How mentors have changed my life

It is September 2006 and I am sitting in Cafe Brera with Teo. He says “I have never heard you bit** so much in your life, it is time you go on an MBA“. Teo had been my associate in multiple projects for 2 years then. In one of them, we took multiple plane rides together and he would use each opportunity to tell me how I should go to Harvard. I have always been amazing at falling asleep at the first roar of the engine on a plane, but those days I would ask him to wake me up 15 minutes post take off so I could work on the plane, mostly for the charity. He did, and each time he saw my body’s resistance to react and wake up, he would insist, “you really need to do your GMAT“. For months, I ignored him and told him I had studied enough in my life and was probably too old to do an MBA. But that day in Cafe Brera, I listened. I went and did my GMAT. The first one ended in tears as I realised my results were unlikely to be enough. That evening, Teo supported me on the phone and encouraged me to write my essays and tell my story. My sister and brother in law took me out to dinner to this “new” open place in Fulham, Rosso Pomodoro (where I am a regular these days). I was distraught, even though I thought this was all Teo’s idea and I did not really want to go. Through the next 2 months, Teo marked up every essay I wrote and helped me craft my story. We fought about words to use, about things to highlights. (Note that when I asked him to do the same for another school I was applying to, he said they were good enough, he was on a mission!).  The story held up, my GMAT was enough. And so I went to Harvard in late summer 2007, a year after our conversation in Brera, following my newly found mentor’s advice. It changed my life.

It is October 2008 and I am sitting in Cafe Brera with Teo (again, but different Brera). He says “You should come back, I promise you will be different“. I was dazzled by what he said and told him that I then realized how much of my life I had been sacrificing. It had not been painful at the time, but now that I “knew” it was hard to want to go back to working those hours. In fact, 2 years earlier Teo had convinced me to leave Investment Banking and was then telling me I should come back, right in the midst of the financial crisis. I was interviewing for Social VC (which I guess today is called impact investment), liked what I was finding, but unfortunately, all funding was coming from PE/Banks and people did not know if it would continue to exist. The large foundations were funded but had a hard time fitting me in, the Harvard-grad-charity-CEO that was too senior for most project management roles. I did not leave banking upset (other than that lunch in Brera I was usually ok with it) but I also did not think I would come back 2 hundred thousand dollars later to the same building. He insisted “you will have learned how to prioritize, how to say no, you will make time for your charity and you will be doing something you enjoy with smart people around you“. I took the bait and in July 2009 I went back into the Morgan Stanley building with the same employee number and only a few desks away from where I was years back. Again, it changed the course of my life.

Not all stories of mentorship may be as life-changing as these, but it goes to show that if one is willing to accept the challenge, then growth can happen. I don’t credit Teo exclusively with me going to Harvard or coming back to MS. But I do credit him to have found a way to open my mind to it and make me consider it. After that and confronted with the challenge, I could then make a choice. Mentors are important whereby their credibility or seniority most likely forces you to listen to what they have to say, even when you don’t like it. Another example comes to mind.

In late 2017, I was sitting with Antonio at his CEO office. He bluntly criticized how my resume was looking like and about my inability to explain what I did clearly, which limited my career options. “I know what you do because I have people like you working for me, but most people don’t know so what will you do next?“. I took a hard swallow and walked through the city after, hoping to get some clarity of what the course of action was. He did not tell me what to do, what job to look for, or what to say. But his honest view was key. I knew that already, COO roles are always extremely hard to explain. You do too many things for a normal resume, and even when you are focusing on strategy & performance (like I do), you still do everything else and put that on your resume – I write speeches, prepare management presentations, execute on regulatory projects. This confuses people – everything is included in the COO role. Thanks to him I have engaged in an effort to define myself better. As 2018 began I also found the Bizchix podcast, which really helped me explain what I enjoy doing – strategic advisory and challenge. So I focused on it, trained the team so I could do this, re-did my profile and the way I spoke about myself. I changed my Linkedin and re-launched a blog. I started a community. It has had external and internal effects. As I saw Antonio a few weeks ago, I could articulate to him exactly what I focused on and what I wanted to do. It made sense to him. I was pleased. The growth had happened.

You don’t have to be highly senior to be a good mentor. But you do have to have enough credibility with the mentee so that he will listen. Especially in our youth, we are not exactly well versed at this concept of listening to the things we are doing wrong, so a mentor relationship is sometimes the only place where people are willing to take the bitter pill and take into consideration what is being said to them.

Last Tuesday I left the office and thought “I can’t really do this”. The complexity of my new global role is not straightforward to operate in, and I really struggle to be tactical when I really just want to do my job. Or any of my 3 jobs. As I shared on The Viewpoint, I felt hopeless and de-motivated. The power of affirmation in my early morning bullet journal – “Today, I will take control of my work and how I feel about it” – made me reach out to a former boss turned mentor, Juliet.  A coffee, 2 toasts and 45 minutes later she had helped me think through approaches, had given me concise recommendations and most of all, she boosted back my confidence to occupy the seat I had been given. That was all I needed and, by the end of that day, I had one of the most satisfying feelings in a long time. I was back embracing my global strategy role, bringing structure into chaos. I was back on track. 

It is important to have mentors that are available in case of crisis. You may have some more long-term strategic advisors, but when in crisis, you need someone to “bounce balls with”. That person can make a difference between you making rushed decisions or having impulse conversations. Reserve your impulse to those that can advise you, preferably wisely.

The last mentor I will talk about is Rob. Rob was a naturally born mentor. I was not surprised when he told me he was going into leadership coaching when he left MS. I immediately told him I thought he would be amazing at it. He was assigned to me as part of a formal mentoring program, but it was a perfect fit. Our structured minds worked through different themes together, he forced me to have an agenda, to be the one reaching out and driving the relationship, to think of what my goals were for our relationship, to determine where I wanted to get to on the other side. He took his mentor role seriously, took notes, worked with me, was practical and concise and not afraid to challenge my way of doing things. He had an added benefit, which was that he did a similar role to mine but in another division, and much much more senior.

It is important to have mentors that make you work. And it is also important that you find mentors that are willing to do work. There are stages in our career where we would all benefit from someone sitting us down and drafting some goals, a plan of action and keep us accountable for those. No excuse in being too busy.

I have been mentoring people through the years as well. Mostly juniors, in informal coffee chats, in or outside the office. I seek to offer an honest opinion and, whenever I feel they are completely done in their existing role, I end up connecting them (preferably internally) to help them line up their next step, or at least how they think of it. It tends to be a high level, skills-focused discussion. Sometimes, I am only a listening sounding board where people may quickly get to their own conclusions with a little steer. I don’t tell people what to do, but really push them on what they think they could do. Most recently I also started mentoring a VP. I have taken Rob’s approach to mentoring, forcing an agenda, goals and topics to cover. I prepare for the meetings and seek to be as practical as I can. In only 5 months her performance has improved and it has shown in her reviews. Seeing the outcome of the mentor relationships is always extremely rewarding.

Mentors have truly changed my life through the years, and I am only quoting a few examples above. I am grateful for those that touched my life and helped me grow. I am grateful for those whose life I get to touch.

Photo by Severin Höin on Unsplash

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