Mentoring — head fake or worthy endeavor — a case study (The Leadership Series)

Big Red Car here.

The other day we spoke about “developing talent” and mentioned that mentoring was a critical element in the development of talent.

Here is a real world story of mentoring.  Read it at your own risk.


As a Big Red Car, I employ some not inconsiderable poetic license — Hell, I’m just a Big Red Car and who in their right mind would expect me to know what I am talking about, right?

But in this instance, this story — purloined from The Boss over some lengthy period of time — is the truth.  The whole truth.  Nothing but the truth.


And I know that you can handle the truth.


What is mentoring?

Mentoring is a relationship between a senior executive and a promising employee in which the senior executive shares and imparts  knowledge, professional and life skills, information, wisdom and life experience to encourage and develop the talent of the employee thereby fostering the personal and professional growth of the employee.

This process and relationship is both personal and professional.  Its objective is to develop the promising employee into a significant long term contributor to the enterprise.

The benefits are also both personal and professional with the professional benefits being development and enhancement of basic and advanced business skills, the definition and achievement of specific goals, improved problem-solving, readiness for additional responsibility and advancement, performance at a heightened level of quality and the instilling of personal confidence.

This is a collaborative process.

Mentor and Mentee

I hate those words but remember I am just a Big Red Car.  In this story, we will talk about The Boss and The Kid.

The Boss was the President and Chief Executive Officer of a little public company.

The Kid was a new hire selected by one of The Boss’s direct reports.

The Boss

The Boss was a seasoned executive and had been running something since leaving VMI in the early 1970s.  Army, Fortune 10 company, entrepreneurial real estate endeavor, entrepreneurial company founder, private investor and small public company President, CEO.  A few bruises, a few triumphs and a lot of learning.

He had made it to the pay window a couple of times and he was a wily bastard.

He had learned a lot of things by doing them through changing economic cycles — there have actually been “good” business cycles in America, can you believe that?

He had also been the benefactor of mentors in the Army and in civilian life, business, who had done just the same for him.  He was just paying back what he had received in life.

Plus he liked The Kid.

The Kid

The Kid came to The Boss’s attention when he was hired by a direct report of The Boss.  The Boss liked to make the final call on every hire in the headquarters.  The company had about a 500 person field force operating in four different states but The Boss liked to have an interview with all folks operating out of Austin.  It was not a normal interview and he liked what he saw.  Thumbs up!

The Kid was young, fresh, full of energy, youthful exuberance and had a lot of experience in the industry at an operating level.  The Kid was being hired to ultimately fill a supervisory role.

The Boss detected — right from the beginning — a sensitivity from The Kid about his education.  A soft spot.  The Kid had walked the tough road of getting himself educated and had almost two years of college under his belt  but was struggling to get his degree.  He had accomplished this while working full time and paying for his education himself.  The Boss could sense a palpable level of insecurity.  He noted this and they hired The Kid.

The Kid was a damn good worker from the get go.

The Assessment

The Boss decided that The Kid was worthy of a bit of special treatment and decided to bring him under his wing.  In a selfish way, he thought that his efforts could bear fruit and that the return on investment could be substantial.  He had spotted some talent and he was prepared to develop it through mentoring and coaching.  Bit of a difference between those two actions but not significant for this story.  Read up on that here.

He had done this exact thing many times before with great results.  Spectacular results really.

He was confident that The Kid would validate his decision and could ultimately be a huge contributor to the team and a high level executive.

The Plan

The plan began to germinate in The Boss’s mind starting with the necessity for The Kid to finish his degree.  Like most things involved with mentoring it was easy to lay out the big touchstones but it was difficult to get them started and it was difficult to get them rolling.  But The Boss was a clever sort.

The plan’s touchstones were as follows:

1.  Education — finish The Kid’s undergraduate degree and get him started on an MBA.  Big objective for someone who had two more years of undergrad but it costs the exact same to think small or to think big, right?  [pullquote]If it costs the same to think big as it does to think small, why not think big?[/pullquote]

2.  Business process — get The Kid to see the business and his responsibilities as part of a business process rather than just an unending To Do List

3.  Reading — get The Kid to read a bit The Northbound Train, The Checklist Manifesto, Competing on Analytics and even, God forbid, a bit of Drucker.  Get his brain working outside of the work place.

4.  360 Degree Awareness — The Boss has a theory which he calls The 360 Degree Business Executive (more on that some other day) which espouses the notion that businesses require their leaders to be knowledgeable about more than just the business model and the “normal” business disciplines of business model, product, finance, marketing.

The 360 Degree Business Executive must also be knowledgeable about human relations, capital markets, regulation (US Securities and Exchange Commission, industry regulation), legislation, litigation, lobbying, Boards of Directors, implemented and available technology, social media and politics which impacts the business.  At the core of all of this is intimate knowledge of, contact with and communication with customers.  The Kid was going to get a bit of exposure to all of this.

5.  Intimate knowledge of the landlord – tenant relationship as this business was driven by a series of landlord – tenant relationships.

6.  In addition, since real estate was in many parts the driver, The Kid had to become an expert in leases, physical plant and operations.

7.  The use of technology including the implementation of social media in an otherwise old economy company.

8.  A new framework in which to evaluate and build client relationships.

This is just a sketch of the plan but it was an ambitious plan.  Think big, why not?

The Execution of the Plan

The most important ingredient in any mentoring plan is TIME.  How would it be possible to husband the necessary time to undertake this program?  Both The Boss and The Kid had full time jobs already.

The first thing The Boss did was to get The Kid back into school by emphasizing the importance of finishing his degree.  He talked him down off the ledge and right back into the classroom.  He provided some financial incentive by offering to reimburse The Kid for tuition for courses in which he attained a grade of “A”.  The Kid started getting straight A’s and finished his undergraduate degree in about two and a half years.

All the while, The Boss was emphasizing the opportunity, the necessity really, to get an MBA.  You can imagine how lofty a goal this was when The Kid was just now struggling with completing his undergraduate degree but from the beginning The Boss set out very high goals for The Kid.  The Kid bought into it particularly after he had his sheepskin.  Again, it the dialogue between The Boss and The Kid that drove him in this direction.  It is a long drive to the Rio Grande Valley and back and The Boss worked The Kid pretty damn hard.

The Boss made it a point to travel with The Kid to operating business units.  These trips — 3 to 6 hours in duration each way — provided the canvas upon which to draw out the plan.  Not only was it an opportunity to get to know The Kid better but it was also an opportunity to impart a big of wisdom and to work on specific issues.

It is important to note that a good mentoring plan is almost transparent to someone like The Kid.  The Boss does not necessarily say to The Kid:  “Hey, Kid, get ready for a dose of mentoring.”  No, it is more subtle and gentle handed so much so that The Kid may never have realized what was going on when The Boss was working his magic.

The Boss would probe for what The Kid knew about something and then suggest a bit deeper focus.  As an example, he made him develop some planning and measurement graphics which were graphical and spreadsheets thereby forcing The Kid to intimately understand the business process.  This forced The Kid to develop his spreadsheet and charting skills.  These were then cross fertilized across the entire company.

The Boss would invite The Kid to attend meetings related to the overall business — CEO level meetings — under the guise of The Kid supporting The Boss with a knowledge base.  This included meetings related to regulatory matters, industry level professional associations, legal matters, legislative and lobbying matters and the odd presentation to the Board of Directors.  Much of this was force fed hot house activity but as time passed The Kid was able to hold his own and make contributions at this level.  Familiarity, expanding knowledge base, net working and a growth challenge.  All indicators that progress was being made.

On a personal note, The Boss would often say this is a “navy blazer” or “suit and tie” meeting thereby nudging The Kid toward a meaningful relationship with Jos. A Bank.  He looked the part he was playing.

The Boss made The Kid write some reports and then viciously critiqued them for clarity, grammar and critical thinking.  He made him present his spreadsheets in a Board level of clarity and graphical presentation.  Often nitpicking him mercilessly and making him do things again and again until perfection was within reach.  The Kid did not consider this a fun exercise but mentoring is not about having fun.

The Boss did this in particular with new innovative marketing strategies requiring The Kid to write a “decision memorandum” which outlined the new initiative with a budget, a plan and an expected outcome.  When some of these things turned out to be spectacularly successful, it was possible to spread these “best practices” across the entire portfolio by simply disseminating the decision memorandum.  The Kid did this to great acclaim perhaps never realizing that it The Boss’s insistence on perfection that really drove The Kid’s superlative performance.

The Boss coaxed this performance out of The Kid.  Coaxing a great performance is coaching and mentoring all at the same time.

The Boss egged him on by giving him challenging assignments which were breaking new ground for the company such as the implementation of social media in the company’s marketing plans.  This was at a time in which no other industry competitor had even a whiff of social media.  The Kid developed an initial website for an operating unit which The Boss used to describe it as a “chainsaw” website — but it was the only one the company had.

During all of this time, The Kid took the plunge and enrolled in graduate school to pursue his MBA.  A huge undertaking.  The Boss agreed to pay up to $40,000 of what was going to be a $80,000 program offered by Baylor University.  The discussions leading up to this decision were very illuminating and were perhaps some of the most important pivot points in The Kid’s development.

The Boss made The Kid argue the merits of a Baylor MBA v a less prestigious institution and ultimately The Kid sold himself and went after the better and more expensive brand MBA.  But it was his decision and he reasoned to it in fine fashion.

Money was a consideration and when the company agreed to pay up to $40,000 of an $80,000 program the possibility of attaining that MBA from a “name brand” school was within reach.  From the company’s perspective this was pretty small potatoes given that it was going to be spread over a long period of time and the company obtained a “golden handcuff” longevity agreement from The Kid.  Not by accident.  In the long run, the company invested less than $5,000 per year of tenure well within the overall compensation chalk stripe.

The attainment of that MBA two years later was the crowning achievement of The Kid’s efforts.  It was a great day.

I have given you something north of a Cliff Notes rendition but not the complete picture.  The Boss and The Kid had a lot of Tex Mex and great Texas barbecue.

The Results

Nothing counts but results.  In this instance, the results were spectacular.

A young, smart Texas boy was transformed into an accomplished business executive with a Baylor MBA and a level of confidence whereby there are no limits to what The Kid can accomplish in the future.  The only limitations are between his ears.  This was all done in less than 8 years.

The Kid could be the President and CEO of this company.  He has that talent and skill and confidence.

During this same time period, The Kid married a lovely young Texas gal (who is finishing up her degree at The Kid’s urging), bought a house and had a baby (well, The Kid’s wife had the baby technically).  Your best people will come to work on time and work hard when they have these type of responsibilities.

Just a word about education — it is the great leveler and the greatest font of future opportunity imaginable.  The Kid and his wife were two young folks making their way in the world with no complaints.  But now with a brand name MBA and a college degree, they are both well on their way to being productive, high earning tax payers.  This is the real solution to America’s economic woes — more high paying taxpayers created at no cost to the government.

Now, the real question is this — did The Kid ever really know that he was being mentored?  Maybe so, maybe no.  Ahh, but the results, they speak for themselves.

But, hey, what the Hell do I know.  I’m just a Big Red Car.  Tell me a mentoring story that applies to you.


11 thoughts on “Mentoring — head fake or worthy endeavor — a case study (The Leadership Series)

  1. JLM, an interesting point was brought up in a fireside chat with Murray Low and Steve Blank last night at Columbia Business School. The IE@Columbia program has all of us taking Blank’s course, and attending the lecture was required, and most interesting.

    Blank said mentors choose their “mentees”(a word I hate too), not the other way around. This is interesting for me since team’s are asked who we’d like to mentor us, and I wonder how our asks will go with the people we’d like involved.

    You choose who to mentor in your post. Have you ever been in the reverse situation asking for mentoring?

    • .
      It can be done any way it can be done.

      I have had a lot of folks seek me out and I take no offense at that.

      I suspect in my case it is more a matter of whether I will come into natural contact with someone. In the workplace or in a company I am running, it is pretty easy to make contact. Otherwise may be more difficult.

      Columbia is a huge resource and I envy your being able to take advantage of that.


  2. JLM — I’ve been a long-time semi-lurker over on Fred’s (AVC) site and discovered BRC through his link to Voomly. I’m really enjoying your stream of consciousness. Thanks for sharing this. I owe my entire professional existence to two individuals who mentored me… my Great Uncle Ray Stevens who himself was mentored by Arthur D. Little and my first boss US Senator Frank Church. I think about both of them all the time even though they both passed on in the early 1980s. I’m signing up for your $25/mo offer right this minute!

  3. Pingback: Mentoring v Coaching — is there a difference? | The Musings of the Big Red Car

  4. The Kid is no longer the kid, he’s the Man. Great win story BRC, keep ’em coming. Would mentoring be your 4th or 5th profession? It’s nothing less.

  5. My mentors have changed my life and that’s no exaggeration.

    Moved out of home at 17 and pretty much made every decision thanks to having lost dad. Found a whole family outside of home.

    And I owe most of what’s good in my life.

    Far from a head fake, I think.. but then again, what do I know? 🙂

Comments are closed.