Enter the First Mentor: It was the summer that changed my life. For summer break after my junior year from the University of Oklahoma I had planned to take a job at the University pool as a lifeguard. The business professor who appointed himself my mentor had other plans for me. He insisted I take an internship at IBM. Most people would jump at the chance of an IBM internship. However, lifeguarding was a great summer job and the 10 to 4 hours were perfect for extracurricular activities the last summer before graduation. Why, I asked him, would I want to take an office job over summer sun, girls in bikinis, and sweet work hours? Because, he answered me, it’s your future knocking and a door you need to and will answer. I couldn’t really argue with that but I still tried.
Starting out at the university, I was not very focused, with so-so grades and a lackadaisical attitude. In fact, I was pulled into the Dean’s office of the University College (for those that had not declared a major) my freshman year and told to clean up my act or leave. And then that first semester my junior year I landed in Dr. Leon Price’s classroom for a MIS course and everything changed. He pushed me like no one ever had, met with me one-on-one, told me I had to shape up, and “here was how I would do it.” He made it clear that without discipline I would never accomplish anything in my life. He even showed up at other classes to see what and how I was doing. He accepted no nonsense from me, no excuses.
Gradually, I got to be a better and better student, thanks to him. I knew I had to work for every grade, and studied as though my very life depended on it, because according to him, it did. For some reason, I believed him. Maybe it was because in some ways, he seemed to care more about my future than I did at the time.
I knew I was in trouble the first day I met Dr. Price because, as it turned out, he was from the same small town as me: Pauls Valley, Oklahoma. He even played high school football with my father, and had made it clear I was his new project. “Your father would expect you to do your best,” he told me, “and I am going to make sure I get yours.” He did not make it sound like I had any other option. Like all great educators, he saw something in me that I had not even seen in myself, at least not at that point.
Enter the Second Mentor
During my tenure at the University of Oklahoma I worked 40 hour weeks at the University to put myself through college with assistance from state grants and my parents. My immediate supervisor was a hard working guy named Ezra Rachal. Ezra was no ordinary guy. He had a full retirement from the military, a full retirement from the U.S. Postal Service, and was working on a full retirement from the University. I used to tease him and say he started working when he was 8 years old.
Where Dr. Price took on my academic mentoring, Ezra (or “Ez” as we called him) made sure I understood what it meant to have a high quality work ethic. It boiled down to, do it right or don’t do it at all (and if you don’t do it right then do it again). One time my crew painted a work shed on the university property. It took a week to finish. We missed a few spots, as students will do, and instead of just fixing those spots Ez made us paint the whole thing again. You get the idea: accept nothing less than the very best.
Back to that Crucial Summer
I was stuck between a rock and a hard place on both the academic and work fronts. It was a tough place to be for a kid who was just looking to cruise through school. Looking back now, I see I had two unexpected mentors any kid would be very fortunate to have.
So, near the end of my junior year, when it came to IBM, I took Dr. Price’s advice. I went with the internship and it opened up the world for me. I saw first-hand the opportunities available to me in the business world. While at IBM, and after that right up to the present day, I have channeled the work ethic Ezra had instilled in me and I never looked back.
Fast forward to the present day. I’ve had lots of success in business, thanks in large part to the foundation my two mentors gave me. I’ve built several companies, some with great success and others with just average success. But most importantly, I’ve had a chance to pay it forward and mentor a long list of talented professionals along the way, most of who have been my employees. In what follows, I’ll share some of those stories, and explain how mentoring and managing are inextricably linked in just about any company that succeeds.
Paying it Forward and the Art of Intuition
Through the years, I have had many opportunities to pay it forward with the different companies I have led. Some particular instances really stick with me.
Just recently, a young man showed up at our headquarters and claimed all kinds of exceptional IT talent that neither his resume nor his educational background seemed to justify. Just the same, he was insistent on meeting with me. He had not even bothered with an appointment so it would have been easy to show him the door. But there seemed to be something special about him. I decided to let him pitch his particular set of talents to my team and me.
The more he talked, the more impressed we all became. A friend of mine from a major Silicon Valley IT company happened to be at the meeting. “I don’t think you should hire him,” he told us afterward. My team and I were confused. When I asked why not, he said with a smile, “Because I want to.” He has the potential to be one of the best hires I have ever made, but if I had not given him a chance based upon traditional criteria, it would have been my loss and quite possibly some other company’s gain.
On another occasion with a different company, I was confronted with an employee who had always been a good producer, but over time suffered more and more from poor performance. His immediate supervisor had tried to work with him, but to no avail. He came to me and let me know it was time to let the man go. I could not really disagree, but said I wanted to meet with the individual just to see if anything could be done.
As he and I spoke, I asked him point blank what was going on. He confided in me that he had a lot of family problems and that it made it very hard to concentrate on his job. I wanted to know if he thought that family counseling might be of some help. He thought about it and said that yes, it probably would. For some reason, his manager did not think to ask him about his personal life, figuring it was not his business. My two mentors taught me, each in their own way, that understanding the person is as important as understanding the results and that the two are often closely related. The end result was that the counseling really helped and the man’s work performance improved as well. Again, I had my mentors in mind. What would they have done?
Then came the time one of my top salespeople was involved in a highly publicized DUI. Most in management thought we should just let him go, that it was not good for our image. I could see their point to some extent, but the bottom line was that this person had never been a problem before and if possible I wanted to give him a chance.
When I met with him, I looked him in the eyes and asked, “If we keep you on and you go for help, do I have your word that nothing like this will ever happen again?” He answered in the affirmative, and my instinct told me that he was telling the truth. Fortunately, I was not proven wrong. Today he thrives as a leader in the organization and his family is solid.
In all three of these cases, I went with what my intuition told me. It is not that I am never wrong about a “hunch”. Sometimes my sense about someone turns out to be way off. But more often than not, I can see something in someone that sometimes they cannot see in themselves. I take no credit for that. It was what my two greatest mentors taught me.
Over and over again, with different people I have hired or have helped through a hard time, I think back to those two men and the road I might have taken had it not been for them. Because of them I am able to pay it forward, something that has proven to be both good for business and good period. I can only hope that the law of perpetual motion works in this case and that those I have had the pleasure of mentoring will also pay it forward in countless ways for others through the years.
Have you read?
By Kevin Hutchinson, CEO and founder of MyTaskit.