You Had Help Along the Way, So Be a Mentor (Not a Boss)

By Joe Venuti on January 31, 2020

If you’re in the midst of a successful career as a leader in any capacity, you had someone show you the ropes at some point.  Nobody rises through the ranks without any guidance, help, or support along the way. 

We all see the posts on social media about people leaving managers, not companies.  This is true, but I think it goes way deeper than just simply being a good leader to manage retention at the moment. 

Look Out For Future Leaders 

I have been fortunate in my career to be in the right place at the right time more than once, and had the advantage of a few great mentors. I think we all just need a little bit of luck along the way.  My job first was with a contract security company where I was a security guard making $8/hour. I was a good employee, I showed up on time, never called out, was willing to work overtime, always did what was asked of me, and always looked to take the lead and learn as I went.  Granted, my overall responsibility was not much, but I truly did the best I could and wanted to stand out as a good employee. At the age of 21, I did not realize I was showing all the signs companies look for in future leaders. 

Well, fast forward 3 years and I was offered an Operations Manager position.  I worked under a very tenured boss (not a leader) and I had 15 people reporting directly to me. I was lost…  Most of my team was 20+ years older than me and I had no idea how to gain their respect or get anything accomplished.  I tried ruling by fear and was quick to write up and or terminate people. I had no clue how to coach up at that time in my career.  

Pay It Forward 

As it turns out, my boss at that point was even worse of a manager than I was. He was very abruptly let go from the organization for some major integrity infractions.  Due to my good relationship with our onsite client however, the decision was made to promote me into his role. Now, I had total responsibility for Global Security for a very large company.  I had 10 sites with security officers, supervisors, and managers at each one. Not to mention all of the electronic security employees and contractors to manage. 

I thought to myself, “fake it till you make it” and just do the best you can. My new boss was a gentleman by the name of Sean who to this day I hold in the highest regard.  

My first mentor, Sean had about 20 years of experience with that company and to me, he had seen and done it all.  In my first meeting in his office, I looked at pictures of him working security for the President of the United States.  I thought “Man am I screwed, how am I going to convince this guy that I can do this job and not get fired!” 

Well, a funny thing happened in that first meeting. Over the next 2 hours in his office, we hardly talked about work.  We got to know one another as equals — just 2 humans talking and starting a relationship. We built immediate trust.

I ended up spending the next 5 years working for Sean and he taught me everything I know about business today. I have no idea where I would be in my career without him.  Nothing was too confidential (within reason) for him to show me, and all of my mistakes were nothing more than a chance for him to teach me something new. Slowly but surely, the operation I was leading became the standard of success that everyone else was trying to achieve.  

Eventually, Sean started talking to me about my career and what was next. How do I get into a district-level role like him?  And while he did not want to lose me, he did nothing but praise me to the entire organization and would always tell me when new roles were opening up that I should apply for.  He was my mentor, advocate, and to this day someone I consider a good friend.  

I wound up getting promoted and a few more years down the line I left that company for a sales role as my career passion and goals had shifted. 

Over the next 15 years, I have held a number of roles in leading sales teams.  I strive to be to my team what Sean was to me.  

Now this gets much harder as you run larger organizations and don’t have meaningful interactions every day with each non-manager on your staff.  Be sure to always make time for everyone on your team, and let them know you’re approachable. Reward effort over outcome in the right situations. Regardless of the size of the team or your overall responsibilities, make time for the people. The sacrifice will be longer hours for you, but hey, that’s why you make the big bucks right? 

Employees Are People Too 

Sales reps and managers are not just walking quotas.  They are real people with families, bills, and problems just like you. They are trying to do the best they can and hopefully, they can learn and move up to better their lives as well.  If you treat them like commodities, trust that they can and will go get another job.

Take the time to get to know your people on a personal level to be vested in not just their professional but personal goals.  Learn what is their “why” and then leverage all this to push them to be better each day. Sure, the grid is hard but the juice is worth the squeeze.  I firmly believe in not managing to a quota, and instead managing to your people. The numbers will take care of themselves. 

Be realistic. 99% of people you hire will eventually move on to another role either inside or outside of your organization. Make it your mission to lose people internally and not hold them stagnant until someone else helps them realize their full potential.  Do the right thing, be their advocate, and push them to be great. Eventually they will move on, but take great pride in preparing someone for the next level and helping them build a better life. If you do these things you will get the maximum effort and great production from them.  If these are not goals of yours as a leader, you should consider if you are in the right role.  

Inspiration vs. Intimidation 

For the right leader, people will work hard without being asked, and have pride in what they do.  Give them a voice and a sense of purpose. Hire people for culture over competence, and then coach them up.  If you do these things, when you need that big end-of-the-quarter to push your efforts will be paid back tenfold.   I frequently acknowledge openly to my team that I know I push hard and demand a high level of performance but I ALWAYS make sure to praise their accomplishments.  It does not have to be money or bonuses. A pat on the back or a job well done goes a long way. Everyone craves success and appreciation. So appreciate their efforts and celebrate success publicly as often as possible.  When you have to make a hard or unpopular decision, they will understand you are acting in the best interest of the team because you have built trust and a real human connection.

As a leader, you need to wear many hats: coach, mentor, boss, friend, enforcer, confidant, therapist, and the list goes on…  So be all those things but never lose sight of your single largest responsibility and priority—the people!

If I can impact a small percent of the people’s lives who work for me like Sean did mine, then I know I am doing something right.

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