If you’re lucky in the course of your career, you’ll meet a mentor who takes enough of an interest in you to share one vital lesson. It is a message that is often bruising to the ego but if you hear it properly and take it to heart. It is the difference between growing and progressing throughout your career or plateauing in your early thirties and falling into a rut until you retire.
I received this lesson when I was 25. At that time, I thought I was a hot property. I had purchased my first home, had a private office at work and had been promoted several times. Then my mentor, Vern, invited me out to lunch.
Vern was a consultant the partners of our company had hired to provide us a guiding hand. He was the calm voice of reason who had a grip on the proverbial rudder that steered the unbridled ambition that characterized our team. In his career, before he retired into the consultant’s life, Vern had been president of a major multi-national corporation. When left that job it was to become CEO of a larger multi-national corporation. When he “retired” to become a consultant the first thing he did was to broker the merger of these two multi-nationals. Vern had the credibility. He was someone you listened to.
He treated me to wonderful lunch and as we ate, Vern told me all things I already knew. He told me that my understanding of the market and my place in it was impressive. He told me that my work from the stage and how I engaged with an audience was remarkable. He basically told me that all my skills and knowledge as they applied to my individual role were excellent.
Then he told me that if I intended to build my career only relying on my “personal smarts” I had probably reached the highest level I could realistically hope for and that was about level 3 on a scale of 1 to 10.
Then he told me this. When you limit yourself to what you can physically do on your own, there will always be a limit to how far you can go. To become a truly successful manager, executive, entrepreneur, or even politician, you must develop the skill of being able to manifest your work, at the highest quality, through others. You must become an effective teacher, salesperson, negotiator, communicator and leader. He was telling me that it was time to stop focusing on myself and learn how to focus on the people who could take me to new levels. That focus made me a better person, and while I’m still learning, I know now that I never would have come this far if I had not heard the message.
Vern left me with this quote. Always remember the soul of any business is its people.
“Leading an organization is as much about soul as it is about systems.
Effective leadership finds its source in understanding.” - Herb Kelleher
Co-founder, CEO, and Chairman Emeritus of Southwest Airlines