10 Lessons My Mentors Taught Me That You Should Know Too

10 Lessons My Mentors Taught Me That You Should Know Too

“A mentor is someone who sees more talent and ability within you, than you see in yourself, and helps bring it out of you.”

I have been lucky enough to have great mentors throughout my career who have taught me a lot about myself personally and professionally. They invested their time and expertise to teach me lessons that have helped me reach many of my career goals. My mentors are diverse. I am the beneficiary of their varied backgrounds and experiences. This article highlights 10 lessons my mentors taught me that you should know too.

If the job you want doesn’t exist, create it.

I learned this from one of my female mentors. Gaye is her name. I watched Gaye as she made this move in her career.  Over several months, Gaye transitioned from a call center general manager (GM) to a senior leader in the company’s information technology department. She identified a company need for a technology consultant and liaison with external clients. Gaye committed herself to learning about the company’s technology infrastructure and capabilities. Then, Gaye persuaded the chief executives that she was the person to fill the gap. The lesson here is to be creative about your career. Feeling stuck in a dead-end job is a rarity if you follow Gaye’s advice. Whether you reinvent your current role (which is what I have done a few times) or create a new position as Gaye did, this lesson can lead to increased career mobility and satisfaction.

Be relatable.

Tim, a senior human resources executive, taught me a lot about emotional intelligence. He coached me on the art of being relatable, which is essential to influencing others. When I had a project that required senior HR leadership approval, I had to present at their weekly staff meeting. Still relatively new to the company, I had not established friendly relationships with the senior leaders. My formal and reserved personality didn’t help. Tim taught me how to flex my style to appear more approachable and relatable. What was his advice? Smile more. Show a sense of humor. Accept a cup of coffee, if offered. He told me people are influenced by those to whom they can relate. So, be relatable. He was right.

Step outside your comfort zone.

I am a human resources leader. I had always led learning and development functions for various companies until I met Joe and Doug. I consider them to be both mentors and sponsors. As my mentors, these men supported my growth and development, gave advice and coached me. As sponsors, Joe and Doug advocated for me. Joe convinced the chief executive officer and other senior executives to give me a chance to lead another area of the business. They pushed me to step out of my comfort zone as a human resources leader and take a position as a call center GM, managing a 400-seat customer care center. In the role, I was responsible for all facets of the call center, including the profit and loss with roughly $21 million revenue potential. This responsibility was a huge stretch for me. I did that job for 18 months, and it was one of the best career decisions I have made. The lesson Doug and Joe taught me is to accept opportunities, when given, to demonstrate the versatility and transferability of your skills, particularly those with profit and loss accountability.

“Mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push in the right direction.” ~ John C. Crosby 

Know the people and know the business.

My current manager is also my mentor. When I joined the company, he and I discussed the plan for my first 90 days. He said to keep it simple: know the people and know the business. His advice gives the nod to two career truths. Organizations are human systems where relationships are paramount to success. And, knowing the business helps me work on things that are relevant to the company’s success. Relevancy leads to credibility. The lesson is to resist the temptation to come in and immediately form a strategy, take on a big project, or make sweeping changes. Any of those actions taken without having built relationships and without having context could prove disastrous. And, first impressions can be lasting impressions.

Know the numbers.

Similar to knowing the business, it is important to know the numbers or metrics that measure success for the company. When I was a call center GM, I had tutors. Art was my immediate manager and my teacher. He gave me boot camp-like instruction in call center management 101 and financial acumen. Before it was all over, I knew what levers impacted earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA). The EBITDA is a measure of operating performance. Art taught me that in business, there are a lot of numbers. However, the lesson is to know the critical few that matter most. It is important to know how the company makes money. The trail of decisions usually leads back to revenue growth. This lesson helped me make better decisions as the call center GM and under my leadership revenue grew. The lesson for you – know the numbers that matter and know how what you do impacts the bottom line.

Focus on solving business problems.

I love my work. The lines blur between work and play for me. One of my greatest joys is helping individuals and teams reach their fullest potential. In my job, I am responsible for creating initiatives that impact the 3 E’s: engagement, effectiveness, and efficiency. But, in my ear, I still hear my mentor Joe telling me, “Tonya, not everyone has the same passion about your work as you do.” Joe was not saying my work was insignificant. What he was telling me is that the best initiatives at the wrong time are worthless. Joe helped me understand that people can only absorb so much at a given time. If the company is undergoing significant change, it may not be the right time to introduce yet another leadership development program, regardless of how good it is. Instead, know the present needs of the business, the concerns that keep leaders up at night. Then, focus your efforts on solving real business problems.

It’s not that complicated.

I have a coworker who I swear is a walking encyclopedia, news organization, and company historian all wrapped up in one. He is smart, thoughtful, and well-read. He’s a man of few words, but when he speaks, it’s usually insightful. He makes everyone around him smarter. I envy his depth of business acumen. I told my mentor, Ed, about how inferior I sometimes feel when I compare my business knowledge to my coworker’s. It’s not even a realistic comparison because my coworker has been with the company twice as long as I have. Still, I always wish I knew more and could talk with ease about the business. Ed is a matter-of-fact leader, a veteran of the company for 30 years, profoundly knowledgeable and also a man of few words. I am lucky to receive his wisdom. Ed told me, “It’s not that complicated.”

Similar to the lesson I learned from Art about focusing on the critical few, Ed told me it’s not essential – at least not on an everyday basis – to know a long list of factoids about the company. Instead, he told me the four to five things I should always monitor to understand the health of the company. Those things, he said, cover over 80 percent of what matters most to the business. I took his advice. And, though I still have more to learn, I do find that I can hold my own and contribute valuable points in almost any business conversation. There are several lessons to learn from Ed’s advice. Indeed, one is the 80/20 rule applies. It takes only 20% of the right data and information to understand 80% of the business. Most companies call these their key performance indicators (KPIs). Other points Ed taught me are to stop underestimating myself and overestimating others; to keep it simple; and to remember, it’s not that complicated.


“A mentor helps you to perceive your own weaknesses and confront them with courage.” ~Anonymous

Take the job no one else wants.

I agree this lesson is tricky. It is wise to understand why no one may want the job and weigh its merits. However, if the reason is that it’s risky, requires sacrifice, or is not as prestigious, those may not be good enough to turn down the opportunity. My mentor, Doug, who led many sales teams for many different organizations taught me that. He attributed his career success to a willingness to take on jobs that other people didn’t want to do. In some cases, the duties entailed grunt work. He did them anyway. And, because he demonstrated his readiness to do whatever it took to help the company, he found himself on an accelerated path to senior leadership. The lesson for me is not to let ego keep me from realizing an excellent opportunity. And, it is worth remembering that sometimes the path to bigger and better things is not paved. Sometimes it’s a grassy road in want of wear that makes all the difference.

Exorcise your fears.

Several years ago I received a job offer. Accepting the role required me to relocate. It was a big decision. I tried to rationalize why I should not take the position. It was an inconvenient time to make a change because I was finishing my doctorate. I was a high potential employee at the company, and I loved where I worked. However, the offer was compelling. I met with my mentor, Tim. He asked me why I was afraid. I didn’t recognize that my hesitation was due to fear. I decided to exorcise my fears and accept the job. I have no regrets. I have been with my current company for eight years. I am a high potential, and I love where I work. The lesson from this experience and Tim’s advice is that fear can keep us from our next big thing. Don’t let it. If you are a valued employee at one company, you will likely be a valued employee at another. Your talents, knowledge, and skills travel with you.

Know When It’s Time to Leave.

I am a company loyalist. I attribute it to my baby boomer upbringing. While I believe it is beneficial to have varied work experiences, I do have a bias against changing jobs and companies with such frequency that it is difficult to measure any meaningful impact I have made. However, being loyal and not reading the handwriting on the wall are two different things. My mentor, Joe, helped me realize this truth. I was at a company that was going through difficult times. I inclined to ride the rough waters and hang on. However, Joe educated me on signals that indicate when it may be time to leave. He advised me to listen to the company’s earnings calls and follow the stock price. He told me to observe who was exiting the business (i.e., chief executives, salespeople) – the leaders in charge of setting the company’s vision and strategy and those responsible for generating revenue. His wise counsel proved timely. I left the organization before job eliminations. Eventually, the company went private and moved its headquarters to another state. In this example, reduced business performance led to dramatic changes in ownership and the operating model. Assess the company’s ability to fulfill its mission and values and your ability to realize your career objectives. If either one is in jeopardy that may indicate it’s time to go.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou

I am grateful for my mentors. Their wise counsel, coaching, and advocacy have helped me be a better person and leader. They helped me increase my business acumen, develop skills, seize opportunities, and make career moves when needed. And, I am especially thankful because I know they care about me.  I hope what my mentors taught me will benefit you as well. Perhaps the most important lesson I can share is, get a mentor.

When you know better, you do better. 

© 2017 Tonya Harris Cornileus, Ph.D.

All Rights Reserved.


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