My life and career have been propped up by mentors. They have been the difference-makers for me. Now that I am at life’s halfway point – I turned 50 this year – I am especially conscious about how much of an impact they have had on who I am.
I’m always troubled when a budding leader tells me that he or she doesn’t have a mentor. Progressing in the absence of a caring mentor seems unimaginable to me. Mentors are supremely important to an aspiring leader. They are the voices whose feedback reaches our heart and head. They are the steady hands that firmly hold us accountable to our own potential. They are the polishers of our conscience, the magnifiers of our potential, and the encouragers of our self-worth. Mentors, in short, matter.
Mentors have been so instrumental in my life that I dedicated my new book, Leaders Open Doors, to five mentors who, I believe, made me a better human being. One of my mentors, O.K. Sheffield, was 35-years older than me.
Whenever I was out-of-sorts with the world, he would listen calmly and then ask a simple but important question: How’s Bill with Bill? Though O.K. died a few years back, I still ask myself that question whenever I’m convinced that the world is doing me wrong, which it almost never is.
One of my mentors, Hines Brannan, a former partner at Accenture, once told me that I was starting to become a brownnoser. The feedback stung because I knew it was true. But I also knew that Hines wouldn’t have given me that tough and important feedback unless he cared deeply about me and my career. He gave me permission to care less about what people thought about my opinions and ideas, which freed me up to be a stronger writer and more honest consultant. His words made for a better me.
My friend and colleague Chip Bell, along with world-leading executive coach Marshall Goldsmith, have just released Managers As Mentors. The book is chock-full of practical ideas and wonderful stories about mentoring. It’s also has a bunch of one-on-one interviews with top-level executives and experts who attribute their own success to mentoring. Reading the book is like having two sage mentors serve you with expert advice so you can become a great mentor too. The book is beyond valuable – it’s essential.
Chip and Marshall’s book makes me reminisce about my earliest mentoring experiences. My first boss and mentor was Dr. Henry Dick Thompson, the founder of High Performing Systems. Dick gave me my job as a leadership development professional, not long after I had finished graduate school. I was fortunate to have gotten to work with someone who knew way more about leadership than what I had learned in the textbooks of academia. Dick had served two tours in Vietnam behind enemy lines. He had been the head of the ROTC program at the University of Georgia. He had a Ph.D. He was smart, thoughtful, precise, and gutsy. Working closely with Dick was a great start to my career.
One of the most wonderful mentoring experiences takes place years after the mentoring has finished. It happens when a mentee makes their way in the world and then comes back to thank the mentor for teaching them the right way early on. Last year, some twenty years after working with Dick Thompson, I invited him to co-facilitate a leadership workshop for one of my clients. The best part was being able to introduce Dick to the group, and look him straight in the eyes and thank him for everything he had done for me. The truth is, I would be nothing if it hadn’t been for mentors like him.