The Value of a Mentor

This is a guest post from a friend and former colleague of mine, Bob Hastings, who is one of the most kind-hearted people I know. Bob currently mentors individuals and consults for organizations in the business of creating a more sustainable built environment. His expertise includes business development, culture creation, growth, and finding purpose. You can learn more about him on his LinkedIn profile. Enjoy!  bow-tie-businessman-fashion-man

I was selling high efficiency residential windows when the company I worked for decided to bring on a sales manager to improve results. I loathed the idea… “They’re going to bring in this pompous, high-pressure, surly, hot-head on board to tell me what to do?!” I was sure that it wouldn’t work out and that I would be the victor. I’d just have to wait it out and let this guy run his course and see himself out the same door he walked in through. My plan was to act cool, so I did.

Craig Leary was hired as the sales manager. That’s all I knew about him. I didn’t know that he was drastically over-qualified to be a sales manager (especially for our team of two sales people) but that he took the opportunity because he believed in the potential of the company and in his own abilities to transform our performance enough to justify a huge step down in his career to position himself for new growth. I didn’t know that he had a wealth of industry and behavioral science knowledge that I could learn from if I’d only open my eyes and ears – and I didn’t quite care. “Act cool, he’ll be gone in a month” – I pretended he didn’t exist. I was in the field most of the time anyway, while he was in the office…at first.

Craig was rapidly hiring and training more sales staff, organizing a call center, and teaching the company about marketing and customer acquisition. He was turning the division into a functional machine and generating excitement. Meanwhile, I was in the field running my “free advice” business into the ground – until Craig was able to turn his attention to me.

It began with him coming with me to one of my appointments. This made me uncomfortable, but I refused to behave any differently because of his presence, so I gave my free advice and the appointment ended amicably but, unsurprisingly, without a sale.

Craig had two decisions to make after shadowing me that first time. The first was to determine if I was worth keeping on the team. The easy decision, which I believe most people in his position would have made, would have been to remove me from the picture. He could have done this quickly and painlessly. I often think about how my life would be different today if this had happened and what potential he saw in me that prevented him from taking that action.

The other decision Craig had to make at the time was what feedback to give me and how to deliver it. As you might deduce, I was not open to his coaching. I don’t remember exactly how he opened me up to this advice, but I’m fairly sure it started with a compliment about my ability to build rapport (compliments usually go a long way with me). After he paid the compliment, there was no critique, just a simple request: “I want you to try something. See if you can engage the customer more with their hands. Have them physically help you with your assessment of their home. Would you try that and let me know how it goes?” So I agreed, and I “accidentally” had a couple of sales that week.

The value of a mentorIn the weeks and months following that first shadow, Craig did a lot more asking than telling. He wanted to understand what made me tick, what I cared about, what concerned me, and what my beliefs were. Through his willingness to learn from me, Craig understood what my apprehensions were about learning from him. He was able to carefully show me that sales didn’t have to be sleazy. He showed me that selling can be a vehicle for a worthy cause, and should always and only be done with the customers’ best interests at heart. In my second month reporting to Craig, my sales doubled. In my third month, they doubled again. The best part: I still got to run my free advice business and provide exceptional service, just with much better results that allowed me to advance my career.

Going back to that first shadow, I know now that Craig could have given me a list of at least 50 things to do differently. I also know that if he did that, it would have only damaged our relationship further. A list of tips is only as useful as the one tip that actually gets implemented. Craig knows this. So, over the years, his advice has come to me at times when I have been truly ready to receive it, implement it, and grow from it.

Even today, years since reporting to Craig professionally, he is still my mentor. He still pushes me to challenge myself, play big, and think big. I know that I can count on him to listen to me explain layers upon layers of complex dilemmas, and then he will ask me one question that will somehow cause my dilemmas to implode, put everything into perspective, and ignite a fire under me.

The value of a mentorThis is what great mentors do: they break down your walls and open you up to coaching.

And when you trust them, they tell you something that might hurt to hear, but that you need to listen to. They push you out of your comfort zone and force you to grow. And they do it because they care about you.

Leadership expert Dov Baron said something I believe in a profound way: “…the mentor helps you create a vision that’s far bigger than anything you’ve ever imagined and then holds your feet to the fire to get there. Your mentor calls you out every single step of the way. Your mentor is not your buddy.”

Who are you grateful for in your life that has pushed you out of your comfort zone? Have you thanked them?

Who have you helped to grow? Have you recognized how rewarding it is?

Know someone who has mentored you or who wants to become a better mentor? Consider passing this post along to them!