The Unsuspecting Mentor
I had the good fortune of being hired into my first consulting job by an unsuspecting mentor. What is an unsuspecting mentor, you might ask? Although I think of him as a very real mentor to me, he never knew it while he played that role.
He wasn’t my direct supervisor. Far from it. Rather, he was roughly 5-6 levels above me. We weren’t staffed on the same clients. I didn’t see him that often. But there were several times, as happens in many people’s careers, where I hit crossroads. And each time, I’d ask a quick question, seek out a minute of his time, etc. And without fail, he never (even to this day) turned me away. And each time, without fail, he always listened, always heard me out, and always shared an insightful thought that modified or enhanced my thinking. The lessons, sayings and ethics he embodied and taught me are innumerable to attempt to list. But the thing is, I don’t think he ever overtly knew of the impact he was having on me.
I had the even greater good fortune of being able to share a meal and some drinks with him last week. The man is humble, deflects accolades, deflects attention, and views me the way he viewed all the folks that work for him – as a peer.
But regardless of what words of wisdom he provided me, and regardless of his working style and its congruence to mine, the reason why I’m writing about this is because those of us in management and leadership positions may not be fully aware of the impact (both positive and negative) we can have on the careers of others.
We say things in company meetings, in team meetings, in client settings, in 1:1s, in hallway conversations, etc. And guess what? Those things we say matter. They matter greatly. Not just what we say, but how we say it. And perhaps, most importantly, if what we say is incongruent to what we do, then what we say are just empty words. And we go from being the unsuspecting mentor, to the unsuspecting hypocrite.
At our dinner last week, I was able to thank my unsuspecting mentor for what he did for me many years ago. And yes, I also thanked him for words of wisdom he gave me last week.
I hope I’ve paid it forward and continue to pay it forward in my role. I hope to be an unsuspecting mentor. Sometimes, leading teams, companies, etc. can feel like life in a fishbowl. We can embrace it and know that everything we do is seen and heard. Or we can ignore the fact that everything we do is seen and heard. But the bottom line is, what we say and do is seen and heard. And it matters.
I once read that integrity is doing the right thing, even when nobody is watching. I believe that mentoring is sometimes best performed, when you don’t suspect a mentee is watching.