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My mentors said very little, but did so much

Mentoring is an age-old practice dating back literally hundreds of years. It’s a tool many cultures and societies have utilized to share knowledge and teach the young and the inexperienced what took years for the elders to learn. Mentoring has a long and rich history. And the reason mentoring has endured for so long is simple: it works. When done well the results of mentoring are undeniable and invaluable.

One of my first mentors helped me early in my career. As a wet behind the ears brand new sales rep at a telecom firm in the late 1980’s, I was assigned to a sales manager named Rebel. Yes, her legal name was Rebel, and it fit. Platinum blond hair and a year-round tan, form fitting outfits and spike high heels, Rebel was the kind of woman who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. And all this at a time when outspoken women weren’t particularly appreciated in the workplace.

Rebel took me under her wing without my asking. She simply liked me. She saw something in me that made her want to help. I remember sitting in her office many times, slumped in a chair and telling her “this is really hard, I don’t know what to do.”

Rebel never told me what to do which, by the way, frustrated me at the time. I wanted answers. But what she did do was to simply say “You can do this. You’ll figure it out.” That was it. Over and over again. Every time I went to meet with her. Same story. It felt like Rebel wasn’t helping me at all.

However, in that first year I worked for her I achieved 165% of my quota in a sales territory that was considered dead, and won several sales awards. As I look back, I realize that Rebel was very wise. She did not want me to be dependent on her to do the thinking. She knew I could think for myself. Rebel just put her hand firmly in the middle of my back…and kept it there. She didn’t allow me to back up, turn around or even to stop. Her hand firmly in the middle of my back repeating “you can do this; you’ll figure it out.”

Fast forward to December 2011. I’m sitting in the expansive plush living room in the mansion of my mentor, Neil. He is a self-made multimillionaire for whom I have great respect and admiration. The word ‘worship’ would not be too strong to describe my opinion of him. I met with him to talk about this crazy project I’d been working on to create a women’s mentoring program, and I was seeking his advice.

Neil listened carefully, asked many challenging questions, then proceeded to give me absolutely no guidance whatsoever. Once again, that familiar sense of frustration began welling up inside me.

What Neil did do was much more important. He simply said, “If you decide to run with this project don’t just change this city, change the world.” His words were thrilling and frightening at the same time. The world? That’s kinda, you know, big. He saw an ability I had yet to recognize in myself. His hand firmly in the middle of my back, and keeping it there.

The fondness I have for my mentors endures years after those conversations. Their wisdom is now part of who I am as a professional and a person. Their impact was so important that I actively seek to pay it forward every chance I get.

It’s not what they said that mattered. It’s how they believed in me and kept me moving forward.

My advice: jump at the chance to mentor someone. Because it’s not about having all the answers.

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