Stories and thoughts about family and life

The Mentor

on February 14, 2014

As I explained my relationship with my mentor to a close friend of mine this morning, I had the opportunity to think about all the ways he has impacted my life, and all the lessons I’ve learned from him.

I didn’t know what I was doing when I started my business. I knew the production side of things, but not the rest of it. I had never done a corporate budget before, for example, but he’s been there for me every step of the way. I’ve learned so much from him, and I’m so fortunate to have him in my life.
When I started my business four short years ago, I remember sitting on the phone with him and remarking that this is what I wanted to do. There was a sensational excitement in his voice. You could hear the pride, enthusiasm, and downright cheer at my decision. I told him I was scared out of my mind, and he told me that’s exactly where I should be.

I’m a planner by nature. I don’t generally just charge off and do something without having laid out every potential avenue and having three or four backup plans. Yet here I was, motivated by something I didn’t even quite understand in the moment. My mentor did understand, though. He could see the fire and he knew how to stoke it. He knew I was completely ready for parts of this venture, and wildly under-prepared for others. He has filled me with confidence and been there when I’ve been shaky. I would be lost without his guidance, and each new skill I learn and idea I navigate gives me more confidence for the next.

He and I had worked together for a number of years, and I’m afraid I was a bit of a “thorn” in his side when he started. He had assumed leadership of the company where I was and at the time, things were seriously grim. There were countless questions staff members had for him on how he was going to save us, but no one wanted to ask. He had started a forum to get together with employees through a birthday gathering each month, and I saw my opportunity. After the meeting was over (and I had questioned him for about 15 minutes straight about how he was going to “fix” us), he engaged me in the hall one day and explained to me a couple of the ideas on which he was working. I thought he was simply placating me. I realized later that he saw I was honestly interested. He always did his best to answer our questions when we asked him and it was appropriate for him to share. I’ve admired him over the years so much for that, as so many leaders keep information so tightly closed that their employees have no idea what’s happening.

I was fortunate over the next several years to have worked in a variety of capacities with him. I was able to work on projects for him and watch his brilliant mind work in one meeting after another as he could calculate percentages and impact of increases in his head with little more than a thought or two, while I was still furiously taking notes and was stuck about five steps behind him. When he learned I was finishing my degree, he called me in to talk to me about it. When he realized I was pursuing an avenue of business, he asked if he might read my papers (my classes were primarily online) and offered assistance if I ever needed it. I’m not naive enough to think that every employee had the kind of treatment I did, but I do know that every employee could have. He’s just that kind of person. I’ve watched him sit in the breakroom and visit with employees about any number of interests they might have and had to chuckle when he would leave the room and they would sit completely dumbfounded, unable to comprehend the interaction with such a “celebrity” (in their eyes, anyway).

I have never had a mentor before, so I don’t know how it works for everyone else. My mentor doesn’t “educate” me as much as he guides me and encourages me. He very seldom says “this is what you should do,” but rather tells me a story from his past which illustrates a situation similar to mine and how it turned out. By the end of the story, I generally know what to do. He knows where I need to be prodded and he knows what hurts my heart. He understands that sometimes I just need to talk things through and get a smile and a hug. He lets me ask him endless questions and always has a smile on his face. I have never been made to feel like I’m bothering him or taking too much of his time.

He stepped back from leadership at my previous company due to some health issues he was having. He has a progressive, degenerative disease which was making it hard for him to keep up with the rigorous pace he needed to run the company. I have watched him go through various therapies and procedures to combat his condition and though I see he struggles with some things, you would honestly never know it. I worry about the days he won’t feel so well anymore, and I know that he likely does too, but he laughs it off and just commits to do everything he can in the meantime until he can’t anymore. Talk about motivating! How many times have I avoided walking the block because I was tired? He is moving on with life and taking in every moment he can. He has scary moments which he occasionally shares with me, and which make my heart hurt for him. He just figures out how to deal with those and moves on.

I am so proud to have this man in my life. He tells me how it fills his heart to mentor me. He enjoys still getting to ‘exercise’ his mental muscles and he gets tremendous pleasure out of seeing my business grow, and in watching me grow as a person, as a leader. Mentoring me has motivated him to find other avenues where his skills are useful and he has engaged some of those as well. He is actually leading a pretty busy life, with all the people he helps. I asked him to mentor me because I trust his judgment and knew he would help me honestly and completely. I didn’t really understand until I was telling my friend this morning that there was so much more that draws me to him.

He has such a compassion for people–what they need, making them feel empowered, and helping them benefit. He has such passion for everything he does in life, from work down to golfing. He wants to see the people around him grow and thrive. He can be tough when he needs to be, but he can also appreciate the benefit of a kind word and an investment in a person. I had left the company for a while to try my hand at something else. I was miserable. One of my coworkers mentioned it to him and the next thing I knew I had a meeting with him. He asked me if I wanted to come “home.” The company where we worked was the only place I had ever truly felt at home, until now. He knew it, and he knew I would be better for the investment he made in me. I never forgot those kind words and I tear up a bit at the thought of that whole conversation, even now.

When I started the company four years ago, I drew on the board in my office all the things I thought would make a good company. While I knew it would be a while before we could offer any significant perks, I knew we could do little things. We provide sodas and keep some snacks on hand. I do a couple of special things for our staff each year which make me proud, such as bringing in a massage therapist at Christmas. More importantly is flexibility of work times and locations, and having a family-friendly work place (we have a futon and computer access, so kids who are off during the summer or ill have a place to be while their parent can still work). Some of those things have happened some out of necessity for my own two boys, who were still pretty young when I got started, but they’ve been the kinds of things that have proven as huge draws when you ask our employees what they like.

I realize that while those might be the things which are in my heart, I was mentored by him in that regard too, without even realizing it. I finally am the manager I always imagined I could be. I have a staff who loves their jobs and appreciates that I do everything I can for them. I feel more loved with my leadership here than I have ever before. I owe a lot of that to the great example this wonderful person has made in my life. He has taught me so much.

I hope you have someone like that in your life. Whether it is a mentor, or a friend, or a relative–find someone that makes you feel complete and helps you grow into the person you’re meant to be. I still have a lot of growth to do, I’m sure, but I know I wouldn’t be nearly this far along without such a special person in my life.


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