The long lasting impact of a mentor

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Each of us, I’m sure, has known individuals who have made an impression or significant contribution to and on our lives. Sometimes these individuals are with us for a long period of time and sometimes their tenure is short. The impact can be immediate or it might take years for the lessons to be learned and to become part of who we are.

When I was a young man I had the pleasure of working for and with a mentor. At the time he had some impact on my life, but only years later did what I learned from him make a significant and lasting impression that’s still with me today.

It was not an auspicious start of a solid relationship. He was suspicious of my intent; he had a temper and his impatience was legendary. Our goals were the same but he had been the victim of a track record of institutional disappointment (like the long suffering fans of the Cleveland Indians). His anger and impatience made it worse.

I wanted him to understand that we were on the same side. It wasn’t easy.

After more than a few chewing out sessions, I started to understand what he was trying to accomplish, and I did my best to explain it, in advance, what tactics I was trying to employ to achieve his goals.

He liked the fact that I listened to him, and that I sought his input, something that my predecessors had not done. While others avoided him, I made it a point to engage him.

In hindsight, what he taught me, over a period of six years, was worth much more than the tuition, books, and time invested in getting my MBA. As it turned out, I surfaced as one of the few individuals he saw with potential. He recognized decades before it became scientifically proven by Gallup that most employees would rather be somewhere else.

Thomas Huxley wrote, “Perhaps the most valuable result of all education is the ability to make yourself do the thing you have to do, when it ought to be done, whether you like it or not; it is the first lesson that ought to be learned; and however early a man’s training begins, it is probably the last lesson that he learns thoroughly.”

The first thing I noticed about him was that he set boundaries in his life. When he was at work, he worked, and he worked very hard. He did what needed to be done at work as well, catching early morning flights, arriving home late at night from a trip and working weekends when necessary. At the end of the day, he went home to his family and spent time with his wife and two sons.

One late afternoon I walked into his office and he was reading a magazine. I thought at the time it was rather odd behavior, just sitting there wasting time.

Little did I understand that he was “sharpening his saw” trying to get better at his job by staying abreast of what was happening in the industry and the marketplace. Few people in business do this today (read), so when something happens in their industry, they are often surprised. They don’t have to be.

The third thing about him was that he went by the book. I don’t mean that he followed policies and procedures, because I witnessed him talking a few short cuts along the way. What he did do was a direct reflection on his Jesuit educational upbringing: he followed the process of writing a business plan each year, and he stuck to it, despite numerous opportunities to stray off course.

It might have just been my perception, but I watched most of the leaders and managers at our employer jump from strategy to strategy, searching for the silver bullet, the one trick that would solve every revenue, client, production and profit problem that existed. Not my mentor…he wrote a plan and long after everyone had abandoned theirs, he was still busy executing. That’s the fourth lesson: daily execution is key to achieving the goals of a plan.

The fifth thing that I learned from him was focus; he stayed focused on his plan each and every day. That meant not getting caught up in the crisis of the day (and there were plenty to choose from; in your company too if you are reading this) and not getting distracted trying to handle every piece of paper once or returning telephone calls at the same time each day.

His time was invested in strategic issues to move the business ahead. He didn’t dwell on the trivial many; he focused on the vital few things that would make a difference to the business unit he was in.

He made his to-do list before the year started with his business plan and he stayed on task implementing it. Later in his tenure at that company, he was the “go to guy” to turnaround underperforming divisions. Despite the organizational resistance to change, he prevailed.

After leaving Corporate America he started and built a very successful manufacturing business in Northern California. Mitch Lison, thanks for being a good friend and coach to me all these years.

Ken Keller is an executive coach who works with small and midsize B2B company owners, CEOs and entrepreneurs. He facilitates formal top executive peer groups for business expansion, including revenue growth, improved internal efficiencies, and greater profitability. Please contact him at [email protected]. Keller’s column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.

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