The Mentor

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The office was massive.  It had a desk on which you could play war games. There was a grand view. Seating for several petitioners. Walls filled with certificates and diplomas from schools across the country.  Professional associations.  Letters of commendation and praise. Other icons, many mysterious.

The office was guarded by a secretary of slight frame, librarian’s glasses. A severe dress and shoes.  She looked like a company fixture. The furnishings, the decorations and the colours of the walls all bore her stamp.  Her ownership of that work area and all that went on there was unmistakable.  You knew by her bearing that no one got through that inner door without her approval.  Possibly those that got through once didn’t again if it didn’t suit her. This was my first encounter with employee empowerment, a term that would not be in vogue in management circles for a decade.

She controlled the office of the chief executive with the calm and diligence of a Vatican Palace guard.  He received no calls that she had not screened.  He read no correspondence that she had not researched and attached both background and analysis.  He rarely saw his appointment book.  He knew only who he was to see that day.  But he was fully briefed on who was coming and what their agenda was.

His salary reflected his management skills: as one example, his uncanny ability to not only get the best deal possible for the organization but to almost always deliver a satisfied client.  He was a peacemaker as well as a dealmaker.  He was a master negotiator, a man of acute perception. He was also a man of unwavering expectations.  In this he was formidable.  He was soft only in his certainty that there were many ways one could skin a cat.  He knew several dozen, but he was always ready to learn another. He was my mentor.

Into this awesome environment I came clutching my summons for a job interview. In meeting the guardian of the gate I had mixed emotions.  I was gratified to be summoned.  It appeared to be a challenging job, one that offered a business card, a personal office and the salaries and benefits that go with executive level work.  At the same time it was in a field in which I had had no prior experience.  Perhaps I was suffering a measure of insecurity with the prospect of working in the executive wing.  But more of concern was the prospect of working at all for a large corporation.

I came from an academic and community development background. I had often been on the front steps of people such as I was about to meet. I was then not seeking favours but rather challenging notions of how this particular city, or activity, or business should or should not work in terms of improving something we then called “quality of life”. In short, I had been a social activist.

But in the context of the real world, I would come to realize that we had been killing ourselves over brush fires. Continually battling on the fringe, treating symptoms, never really confronting root causes.  I was at the threshold of learning that real, sustained change comes from within.

But it was a jump to find myself in the realm of the company pension plan and salary deductions.  Many of my former associates had survived quite happily on part time work, scholarships and odd jobs.  Indeed, many of us might have liked to spend the rest of our lives on or near campus. That oft sought after “quality of life” was high indeed within the academic community.

But in some cases reality intervened. I was thrust from the nest by the emergence of a family. Though I anticipated some transitional cultural shock it was a rattler to find myself on the corporate floor, about to be presented to the company big wig.

He was awesome.  He commanded that room – from the tightly secured inner door to the glass walls fronting the plaza. It was immediately apparent I was in the presence of the commander-in-chief. As I stood, hands primly clasped in supplication, I felt along the building corridors, out to the shops and warehouses. I felt his presence everywhere.  It was overwhelming.

“This man has never smiled”, I said to myself.  I felt like I should do a little foot shuffle, clasp my cap in my hand and say something totally inane like “sorry to be botherin ya suh, I musta takin a wrong turn.  Well I’ll just be moisyin along”.  Into this bizarre chain of thoughts came an outstretched hand and a very genial invitation to sit and be comfortable.  “Coffee”, he asked.  “Uh, no thanks” I stammered though I would have traded the decrepit eight year old Austin Mini on the curb outside for one.

“Well”, he said, “I want you to know that I’m very impressed with your credentials (“credentials”?).  You have just the combination of education and experience that I’ve been looking for. (“education, experience”?).  I was adrift.

As I ruminated on this he went on to talk about what it was they did in this outfit.  “We give service here”, he said.  “We give people their money’s worth”.  He went on at some length about his personal objectives and how they related to the corporate ones.  He eased into what had led him to hire an executive assistant.  I was not keeping up.  I was back there discussing “credentials” with myself.

After about 30 minutes of this I realized I was being offered the job.  “Are you offering me a job”, I asked, demonstrating that whatever assumptions he had made about my “credentials” had to be wrong.  He showed a slight impatience (much less than I deserved).  “Of course”, he said, “are you prepared to accept it?  What I’m offering is….”, and he named an astronomical salary (five figures!), an opportunity to learn, with immediate assumption of some key tasks.

At that moment I knew I was out of my league.  What on earth did this man see in me?  I felt I had never done anything significant enough to warrant even this meeting. And he wanted to keep me around afterwards!  I gathered myself together enough to stammer “I’ll have to think about it… I’ll have to talk to my wife. I’ll have to find a place to live”…..and so on.  In reflection, that series of stammerings must have sounded very tedious.

Expecting the offer to be withdrawn now that I had shown my true executive capacity I retreated to the door.  I assured him I would call just as soon as I could, possibly tomorrow.  Maybe this evening.  I bolted.

My wife has always been the intuitive one.  Over long distance she pressed for a detailed accounting of all that had happened.  Her questions were strange and seemingly unconnected.  It took her several costly minutes but she finally extracted what she needed to know.  She had sized the boss up as a mentor.  She knew me, she knew our future needs, and she knew that a mentor was just what I needed to get properly underway.

I called in the next morning.  “I accept”, I said, wondering what else one says in a situation like this.  “Fine”, he said, “when can you start?”.  I knew I had forgotten something.  Like Stephen Leacock in the bank I got rattled.  “Tomorrow?”, I asked.  He had the good grace to take this as a feeble attempt at humour.  “No, we can handle things here for a couple of weeks, I think.  How about two weeks from Monday?”

“That’ll be great”, I replied, wondering whether there were some very serious problems then that he hadn’t told me about.  “Come in Monday the twelfth and we’ll get you signed in, and I’ll show you around”.  I made the long drive home in a daze.

I repeated the details of the interview and the organization about a hundred times with my wife, my mother, friends, associates and people who wandered in off the street.  No one however seemed interested in my views.  The talk evolved to the best colour for office drapes, the possibility of a new car, the rigours of moving in winter.

But my time with my mentor was to be short.  To me he had appeared rooted to the spot. He was in fact on a fast track, a highly competent individual who would not be satisfied until he had reached his pinnacle.  In my naivety I thought he would be a part of the organization for years to come.  We would work together, I would learn and he would teach.  I would have a structured and gradual introduction to the world of business and corporate affairs.

In eight months he would be gone and I would be facing, six months later, a new man behind that war games desk. This newcomer would not receive the endorsement of the guardian of the gate.  Among his many unpardonable sins was his complete disregard of the guardian’s brilliant cross-filing system.

These reflections then are of only a short period of time. Short though it was, my mentor crammed a decade of learning and wisdom into the very empty head of his young executive assistant.

After his departure, and ever since I realized the immeasurable talents of the man.  I was inspired to bring his name forward in later years for an international award, which he received.  While I worked for him I had no comparisons.  Over the ensuing decades I had the fortune, or lack of it, to work with, for and over nearly every conceivable type of manager.  It was my simple good fortune to learn the rudiments at the feet of the master.

I learned the importance of details and of the “big picture”.  I learned that style is sometimes everything, and that truth is always everything.  I learned that creativity requires support to flourish, that risk taking occurs only in organizations that back their people.  That when executives demonstrate excellence, everyone ultimately buys in.

I learned the fundamentals of teamwork, negotiating, strategic planning and conflict resolution.  I learned about the power of the press and how to survive when it takes a vindictive turn.  There were lessons in office organization and control, in financial management and the bottom line.

My mentor, in spite of his customary three piece suit, could charm candy from a three year old.  At a social event for labour and management the young son of a union president asked my mentor why, if he was such a nice person, there was a need for a union.  “Because”, came the reply, “bosses were not always nice, and sometimes even today don’t always consider their employees in decisions”.  The union head was, needless to say, very pleased by this impromptu reply.

On another occasion my mentor badgered the power utility on terms and conditions for new lighting in the plant’s buildings.  Such costs, I thought, are non negotiable.  They put up the poles, you pay.  Q.E.D.  This would be lesson number 126: “Everything is negotiable”.  My mentor explained afterwards he had saved the company $200,000 in energy costs over the next 10 years by a one hour negotiation.  I took little for granted from that day forward.

It was in employee relations that I learned the most from my mentor.  He had an uncanny ability for remembering names, faces and what people did.  He also knew spouses names, whether there were children or not, and what major family events might be coming up.  I told him he was very lucky to have this talent.  “It’s not talent at all,”, he replied, “it’s work.  It’s the hardest, most important work I do”.  I have never forgotten this either, though I have never equalled his energy, nor his capacity.

Later, I became a teacher of policy and management.  I read what the brightest minds in business, government and industry had to say. They speculated about matters that my mentor had tested, and rejected or adopted years before. I continue to hear “new found truths” from business school graduates who had never really managed and don’t understand how such truths are arrived at. Accordingly, few practice what they preach.

The most lasting, and possibly most revealing managerial trait he possessed was his open door policy.  He always seemed to have time to talk. He enjoyed free ranging discussions on the issues of the day.  This privilege was available to all. But few took him up on it.  He never glanced at his watch (as we all do) nor once gave the impression of drifting off as we mumbled on about or own hopes and dreams.  You knew his time was yours and that he was completely attentive.

But this for him was productive time.  The conversation was guided, often with subtle coercion, and always to resolution.  To you it may have appeared as aimless chit chat, but always you came away with a heightened sense of purpose.  And he knew you, and the organization, a little bit better.

My mentor and I now work within a few kilometres of each other. He is still insightful, analytic, persuasive and highly visionary. But you had better be prepared, if you plan on lunching with him, to have your meal interrupted by greetings from his many friends and associates, all of whom have been touched by his values and leadership.

This essay is in testimony to Murray E. MacLean, now retired from a lifetime of service in Canada’s local government.

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Interested in my other work? Here’s my book on success without conflict.

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