How Business Mentors Instill Wisdom When You Least Expect It

I think the best type of mentoring can be described only as the Mr. Miyagi method from Karate Kid.  Someone wiser than you takes you by the hand and starts teaching you.  Don’t question the methods, just see how far you’ve come and appreciate the growth.  It’s informal mentoring.  You don’t know what you’re being taught until you're in a situation and capably handling yourself using skills that just appeared out of thin air.


I was very fortunate early in my career to find myself on a team of very experienced professionals.  Each had his or her own strength that they brought to the team and passed down to me.  Looking back, they probably viewed me as a lump of clay they were able to shape and mold, and to be honest, that’s what I was.  Fresh out of school, it was my first “real” career job.  I worked with four strong, confident women.  Each had their own way of mentoring me.  Judy used a very motherly approach with me; she was direct, but compassionate.  Kim used humor to instill in me her commitment to quality and teamwork.  Other Kim mentored me strictly out of need, getting me up to speed on things I could eventually manage so she could move on to something else.  And then there was Deborah.  Not only could she talk to anyone about anything, she was a great listener also.  She taught me how to listen to the underlying message rather than just hearing the words that were spoken.  It was great.  I liked my job. I liked my team.  I was happy.

But then came my Cobra Kai moment.

We had some “organizational changes” which is corporate for “sweep the leg."  Our boss was promoted and a new leader, Sandy, joined our team.  It was very uncomfortable for me.  Sandy’s approach to mentoring was more like blunt force trauma.  She was not like my other mentors.  I didn’t enjoy my interactions with her and dreaded every weekly meeting.  I remember with one project, even though I put a great deal of effort into it, I didn’t hit my goals.  And when this happened previously, I had been conditioned by my boss to expect a motivational pick me up and extension or help to meet the goal.  That’s not what I got this time.  I remember her response and will until the day I retire: “Effort doesn’t equal results."  I was crushed.  I complained about her to my co-workers.  I wanted to look for a new job.  I know I worked hard, but no one could see the fruits of my labor.  All they saw was that I was really busy for 6 months.

But she was right.  That didn't mean I liked her, but she was right.  I didn't see it then, but she was setting me down a new course.  Over the next year I was assigned to projects with people outside of my department.  She would have me track all of my projects and give status updates to the Executives within my department.  I didn’t warm to it.  That’s not that job I was hired to do.  I remember sitting on the phone with her for two hours creating calculations for ROI of Sales Training.  I remember the head of the department turning out the lights to leave for the day but I was still there, on the phone, creating calculations at 7:00 pm.  My job went from being fun and enjoyable to being intolerable.  This was a different job than 6 months ago.  I envied my coworkers who got to do their work and didn’t have to measure and track and be strategic.

But soon enough, there was a silver lining: I was promoted to a Technical Specialist.

Sandy came in and took me out to lunch for my review and proceeded to tell me what a great job I was doing.  It didn’t feel good, but at least she thought I was meeting expectations.  She said she went to bat for me to get me the promotion because technology was where training was headed.  I was stunned.  Like Mr. Miyagi, she was mentoring me too, and I had no idea.  All those statistics were her “Wax on, wax off."  Those strategy sessions were her “paint the fence."

And like with most memorable mentors, there’s that moment when all the lessons and teachings resonate even more.  About 4 months later, Judy asked me to grab a coffee with her.  She said she wanted to give me a heads up that Sandy was leaving.  After two years of suffering, complaining, and dreading, I was free!

That's when I could feel my eyes welling up.  WHY?  I should be happy.  But I wasn’t.  I was sad.  Deep down, I realized how much Sandy had prepared me for my future.  While my other team did a great job mentoring me, they mentored me for the job I had.  Sandy was mentoring me for my future.  She saw I had potential.

And that's what I'm going to try and instill in others.  My goal's to pass on my strengths and knowledge to the coworkers I interact with, so when they move on to the next round, I want them to hear “You’re the Best” playing in the background.

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