Too many leaders still believe that command and control is the most effective way to run a company and manage people. But the opposite is true. People want to relate to their leaders. People want to know that their leaders have experienced similar problems or overcome personal hardships. When leaders show their humanity – their basic vulnerability – it creates trusting teams. The most transformational leaders I’ve ever seen in action are those who open up and let others see them as they truly are – warts and all. They know that their greatest source of impact is through connecting with others – not through exerting positional power.
I was fortunate to have a powerful relationship with this type of leader early in my career.
In 1994 I had just been promoted to manager of employee communications in a company I’d worked at for a couple years. I had lots of communication experience – the technical stuff of the job – but very little management or leadership experience. I was excited, nervous – and completely green. And I had two staff reporting to me, expectantly awaiting direction, insight, any sign that I knew what I was doing.
Fortunately for me, the company had a formal mentoring program which was offered to new managers to help them learn the ropes from someone with more experience. It was a six-month program that basically consisted of regular meetings between mentor and mentee. Although there were some guidelines for getting the most out of these meetings, how each pair decided to approach the relationship was largely up to them.
I was beyond thrilled to be paired up with a senior director from the operations area – a man who would eventually become COO of the organization. His name was (and still is) Bill. He was a big bear of a guy and my impression of him was as a stoic, introspective and razor sharp fellow. All added up to a heap of reasons to be intimidated!
I really didn’t know much about him. He didn’t know much about me. But that was about to change.
I showed up at his open door for our first meeting clutching a notepad and pen. His back was turned to me, as he was working on his computer. I knocked tentatively on the doorframe, and he immediately turned around and smiled broadly at me. “Hi Tracey, how great we finally get this chance to have a chat!” I stood there like an idiot, waiting to be invited in.
“Tracey, come on in, sit down!” He gestured to the table in his office and I anxiously sat down, balanced on the edge of my seat, notebook still firmly clenched in my hand. Bill reached over to his phone to activate the “call forward” feature. Then he moved to the seat across the table from me and leaned forward. He was smiling. I’ll never forget that open body language, that inviting, welcoming gesture.
I opened my notebook to a list of questions that I had written down in anticipation of this first meeting. Bill watched me quietly for a moment and then said, “Why don’t you just put your notebook away for now. Let’s just get to know each other.” I closed my notebook and looked across at him. “So, tell me about yourself.”
I started prattling on about my departmental plans, that sort of thing. He stopped me. “No, when I said ‘tell me about yourself’ I meant tell me about YOU. Do you have children? Do you like red wine or white wine? What do you like to do in your spare time? Tracey, we are going to be mentoring partners for the next six months. I hope that means we’re going to freely share our thoughts and ideas about career and workplace issues. We are going to swap confidences. We need to know each other to feel comfortable enough to have those meaningful conversations.”
Everything shifted at that point. I felt myself relax and open up. I started to tell him about my sons. At that time I was a single parent, so I talked about raising two boys on my own. He told me about his son and the challenges of being a weekend dad during the time he was also a single parent. I think we spent the first half hour talking about raising our kids.
For the rest of our first session together, we hardly discussed business. We talked about our mutual acquaintances and shared stories about leaders we each admired. He told me he worried about not getting enough exercise and putting on weight. I remember he asked for my opinion about some wording in a presentation he was going to be giving.
At the end of the hour, he said, “Next time we get together, we’ll keep getting to know each other. How about we talk about what you want to get out of this relationship and I’ll tell you what I want to get out of it. Sound like a good idea?”
I met with Bill over the next six months and no topic was off-limits. What amazed and impressed me was how freely he shared his failures with me as much as his successes. He saw them as learning opportunities for me, and didn’t let pride or ego get in the way of talking about how he’d messed up and what happened as a result.
What did I learn from my mentor? Many things about the business for sure, but for me as a newbie manager, the biggest takeaway was the awareness that a leader’s strength comes from their ability to make human connections through openness and transparency. When Bill and I were open with each other, it created a bond of trust.
Bill influenced my leadership style enormously. To this day, I remember that relationship of 20 years ago as one the most significant of my career; he helped me navigate the business and develop a stronger, more confident sense of myself as a people leader. Thank you, Bill!
Did you have a formal or informal mentor in your career – or been one yourself? What do you remember as highlights of the experience?
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