. Do you have a mentor? Or are you a mentor for someone in your personal or professional life? I feel that many of you immediately say, “Yes, and I love the relationship that I have with my mentor or with my mentee.” Many of you probably stop and think, “I could really use a mentor.” Today, Wagner Denuzzo and I are speaking about personal and professional mentorships, the importance of these relationships, and how mentorship has changed quite significantly over the past few years.

Wagner Denuzzo is a passionate leader focused on developing people. He has built an impressive career over the past 20 years and is currently the vice president and Head of Capabilities for Future of Work at Prudential Financial. Over the next 30 minutes, Wagner shares his personal story of growth, development, and being both a mentor and a mentee throughout his journey. I am sure you will feel inspired by his passion as I did throughout the conversation. Wagner, thank you so much for joining the conversation today.

Wagner: Sure, thanks so much for having me, Patrick.

Patrick: I’m excited. I am very passionate about the topic that we’re going to discuss today which is, as you know, all about mentorship. I feel that having an amazing mentor in someone’s career is really important. I know that you have a similar passion. Let’s jump right in, and let’s start out a little bit about you. Can you tell us a bit about your path and your career in a couple of minutes, and how mentorship and development of people became a passion of yours?

Wagner: Thank you so much. My career had a trajectory that’s a little less linear than most. I came as an immigrant to the United States. Coming to a new country without English, no money, and trying to start a new life, it was really challenging, and in a way, gave me an incredible opportunity to become so much more empathetic towards everyone I work with now because I started as a busboy. I had finished college in Brazil and I came. Starting as a busboy after you finish college is not really the path that you expect.

It was interesting that at every step, I had somebody who guided me towards success. The idea that I always keep in my mind is that a mentor has to always get out of themselves to really experience the life of others. The reality of the mentee, the reality of the people that you’re trying to help is so important. I remember, I was working in restaurants for many years to learn English before I started my professional career, and I remember a Canadian colleague of mine said, “You have so much potential, but you need to understand better vocabulary is going to give you better opportunities.”

He gave me a book about increasing my vocabulary. I will never forget. I still have that book. That was many, many years ago, but I still have that book because he took interest in my success. That’s what mentorship is to me.

I started my career, my real professional career, as a social worker. I started working with [unintelligible 00:04:01] at that time when things were really difficult, but I quickly positioned myself to become a psychotherapist, a counselor in the employee assistance program. In the employee assistance program, you’re faced with so many people telling you so many of the real-life stories that happen in corporate America and beyond, that I realized that I needed to do more. I became an HR consultant, I became an executive coach. I became somebody who was always interested in helping others.

Along the way, I became part of IBM after I worked on my own for a few years. At IBM, I had a mentor who always helped me understand how you can position your passion for success, and pay attention to what others expect of you and what perceptions that you create about yourself in the workplace. I remember this one clearly because I’m a little provocative in the workplace.

I’m not the regular HR leader that you see everyday. I remember him saying, after his strategy meeting on diversity, he said to me, “Wagner, you have to understand, you have great ideas, and you’re very provocative. It’s really good for us to advance the thinking, but when you say things that surprise people, these leaders get surprised, it’s not the best reception that they’re going to have off what you’re saying.”

Pay attention to that. You might be saying something that’s important, but how people are perceiving what you say is even more important. Mentoring to me, is moments of impact. There are moments that mentors really make that difference in your life and you never forget. Those are the greatest mentors, to be honest.

Patrick: Wagner, we have a very similar experience with our mentors helping us with communication. About 18 years ago, when I was young in my professional career, my mentor really helped me with understanding how to effectively use my voice, and my passion in a productive way. That was actually centered around a situation that I did not handle very well.

In my head, I thought that I was, but he cared enough about my future and cared enough about giving me some honest feedback that helped me so much. I still remember that conversation today. I remember what I learned from that conversation, and I still use the elements that he shared with me to this day. I thank him for being honest with me. That relationship continued, and still continues. I could pick up the phone today, call him and ask him for feedback, so very much a shared experience.

I’m curious, these mentors that you talk about in your career, did you seek them out, or did they reach out to you? Because I think that is something people struggle a little bit with. Do they ask somebody to be their mentor? Do they wait? How do they identify the right type of mentor? There’s a lot of questions there, but first, let’s start with, how did you find these mentor relationships in your career?

Wagner: To me, it was very difficult asking for help. I am very introverted, and I was very shy in the beginning of my career. To me, it was more passive asking for help, but people also offered me help, and that was great. I learned how to receive the help with feedback and all that. For those of us who are introverts, what I say is always approach somebody offering them something because any time I tried to connect with somebody for help or for a mentoring relationship, I always approach them knowing who they are, and offering something positive about what interests them. To me, it’s very important to start empowering people, to seek those mentors.

Sometimes people say, “I already have a mentor. I don’t have a good relationship with that mentor. I don’t feel that I can just say goodbye to this one, to enter a new relationship.” In my view, nowadays, everything is simultaneous, everything’s dynamic, and to be honest, you need multiple mentors because mentors cannot be everything to yourself. I equate this to your husband, or your partner, or anybody, or a spouse, they cannot be everything to you. That’s why you have to expand your network because you’re going to gain something from different people. That’s how credible you’ll become by the amount of input that you receive, and how much feedback you allow yourself to receive and use in your career. I tell people, “Have multiple mentors.”

Patrick: Do you think that a mentor can be, or that most mentors are personal and professional mentors for people?

Wagner: I don’t know if they are, but they must be. I’ve been telling a lot of my teams, and everybody, I do a lot of coaching circles. For example, one modality of mentorship should be people helping in mentoring each other. Mentoring before was always related to somebody with more experience mentoring somebody with less experience. To me right now, a mentor could be a colleague. Reverse mentoring works really well as well.

Now, I’m testing the idea of coaching circles. It’s a different modality. You put people through a series of eight sessions, and each session is a topic related to career success. They can really help each other, build the expertise and empowerment that sometimes, is even better than having just one individual in your life. Now, you have a circle of psychological safety, and now people can share a little more in exchange.

I do believe you cannot put a boundary between personal and professional because nowadays what people are lacking is connection. People are really seeking connections over content. For mentors who are not comfortable with that, I suggest the mentors start understanding that people don’t want you to be perfect. What people want is just connection with somebody who has the same vulnerabilities that they have because some mentors still believe that they need to be perfect as the guide, as the lighthouse.

Actually, the lighthouse is not a good metaphor because it is static, is heavy, and it stays in the same place. Sometimes to help navigate the waters of professional lives, corporate America, you need to move in depth to wherever your person is. If you have a mentee who needs support professionally, you’re there. If they need some mental health support because they experience too much anxiety, you have to be a listener. It’s hard for mentors to do that. That’s why I think mentors, reverse mentoring works really well because mentors need some help as well.

Patrick: As a senior leader, you have had an incredibly successful career, you’re vice president now at Prudential, how do you look at finding mentors for yourself now? Do you still look for mentors? Many people think that oh, you get to a certain level within an organization or you get to a certain point in your career success, and maybe mentorship or being a mentee slows down a little bit.

What is your perspective on that? I know you said you did some work in executive coaching in your past as well. I’m curious, how do you think more senior levels within organizations can look at being mentees?

Wagner: [laughs] This is a great topic because more than ever if we don’t allow ourselves to be leaders as learners, I think we are going to be in trouble. I think the world is changing too fast for us to just rely on the same old dogmas and our beliefs. I talk a lot about self-limiting beliefs. I think today’s leaders are in crisis. Most leaders know how to deal with the past. They might even know how to manage the present, but they’re having a real hard time with the future.

You can see in Gallup’s research, 20% of people are engaged. They keep decreasing. That percentage keeps decreasing instead of going up. The forces and the dynamic forces influencing the leader’s experience requires leaders to start being more open to learning from each other. I tell you this, every time a leader allows themselves to be open to new ways of thinking or at least connect in a personal way with the others, they grow exponentially.

I had the experience. Few years ago, I started an executive team meeting executives who are responsible for $17 billion businesses. There were 800 of them in the room. Somebody told me, ”Don’t do what you’re planning to do, Wagner.” Of course, what I did was to start the meeting doing a visualization exercise with a breathing exercise. They told me, ”Don’t do it, don’t do it. They don’t have the patience. Their attention span is two seconds. Don’t do it.”

I did it. It lasted three to five minutes. It was incredible. You could hear a pin drop. At the end of the presentation, it was about positive leadership. At the end of the presentation, I had a line of 40 people saying, ‘I never heard anybody talk about this with me. Nobody ever talks about our mental health issues. Nobody talks about how we experience the stress of these changes in these transformations that we have to lead.” It was incredibly reassuring how important it is to still be humane and still be open to learning at any stage of your career.

Patrick: I really love that. Wagner, we have very similar experiences and paths. I did an executive leadership session where we did a session around centering. We actually brought in a coach. It was probably about a 30-minute session. Again, we’re always so used to being very [unintelligible 00:14:43] a lot to talk about, long list of content, and discussion, and decisions, and taking a minute especially now, in senior-level leadership.

As you said, I think it’s a really tough time for anyone who is a leader. I really think senior leaders also have a lot of pressure on them right now. They have a lot of expectations, a lot of unknown in front of them. We all do. I think you’re right. It’s a great opportunity for senior-level leadership to really think about how they can get support, guidance from peers, or as you said, potentially from coaches. Actually, that’s a good question.

Do you think that there is a distinction between a coach and a mentor? If you do, what would you say the difference is? Because I think those terms get used very interchangeably. Some people think that they’re actually quite different. What is your perspective?

Wagner: It’s interesting. I don’t want to contradict myself because I just talked about coaching circles as a new modality to help each other. I think there is a distinction. I think that coaching engagement is always a contractual engagement that you enter with a specific goal. Usually, a coaching process will help you attain your goals. It’s very focused on the relationship that you set up. You’re asking a coach to actually guide you through something very specific, hopefully, because coaching without goals is just conversations.

Mentoring is a little different because mentoring is the opportunity to have somebody always there. If someone is there, they’ve really reassuring presence of somebody who is non-judgmental, somebody who is always present, somebody who is always accessible. It’s not a periodical session. It’s not a scheduled thing that you do. That’s the difference, I think, between the old mentoring. Old mentoring was like, “You need this many times a month or this many times a quarter.”

I think today you have to allow this mentorship to be a dynamic process that you reach out when you need, texting each other. Coaching as a leader is very different because of this agreement that you may have towards a goal. Mentoring is the commitment that you make, it’s different. Agreement and commitments are different. [laughs]

Patrick: That is so well said because agreement and commitment, that is a really interesting way to look at it. I also agree with you. The best mentors in my career have been ones that I could call a year in between having a conversation and say, “Deb–” One of my mentors, her name is Deb. She’s been a mentor of mine for many years, 10, 15 years. I can call her after not talking for maybe six months, eight months and say, ”I really need your advice, your opinion on this. How would you handle it?”

That’s a long-term relationship that we have. In a way, in an unspoken agreement, she can do the same thing with me. It is flexible. It is– changes with how we change in our careers. There’s nothing saying that you have to have a mentor that you speak to every two weeks. I think you’re right. That maybe is the old style of mentoring or this mentor-mentee relationship.

I’m curious about your perspective on this. We just did a significant amount of research around employee expectations for the future. We took a look at all of our data. One of the findings that we had is that growth is an incredibly important aspect of expectations for employees for the future. Employees, in general, have felt that organizations have, over the past 18 months, not focused as much on individual growth because obviously, we’ve been through a very unexpected 18 months. I think every organization has been focused on resiliency and building for the future and just figuring out how to operate in a very unexpected world.

Now things are building for the future. Organizations are building for the future of the workplace. One of the aspects that is really important to employees today is growth, particularly individual growth plans, and how an organization is going to commit and focus on the individual’s development for two, three, five years in the future.

What is your perspective on organizations, the importance that companies should be putting on growth, and a focus on growth with all of their employees at this point?

Wagner: Now, that’s interesting that you asked me this question. I’ve been talking about this with my team in Future of Work because we have a group that we set up. Very few companies do this, I think. They have career partners. We have career partners that meet with employees up to three times a year. It’s really incredibly rewarding for the career partners and incredibly valuable to the employees who now have a confidential space to talk about growth, career and all that.

There are a few things that are shifting. I think there is a shared accountability for growth and development. There is always a shared accountability, but I do believe that the organization has the accountability for showing what are the skills, capabilities, and what are the expectations of the future? We are responsible for addressing the question, “Where should I lead my growth and my development? Where are the market-valued skills? Where are we going?” I need to adapt my development towards that.

We have the responsibility of, first, understanding what are the critical capabilities that we are building the organization? what are the critical skills? and how people can be aware of that so they can make their own decisions. Also, we need to create the conditions in which this growth can happen. I think that’s more important than focusing on individuals. We need to scale the ability to develop everyone.

In my view, diversity and inclusion is very important to me. I think to be inclusive, you have to be scalable. You can’t start determining the growth of individuals because that becomes very paternalistic, to be honest. I think the companies have to open the ecosystem to transparency in where we are going so people can make their own decisions. Humans want autonomy. We know that.

The other thing that I think is important is what is the accountability you have as an employee? The accountability that you have is to be attuned to what’s happening around you, to be able to open your mindset. We talked so much about growth mindset, but at the end of the day, you have to allow yourself to not be defined by a destination. I keep telling people when I mentor people it’s good to have goals. It’s good to have a destination that’s not solid on the map. Allow yourself to take the opportunities that come to you.

Actually in my own career, if I didn’t have open eyes and ears towards all the detours and the opportunities that came to me, I wouldn’t be as successful as I am because I would be narrowly seeking a destination. That’s not a good way to grow your career. There’s a shared accountability. The individual has to develop a growth mindset to understand the opportunity, and companies have to be much more transparent about where we are going and what’s valuable to our clients, customers and employees.

Patrick: On top of that, you recently published an article in early February, and there’s a statement in there that really stood out to be that says, “The future workplace will be led best by those who understand the importance of letting their people fail and learn as they experiment new ways of working and being, but the work always starts with the development of self-awareness and empathy.” I think that is so well-said.

That’s another aspect of mentorship that really resonated with me, was allowing my mentor to help me to understand that it’s okay to fail, allowing myself to fail and learning from it. Especially when you’re young in your career, you really want to do well and you fail, it really hurts. For some people, it can be very limiting. I really liked how you said that because failure is such a critical part of growth. I think having a good mentor and a good mentor relationship really helped me through these moments of failure in my career. I don’t know if you had the same experience, but I think that that is an important part of the mentor relationship.

Wagner: It’s painful, isn’t it? When you think about your young self. I think about when I was in my early stage in my career, I was so fragile. There’s no other word. I was fragile, especially as an immigrant. I love talking to people from other cultures, different upbringings because there are so many of us who came from different frameworks, culturally speaking. We have this vision that the American framework is perfect. It’s not. Now, we know there’s no such thing. There’s no cultural definition of perfection because there is no perfection.

What I like of what you’re saying is that mentors can really help us because every time you know if you try something new, there is somebody who is not judging you, you’re halfway to recovery because recovering fast requires you to understand that your self-limiting beliefs on your left shoulder are telling you how bad you are and how not good enough you are, but the mentors and the good advice that you come from loving people around you is what’s sustaining the recovery.

One thing I just said that I think is important, we refrain from saying the word “love” at work. When I say it and people say it to me, “Nobody talks about love at work.” You do need to share love so people know there’s psychological safety in the environment. It’s incredibly important. I had somebody who was my mentee. She went to Mexico. She was an American woman, but early in her career, they sent her to a rotation in Mexico, which was such a big mistake. She didn’t have the language. It was harsh because the environment for the business was very difficult there.

I did see her afterwards and she said, “I want to come back to the United States. I want to join your team.” It was leadership and management development at that time. She did and she failed terribly. She was a writer for us. She was promoting programs and things. It was so hard. She was so limited in the way she was writing about programs. She was not inspiring. She was very focused on perfection as opposed to inspiration. I had a hard time. At one point, I was leaving things like, “This is not the right match.”

Applying empathy, the way you said, applying the idea that it’s not about me, it’s about her, I had this really deep value, “My role as a leader is to make her successful, period. I need to figure out how to make her successful.” I did. I coached her, I mentored her and I said, “Just be wild. Just do whatever comes to mind. Your friends, if you had to inspire your friends, I’m sure you’re not going to write like this. How you want to write, just write it.”

Little by little, she became so open to new ideas. She was so much fun. We used to laugh so much. Today, she’s very successful in communications. Very successful. It’s just that up until that moment, I didn’t see myself having the responsibility to find a way to help her find herself. I was just thinking about what I needed and she wasn’t providing me. That’s when the idea of leadership comes to mind. I’ve been talking a lot about this.

Leadership, we had those very distinctive phases, the telling phase. Leaders tell people, they communicate the strategy and all that. Then we start talking about role modeling, so we’re showing, “Show how it’s done. Show it. Show it. Show it.” I think we’re in the phase of sharing. We’re entering a phase in history where we need to be humble enough and use our humility to share experience, share our vulnerabilities, and share power. Power is distributed. In distributed teams, shared power is the only way to get productivity, innovation and inclusion.

All this comes now to bring us to what you’re talking about, should leaders seek mentors? Yes. We need everybody to be mentoring each other because now is the time to reject the idea that you need to pose as a perfect leader because you’re going to be failing terribly, but this failure about not being open to learning is very different from the failures of allowing people to try something new. We have to be very discerning here because allowing people to fail is the best way to gain their engagement.

I always talk to people, this is my phrase, my favorite one, “Be engaged, not attached.” Be engaged fully in what you’re doing, in the flow of things, but don’t get emotionally attached to the product because you’re going to be very disappointed. To your point, all this comes to mind, failure is part of growth, and leaders have to be accustomed to not feel threatened by the idea that others fail because it doesn’t reveal how bad you are, it just reveals how good you are at handling failure.

Patrick: Wagner, thank you so much for spending time with me today and talking about these very important aspects of development and your passion around mentoring. Thank you for sharing your personal stories with us as well. I love hearing people’s stories, their perspective, their opinions, because when we hear other people’s experience, I really feel it allows us to open up, think differently, and start to experience life, in general, differently.

You said a lot of things today that are very much coming from the passion that you have. I very much appreciate it. It resonates with me. Just a very special thank you to you for sharing with us and spending some time with me today. This idea around mentorship, I feel, is just going to keep expanding. I know the audience is really going to appreciate hearing your thoughts. Wagner, thank you very much for joining the conversation. We should talk again in maybe a year and see how we’re doing with mentorship.

Wagner: That’s right. Thank you so much for having me. As you said, I’m very passionate.

Patrick: I love it.

Wagner: I’m game. I think people need to start opening up, reaching out. To be honest, we should be open to people who reach out to us as well. I always make sure that I always respond to anybody who reaches out to me. I think that’s how you create connections that people feel it’s worth trying to make. Thank you so much. I appreciate what you do with this podcast as well. It’s so important. I was listening to many of them and I feel a little happier after listening to one about happiness. [laughs]

Patrick: That was a great one. We had a lot of fun. It was an excellent conversation and I felt happier after that conversation as well. I appreciate that. Thank you so much. We will speak with you soon. Thanks, Wagner.

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