Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Value of Mentorship

Excluding my father, who was a great mentor, but unfortunately departed this world too early to mentor me professionally, I’ve only had one mentor in my life. And I emphasize ‘only’ because it’s sad that we don’t have a culture that encourages mentorship until the day we die. It’s worth noting, some people are not willing to be mentored; and some people who claim or aspire to be mentors, are motivated by delusions of self-grandeur. In the Air Force, they assigned a senior officer as a mentor to me when I was a lowly lieutenant, but he was more concerned about impressing me than improving me.  And there’s a difference between a role model and a mentor.  We are surrounded, gratefully, by the former, not so lucky with the latter.  The mentor is a role model, but also spends selfless one-on-one time with the protege.  That personal attention and coaching is priceless.
Ron Gault was my mentor at TRW Space & Defense when I transitioned from the Air Force to civilian life. He was not a mentor by formal title, but rather by his role model behavior. By title, he was my supervisor and boss. Ron became my mentor because he behaved in a way that endeared me to those behaviors. I wanted to be more like him and wanted to treat people the way he treated them.
He advised me, he encouraged me, and he allowed me to make non-fatal mistakes. He gave me the freedom to be myself and allowed me to pursue crazy ideas, some of which were fruitful and some were not. He fostered humor at work and exhibited selflessness at every opportunity. He indulged my rebellious nature. He put me and other members of our team in the spotlight when it was more common for other supervisors to occupy the spotlight or take credit for success themselves.
He exhibited a constant sense of curiosity and passion for learning that rippled out to all of us. He role modeled the old school habits of hard work and complete reliability — when he committed to something, he lived up to the commitment, no matter how hard it was to do so and how much effort it took. He reinforced the notion that, if you nurture interpersonal relations at work and with your clients, the quality of your work will be high, as a natural outcome.
In the end, his mentoring didn’t stop with me. He made me appreciate the value of mentoring so highly that I’ve tried ever since to live up to what he did for me with my mentorship of my teams at work, as well as with my nieces, nephews, and friends’ children.
The nice thing is, even though we don’t work together directly any more, he’s still my mentor. He’s still the person I call first when I have a perplexing problem, personally or professionally. If I could just get him to be a better horse rider at getaway speeds, he’d be perfect. (That’s an inside joke about our oft referenced movie, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid.)
There are a handful other people that have blessed my life with the behaviors and wisdom of mentorship — Jim Adams of the Advisory Board, Denis Protti of the University of Victoria British Columbia, Dr. David Burton, Al Pryor, and Larry Grandia of Intermountain Healthcare, and Dr. Jim Schroeder of Northwestern University Medical.
But the influence of their mentorship couldn’t match what Ron provided. The bond of Ron’s mentorship was forged on the anvil of some very exciting and challenging projects at TRW that would be very difficult to replicate, and it came at a crucially young time in my professional life when the future was still maleable and success uncertain.

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