Mentoring takes all forms, some of the more unusual are the most helpful, particularly in my experience. Through my own career, I have had a number of “formal mentors.” Early in my career, in addition to great managers who coached my day to day performance, I was assigned to very senior executives in my company. We would have formal discussions, monthly, and every once in a while they would invite me to participate (most often as a fly on the wall) in key meetings they conducted. These experiences helped me learn and helped me gain broader perspectives about business. They helped me perform better in my job and helped me prepare to move to greater positions of responsibility.
Early in my career, many of my peers became great mentors, even though they may not have realized they were serving that role. Watching them, asking them questions, having them watch me, having them “set me straight” were hugely valuable, though sometimes, I wasn’t smart enough to “hear” what they were saying, or I was too stubborn to “hear” what they were saying. Fortunately, they persisted through my resistance.
Over time, mentors changed and how I was mentored changed. Changing mentors, or having several at one time has been helpful. Not that I don’t appreciate any single person, but I learn more through a great diversity of perspectives and experiences. I found myself looking for mentors in different places–definitely outside sales and selling, often outside of business.
Where we often look for mentors who are “seasoned” or “experienced,” I started seeking very young people, new to business or in very different “careers.” While most didn’t know they were mentoring me, they taught me a lot about how to think differently, they had different perspectives which forced me to think differently.
I’m blessed, being a “consultant,” I have many clients who are mentors, again informally. teaching me new things and through their diversity in experience, helping me consider different perspectives.
I am also blessed being in a community of “consultants” who selflessly share their ideas, perspectives, often taking the time to debate and explore many ideas.
But through my career–through my life– there have been a small group of consistent, unselfish mentors. They aren’t worried about my career, my growth in my career, my business success. They worry about me as a human being. They have been my family. I’ve written about my dad in the past. My sisters, sister in law, brothers in law, nieces/nephews are great sources in “setting me straight. My mother is a rock, totally dedicated to to our family.
But my greatest mentor continues to be my wife, Kookie. She “knows me,” knows what I’m capable of and how often I fall short, and continues to encourage me–often by calling out my BS.
I met Kookie at IBM. I was a new sales person, cocky and thought no one could teach me anything. She, at the time, was one of the top 10 sales people in IBM–though I never fully realized that. For some reason, she took an interest in me (or perhaps it was pity). She had a role where she could work with me, selling very complex solutions in my accounts. I learned a lot from her, and she wasn’t shy in “mentoring” me, often in the form of “Dave, stop being such an asshole!”
It was actually several years before our relationship blossomed into a “romantic relationship,” (She claims she just got tired of setting me up with all her friends, only to have me screw it up.)
But I was blessed to watch how she sold, how she engaged people–both customers and IBMers. She had a relaxed but focused manner in all her conversations. She was welcomed into the offices of some of the biggest names in business, both then and now. Whenever she called, she simply said, “It’s Kookie,” and she immediately got access to any executive.
It took me a while to figure it out, but then I realized, even though she was one of the top performers in the company, her success was driven by her “caring.” Her caring extended to all her customers, from the top execs to the operations people in data centers. It wasn’t unusual to get a call at 2:00 am from an operator saying, “Kookie, the systems are down.” She would nudge me, saying, “You have to drive me downtown,” or some place. I tried replying, “Take a cab,” once–but quickly learned. Even though she couldn’t repair them, she would always go to keep them company and make sure everything was working right.
Kookie and I moved into management roles at roughly the same time. I continued to learn from her about leadership. She had high expectations of everyone, but was very fair. I think it was her caring for her people and their success that made the difference. Even though she was one of the very best sales people around, she focused on making them successful. The other thing she did was protect her people from over zealous executives in the company. I remember a very heated discussion she had with the CEO of the company she was at another tech company. That CEO has become a Silicon Valley legend. He was trying to be “helpful,” and she told him that his help wasn’t helping. At one point she said, “John, back-off, let us do it, if we don’t fire us!” Needless to say, they got it done, it was the second biggest value deal the company had done to date.
Our dinner discussions were always interesting, deal reviews, pipeline reviews, talking about people problems, all sorts of things. She always helped me explore ideas and take different perspectives.
Somehow, Kookie always knows what’s better for me, or what I need to change far earlier than I do. I never would have become an entrepreneur without her challenging me to do something different.
One night, at dinner, I was going through my “whining.” I was COO at a company, I’d been hired to drive a turnaround, we were very successful, but I was getting frustrated with what was going on. She asked, “You’ve always dreamed of starting your own company, why not now?” I couldn’t believe it, I had always been a “big company” person, and here she was encouraging me to do something very different. We had a discussion that went for hours about all the risks, the finances, what if I failed. She was very blunt in the discussion, at the same time very encouraging. But at one point she said, “It’s time to shit or get off the pot, you can’t continue to whine and not do anything about it.”
Today, it’s the same. Over the weekend while we puttered around the house, we did an account review. I was reveling in the success a client was having, but she knows it’s at moments like this that I get overconfident. She started hammering me with questions about, “What more can you do?” “How can you help them achieve more?”
While she left the world of “big business/technology” a number of years ago and is now a professional chef, many of her former employees still call her for advice and coaching. Most have moved on, so it’s not deal or account reviews. Some are CEOs, others are VPs of Sales or Marketing. They like talking to her, using her as a sounding board. They know she will always ask the most important questions, that she will call them on their BS, but mostly that she cares. (For those of you that have Sales Manager Survival Guide, my favorite chapter is the last chapter. It’s about our legacy as managers, it’s really Kookie’s story.)
Mentors are important. Mentoring is important. But the best mentors often come from the most unusual places—and often they are right under our noses.
I’ve been blessed to have been mentored by dozens of people over my career. I continue to look for mentors in various areas. But the most impactful mentor and I are about to celebrate our 38th wedding anniversary.
Happy Anniversary Kookie! Thank you for helping me be better than I ever dreamed I could be. I love you!
Afterword: I wrote more about this some years ago in “My Best Mentor.”