If you’re reading this, you owe someone back there a debt of gratitude for the advice, counsel, and concern-for-your-future invested in you. If someone cared enough about you to celebrate your successes but to be brutally honest when you screwed up, to refocus you when you lost your bearings or to kick you in the ass when you allowed a sour impulse to override your common sense, you were lucky You are living well today because someone, maybe several, became your mentor for a moment, a month, or for years.
I am remembering my mentors with the hope that it will prompt you to remember yours — and your obligation to pass along to others those gifts that can only be repaid in kind.
Robert L. (Bob) Stockment was as close to a leprechaun as anyone I’ve ever known. It wasn’t that he was short, because he wasn’t. It was more his smile, his laughter, his ability to be kind and gentle even in the midst of the most inconvenient muddles. He was the one, more than any other person, who taught me how to be a presenter, a public speaker, a lecturer. His message was simple: “People want to laugh, to be entertained, more than they want to learn. But if you can allow them to have fun, you will be amazed at how much they will learn.”
A number of times, participants have asked if I was a boxer, and when I can be scrupulously honest, I have to confess that I never was – but my mentor was! And like a duckling imprinting on the first thing it sees, I imprinted on Bob, his easy, expressive style, and his self-deprecating humor, and his way of moving among participants rather than standing behind or hanging onto a podium. I watched him lecture, I watched him sitting in circles with groups of executives, and the way he would reach out to include them in discussions and to support them when they participated. He was the instant friend, the good listener who made everyone feel comfortable.
When I met Bob, he was working for the Agricultural Research Service, recently returned from a stint in New York as an executive with a major organization for managers. He had liked the job, most of his associates, and the majority of the executives he met. But not his boss, who assigned to Bob the disagreeable collateral duty of finding women to be escorts and sleep-over companions for some of the visiting executives. So he returned to Washington and government employment.
One of his first assignments as training director for Agricultural Research Service involved enhancing the managerial performance of the Service’s director. It was an assignment organized by someone very senior in the Department of Agriculture who saw a need, an opportunity for a solution, and made it happen.
The director, an MD/PhD scientist, came to their first meeting, wearing his white lab coat and carrying a clipboard. He was almost sarcastic when he threw down his gauntlet, the world-renowned scientist confronting a man with no academic credentials. “Okay, Bob, how are you going to make me into a better manager?”
In that beautiful way he had, of smiling and dropping one shoulder as though he was ready to fire a right hand to the body, Bob said, “Well, sir, the first thing you need to do is take off that lab coat. It identifies you as a scientist. It locks you into the safe role as a researcher, as an expert, as an authority. It causes the people who work for you to respond to you as a technical advisor. That keeps them from seeing you as an executive and it keeps you in the dance of pleasing them instead of providing direction for the growth and future of the Agricultural Research Service.”
The director looked at Bob, without moving, for nearly a minute. Then he shrugged, took off the lab coat, tossed it onto a chair. He sat down and asked, “Okay, Bob, what else do I need to know?” They did not need many such conversations, and as far as anyone could tell, the director never again wore the lab coat.
Early in his life, after an undistinguished stint in the Navy as an enlisted man, Bob worked on a lathe in South Bend, Indiana. He remembered “a nice kid” with a new degree in industrial engineering. One day, Bob saw the engineer coming through the plant with his boss. Bob pushed his stock bench several feet away so he would have to step away from the lathe to get new stock. Sure enough, the engineer spotted the extra steps. “Bob, wouldn’t it be easier if you rolled the stock bench closer to the lathe? Then you could save those extra steps.” Bob expressed his appreciation for the suggestion and said, “Why didn’t I think of that?” The engineer looked content as he and his smiling boss continued their tour.
Bob’s lesson in these stories was that no manager wants to fail, and no one wants to work for a manager who is failing.
Employees in even the most menial jobs will help their managers look good and succeed – if only the manager will give them the opportunity and appreciate their integrity. Adversarial relationships at work are caused by managers who cannot allow workers to express their integrity and will not recognize the dignity of those whose tasks are menial and whose prospects are limited.
Bob’s widow sent me his pocket watch, as he had directed, but he left me with so much more. With three academic degrees more than he had, I still struggle to be his peer.