In Thanksgiving of Mentors

The First Thanksgiving, painted by Jean Leon G...

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In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I’ve been reflecting on people from my past professional lives for whom I am deeply grateful, mentors all.  As is the nature of relationships, some I had the good fortune of knowing and working with for many years, while others I knew closely for only a short time.  Whether our time together was long or short, each has had a lasting impact on me personally and professionally.

What Is A Mentor — and Where Do They Come From

The dictionary defines “mentor” as:

1. a wise and trusted counselor or teacher.
2. an influential senior sponsor or supporter.
verb (used without object)
3. to act as a mentor: She spent years mentoring to junior employees.

Taken together, these descriptions fit my experience with those that I’ve considered mentors.

In Mitch Albom‘s wonderful work, The Five People You Meet In Heaven, the main character comes to finds that the five angels guiding him into the afterlife are — on the surface — not necessarily people who he would have picked as having the greatest impact on him, but each ended up teaching him a profound lesson.  In much the same way, I’ve found that mentors often come from quite unexpected sources.  Whether due to the quirks of fate, circumstance, or personality, two people just “click” in a certain way, and are able to share certain knowledge and wisdom with each other — and poof, before you know it, you look up one day and you have (or are) a mentor. (This is apart from more formal mentoring programs, where “official” mentors are assigned, irrespective of chemistry and other personal factors).

Here are brief descriptions and words of thanks for three of my past mentors.  I’d love to hear about yours.

Curmudgeon With A Heart of Gold (Joe)

Walking into my first HR position out of college, I had virtually no knowledge of human resources (which in that particular organization was mis-titled “Employee Relations”) — and even less of an idea as to what to expect as part of the professional world.  It was working in this very large and well-known but quite-behind-the-HR-times non-profit organization that I met Joe.

Then in his mid-40’s, Joe was a world-weary veteran of a Fortune-500 firm who had opted out of the corporate career ladder and found himself managing (sometimes much to his chagrin) the agency’s pension matters.  Sensing right away that I had absolutely no clue as to what I had gotten myself into — and knowing that the head of the department was a kind but highly ineffectual leader who was quite unlikely to give me helpful direction at any point in time — Joe “took me under his wing” and taught me (with great patience) the technical aspects of human resources, as well as how one works effectively in an organization (e.g., when to fight vigorously for a principle, when to go with the flow and let nature take its course).  Though he might occasionally “growl” at others, his kindness, support, and guidance at that crucial early stage in my career will never be forgotten.

Out-of-the-Box Thinker (Doug)

Doug was a study in contrasts. Powerful and burly in stature, he had spent a number of years living and working (and speaking fluent Japanese) as a recruiter in Japan, where he stood out, I’m sure, in any number of ways.  Doug was and is a world-class recruiter, with the ability to ferret out the leading experts in even the most obscure specialty, quite literally anywhere in the world.  We worked together for a handful of years as part of a division-level HR team in a large national firm.

Doug was by nature an out-of-the-box thinker, a contrarian in thought who had the marvelous ability to be anything but contrary in nature.   While we were peers, he looked to me for guidance regarding “generalist” matters (he was a career-long recruiting manager — doing the same role in our organization, but always with an eye toward a generalist career path).  I don’t know if he knows this or not, but I thought the world of his abilities (and of his friendship) and learned more than I can say from working with him.  On the technical side, he introduced me to a great of recruiting theory and practice; in a more broad-based way, he constantly showed me that there was “more than one way to skin a cat” and kept putting elements together to successful effect that I never would have seen otherwise.  For new and meaningful perspectives, I owe many thanks to Doug.

Gentle Guidance From a Wise Behind-the-Scenes Figure (Vicki)

And then there was Vicki, who walked into my professional life at the most opportune time (for me).  A veteran of the corporate wars as a longtime executive assistant (with two Masters degrees), Vicki was hired by my boss, the division’s EVP.  Serving as part executive assistant and part behind-the-scenes “VP of operations, ” Vicki calmly worked to support my boss (a very talented but admittedly very “uncorporate” leader), helping her grow her career at a critical juncture.  Somehow, in her “spare time,” Vicki was able to lend more support and guidance to this still-young HR person in every area from administration to corporate “politics” — to say nothing of having quite a knack for knowing when a single male living alone could benefit from a home-cooked meal and supportive conversation with her and her husband, Sal.

As one example, Vicki saw me drowning in a sea of paperwork stacked on my desk (which we measured — sadly enough — in feet rather than inches!).  She dedicated about 6 weeks of her summer to getting me organized, teaching me the principle of “touch the paper once,” and generally guiding me with great care through the sometimes stormy waters of life in a rapidly growing corporation.  Though I relocated to another division a thousand miles away after only two years of working together, I can tell you proudly that I benefit from the insights Vicki shared with me almost every day of my working life.

Wherever you may be today, Joe, Doug, and Vicki, please know what an impact you have made on my life, and how very grateful I am.

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