When I reflect on my own career path, I’m grateful for the many leaders who invested in me along the way, imparting knowledge, wisdom and feedback with a delivery that allowed me to hear and internalize the message.
Rarely, did the most meaningful mentoring happen in a development program, formal feedback conversation or performance review. It happened during a casual hallway chat, at a coworker’s birthday celebration or in other ways I least expected.
One mentor-leader in particular stands out for me: David Boxell. I was 28 when I interviewed with him at the Wrigley Company. He was the Senior Vice President of what was then called Personnel and he had logged over 30 years with the company by then. There was a reason he was at the top of the function and I would soon learn it.
By the time I met with him, I’d already interviewed with my prospective manager, her manager, and all of her peer-managers in the function, as well as a handful of my future coworkers. David was my prospective boss’s, boss’s boss – the final hurdle to clear. At the start of our conversation, he asked me a few questions. Within 2-3 words of answering, I was interrupted. He would start telling me stories of his own experiences relative to the question he had asked. At first, it startled me. Wasn’t he supposed to be asking me questions and I would answer them copiously? What was going on?
By about the third time this happened, I made a conscious decision to just shut my mouth and listen. After all, he was the SVP so he must know what he was doing! To this day, I’m so glad I made that call.
David’s stories were fascinating – each one providing insights into him, the team, the company culture, his view of how the HR function must operate to be effective. Every nugget was rich with insight and humor. The 30-45 minutes we had together flew by – my head flooded with ideas and my heart completely sold on this man and this company.
He walked me back to the Personnel department and handed me off to the Assistant Manager leading the recruit, then out he went. About 10 seconds later, he walked back in and handed her a post-it note that (I later learned) read: “Go!” with a smiley face. I was hired.
During my first few weeks on the job, David welcomed me and returned many times to my office to see how I was doing and to get to know me better. Eventually, I could no longer contain my curiosity and asked him how he knew I was right for the role when he never let me respond to a single question. He grinned with a mischievous look in his eye, then said in all seriousness, “By the time you got to me, the rest of the team had already vetted you. What I wanted to know was can you listen … really, deeply listen … especially to an old man rambling on about work and life. To be successful here on this team, to lead and support our people, you have to have that capacity. You didn’t fake it. That’s how I knew you were right for us.”
David retired two years later, but before he did, he left me and my colleagues with more wisdom, stories, perspectives, insights and laughs than I can tell here. And he taught me more than probably any other leader I’ve met since. How?
He invested himself in me – in all of us. Almost every single morning, David walked down our hallway … stopping here and there, checking in to see how each person was doing, chatting longer with one of us one day, someone else the next. Sometimes you just got a wave. Other times, he would park himself at your desk and school you.
I have many memories of him taking the chair across from me and staying for an hour (I’m not exaggerating!) telling stories from his past, asking me what I was working on, sharing background knowledge he had about the team I was supporting, or making suggestions. Often, other colleagues would walk in to join the lesson.
Every so often, he would stop in and simply begin a story. I can’t lie – there were times I wondered, “Why is he telling me this?” Inevitably, the words of wisdom he would impart would correlate to something happening for me at work or even outside of work. It was like he was Yoda … he just seemed to know you were ripe for a lesson. And he did know. Because he invested the time to get to know each of us and could, therefore, read us like a book.
David gave generously of his time, shared his mistakes and triumphs, and was simply one of the most entertaining and educational storytellers I’ve yet to meet. Yet none of it was rocket science. It was a simple, human relationship that let you know he was there for you.
Lest you think I have mis-titled this post, let me be direct:
The most effective, least costly manner of developing your talent pipeline is to spend time with them.
What do you want them to understand about the company … expectations for performance … what they did well or where they are faltering … how to improve their performance in a manner that supports the company’s values … how to prepare for upcoming changes? I could go on, but you get it.
David was a master at this. Too many leaders today busy themselves with email, meetings, PowerPoints, statistics, and social media and forget to make the time to connect with and know their people.
One of my favorite David-isms: You can’t lead people if they won’t follow you. They won’t follow you if they don’t trust you. They won’t trust you if they don’t know who you are and feel confident that you know them.
- MBWA – Management By Walking Around. Get out of your office, your cube, your desk. Walk the floor. Make eye contact. Greet people. Ask – and listen – to how they are doing and what they are working on. Ask yourself how you can support them, then do it.
- Make MBWA a daily or weekly habit. Notice the pay-offs. Don’t give up … even for you MBTI Introverts. Sometimes, all you need to do is listen.
- Reflect on and capture the experiences in your own life that taught you critical lessons. It doesn’t matter if these are personal or professional. Where have the inflection points been in your life? The time will come when someone around you can benefit from your experience. Prepare for that now.