On Thanksgiving Day 2012 my first mentor, longtime colleague, and friend passed away. So ironic that he would die on Thanksgiving because in this month of gratitude, I owe no greater thanks for where my career took me and how I came to understand the value of leadership than to him. He was a role model in a way that was often unassuming and yet always unforgettable.  I don’t indulge in personal stories often (or perhaps often enough?). I hope you enjoy this one about mentorship.

Semper Fi*

By way of context, before morphing to coaching and consulting, I was in public relations and marketing management. I started that career as an administrative assistant (read secretary) in the public relations department of a mid-size community hospital. I had been there about a year when the old boss retired. I heard that the new boss was a career military guy, a former major in the U.S. Marines. Was he ever. He walked in on his first day: tall, immaculately groomed, posture impeccable. You could see your reflection in the shine of his shoes.

A 20-something, with more brashness than brains, and a head full of the anti-military sentiment and rabid feminism of the times, I greeted him (on Day 1, mind you) with cautious disdain and told him that although I was a secretary I was not going to fetch his lunch, run errands, or get him coffee. He leaned back in his chair, puffing thoughtfully on his cigar (I didn’t say I liked everything about him) and regarded me for several moments with a neutral expression. “Fair enough.” he said. The next morning, he arrived with a cup of coffee in each hand. He set one on my desk with sides of sugar and cream and said, “I wasn’t sure how you took your coffee.”  My mouth stayed open a long time.
A couple of weeks later, he scheduled a press conference to introduce himself to local media as the new hospital spokesperson. There was no need for me to be there, but he casually invited me to attend.  Fifteen minutes before the end of the meeting, he glanced at his watch and announced that he had another meeting to get to. Alarmed, I saw him nodding at me as he said, “Janice will wrap this up. I trust her, so whenever I’m unavailable to comment or meet a deadline, please consider her my second in command.” I somehow managed (again) to get my jaw off the floor and into gear as he slipped out the side door.
By behaving graciously (continuing to bring me coffee every day), he taught me about taming my ego. By not firing me on that dreadful Day 1 (which, he told me a decade later, he had seriously considered ) and instead choosing to give me projects  beyond the scope of my pay grade, he taught me to believe in myself.  By holding me accountable for ownership of those projects, he taught me how to empower and engage people. By letting it be okay when I screwed up as I inevitably did on occasion, he taught me how to be fearless about failure. All without ever articulating those lessons or words aloud. Just by showing up as a leader every day.

Two years later, as I headed off to my own press conference as newly appointed director of public relations at a larger hospital, he wished me well, promised to remain a resource and did. The further down the road I get from those early years of my professional life, the more I appreciate the gift of mentoring and how it works. I hope someone someday will see me as I see him, in the rear view mirror, as a very fortunate encounter with a trusted guide.

In memory of Clifford “Cliff ” O.T. Wieden, Jr. (1933-2012)

*”Honor, courage and commitment are the values that guide us. Semper fidelis (always faithful) is the motto that bonds us.” ~ the United States Marine Corps


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