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Five things I learned from having a great mentor

by Chris
1 comment

I was listening to Jeff Goins’ podcast this Saturday. In the show, he shared…

Once there was a writer who arrived at the monastery to write a book about the Master.

“People say you are a genius. Are you?”, he asked

“You might say so.” said the Master, none too modestly.

“And what makes one a genius?”, asked the writer.

“The ability to recognize”, the Master responded.

Writer: “Recognize what?”

Then the master replied…

“Recognize the butterfly in a caterpillar, the eagle in an egg, the saint in a selfish human being…”

In the course of my career in the IT industry, I have switched seamlessly to different roles. From software developer, to software testing. Then from software testing to management.

In the process, I’ve met and work with a number of talented bosses and mentors some of which I wouldn’t forget.

First, there was Miss Ryza, who taught me the discipline of software development. She was the one who taught me that it’s OK to rest for a while when you can’t get your code to work, sleep over it, and come back with a fresh set of eyes until you find a way to solve it. And she was right. That method always worked for me.

Then there is Mr. M. He is also a software developer (and formerly a software tester) and he was the one who taught me to become super organized. Like me, he also believed in building quality software. He sees himself in me and as he rose up to the corporate ladder, he brought me along with him and I am forever thankful for this.

There is also Mr. RJ. He is in management and most of the things I know about leading people I learned from him. These include keeping engineers and your staff engaged and making sure that we hire and retain the best people. He also taught me how to navigate office politics – in a good and very professional way. One thing I would never forget when I asked him about office politics is this:

“Never let office politics distract you from what your true purpose is. Focus on the high road. Focus on the more important things and I assure you that good things will come to you.”

That is something I will never forget up to this day.

But perhaps, the best mentor that I ever came across and one who really struck me and pushed my limits is none other than Mr. G.

Mr. G is a genius. He is a visionary. He is exactly the person described in Jeff Goins’ podcast in the sense that He recognizes talent when nobody else could.

He is different from my other mentors because he is not a software developer, nor a tester. He is in Product Management. Plus, he is not even my boss.

I remember my first few years of interactions with him. He would ask me to do small things for him.

Things like:

Preparing a short video for a presentation he needs for the clients.

Interviewing some customers and sending him a report about them.

Presenting one of the agendas in a meeting.

At first, I was skeptical. I initially thought, why would I need to do all these stuff when I am busy with other things that are more related to my software engineering role?

But I gave it a chance because I love trying out new things and I like helping other people.

See, most people would see these tasks as an unnecessary burden especially that it is not in the scope of their job description. But I took them all seriously because I’m the kind of person who likes to go the extra mile and do more than what was asked of me. I also think that doing so allows me to discover and learn new things which are beyond my role. Plus, there was something about Mr. G that makes me want to follow him.

Over time, he gave me bigger roles and next thing I knew, he was helping me progress in my career and making me more influential in the organization. He would always ask me to lead projects even if it wasn’t necessarily tied to my job description.

In short, he saw the talent in me even if I didn’t see it myself.

So what did I learn in the course of working with these mentors? Plenty. But here are the Top 5 I can think about.

1. A boss tells you your mistake. A mentor tells you your mistake and tells you exactly how to correct it.

If you think that Mr. G. is an easy boss to please, think again. I got my own fair share of “scolding” when I’m not doing things the right way (even if I don’t directly report to him). But that “scolding” is very professional. He is very calm when he tells me my mistake BUT he does not sugar coat. He tells me exactly what I need to improve, where I’m failing and where I’m succeeding – and I appreciate that!

I idolize Mr. G a lot. So when he would tell me a mistake I did, I would spend the next two days thinking over and over about it and how I would correct it.

Ordinary bosses will just tell you your mistake. But as for Mr. G, he is a REAL mentor. He is like a coach of a basketball team. He tells precisely what went wrong and gives you very specific tips and suggestions on how you could correct it and improve next time.

After all, we all have blind spots and biases about our own strengths and weaknesses and only a true mentor can help shape you to become a better person.

2. “The best teachers are those who show you where to look, but don’t tell you what to see.”

I remember there was a time I was leading a new project in the office.

There was a question that I had from my team which I didn’t have an answer to.

I Googled, looked over our office’s knowledge base and documentation, but I just couldn’t find the correct answer.

I asked Mr. G because I am 100% sure that he knew the answer to it.

When he answered my question, I was a bit disappointed at first. That’s because he didn’t give me a straight nor concrete answer. Instead, he gave me hints and clues that will lead me to the correct answer.

In the end, I got the answer to my own question by figuring it out on my own. Later, I would realize that Mr. G intentionally allowed me to use my own resourcefulness because he knew I was smart enough to figure out the answer to it.

3. Words I won’t forget: “CHRIS, YOU GOT THIS!”

There is a lot of self-doubt when you are asked to lead a certain project or do something that you haven’t done before.

That was something that happened to me when I was asked to spearhead a project which I knew nothing of.

But the irony about life is that the only way to grow and become a better person than you were before is to do something which you are most terrified of.

And that is what my mentor, Mr. G. did to me. He pushed me to do things I thought I could never do. He believed in me even if I didn’t believe in my own capabilities.

Because just like the story I narrated in the beginning of this blog post, a good mentor…

“Recognizes the butterfly in a caterpillar, the eagle in an egg, the saint in a selfish human being…”

On my first day to lead a project that I was unfamiliar with, Mr. G, knowing I was a bit nervous, told me words I would never forget:

“Chris, good luck today. Stay focused. You got this!”

And just like that, I realized that’s all the validation I needed to hear to make things happen.

After all, Mr. G is a great mentor. He believed in me even if I didn’t believe in myself at first. That was enough for me to gain the confidence I needed to lead this new project. And you know how the project I led went? It was an enormous success.

4. “When I talk to a manager I get the feeling they’re important. When I talk to a leader I get the feeling I’m important.” – Alexander den Heijer.

Read that quote again.

One of the greatest characteristics of a good mentor or leader is the ability to make you feel that you are important no matter how big or small your role or job title may seem to the organization.

Most managers have a tendency to make themselves look more superior and more important than any of their staff.

But with an awesome manager and a great mentor? It’s the complete opposite. Instead of putting the spotlight on themselves, they put the spotlight on you and talk about how crucial your role is to the organization.

And when you feel how much you are valued, it gives you an extra boost to do things beyond what you think you could do and create things you never thought was possible.

5. In the absence of a mentor, a book is your best alternative

Maybe I’m kind of lucky because I have these great bosses and mentors who taught me a bunch of stuff.

But what if you wanted to have a mentor not just in the corporate world but also in other areas like entrepreneurship, sports, relationships and what not?

How would you find a mentor?

You see my wife is a certified bookworm. Around 80% of our bookshelves at home are filled with her books. When I asked her why she had this obsession with books, she said that one of the things she learned lately in life is that books are treasures. That’s because in the absence of a mentor, a book is your best alternative to one.

And she was right. Not everyone has the proper connections to mentors who have your best interests in mind. And not everyone can access or simply talk to hugely successful people like Mark Zuckerburg, Bill Gates, Sir Richard Branson, Mark Cuban etc. and ask for mentorship. So I think for the general population, reading self-help books from authors who have made it and biographies of successful people is the best way to educate yourself and learn from the masters who have made it to the top.

Some of my personal favorite self-help books that “mentored” me and which I recommend to you are:

  • How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
  • Atomic Habits by James Clear
  • Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon (which includes Show Your Work (Book 2) and Keep Going (Book 3))

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1 comment

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[…] I bought this one in particular because I connected to it. These are the exact three words uttered to me by my great mentor which I talked to you about in my recent post. […]

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