As I approach 40 years in our industry, I cannot help but look back at my experiences and think about the people who affected my career to hopefully pass on a few observations and insights.
Most of the people we encounter have little effect upon our career. However, those that have an impact, positive or negative, fall into one of three categories. I will refer to these as: mentors, maestros or mosquitos. How we identify and deal with each type has a large impact on our career.
Mentors are the people who have had profound effects upon our career and happiness. They make up the smallest group in terms of numbers but are the most significant in terms of impact. They challenge you to try a role that is perhaps new, expanded, voluntary or even just a challenge to approach life differently. Some of the most impactful are our bosses. Over the past 40 years I have had four mentors; on average, one per decade.
My first mentor was a professor in graduate school who not only had a passion for passing on technical knowledge, but was also keenly interested in the career paths of his students. He would make suggestions for each student at a either a large or small company and share why he felt it was the right fit. He was insightful in passing on this career knowledge at a time when we, as students, had little idea of the difference. He was correct in suggesting that I would enjoy a smaller, more entrepreneurial company although it took a while for me to understand why.
My first industrial mentor was a technical individual with a passion both for science and for passing it on to young people. He would call meetings to discuss the products and the technologies that had been developed over the years and spice them up with little personal stories to provide not just a laugh, but a way to remember the stories.
My third mentor was a boss who moved my career from a largely laboratory one to a business one, modifying my job to include plant operations and sales responsibility. This combination of responsibilities would prove invaluable in later years. The added responsibility was never even formally written into a job description, but informally blended into an informal responsibility. These added responsibilities opened a door to new possibilities.
My most recent mentor is one that despite being much younger, has had outstanding leadership abilities and zest for volunteer work. Her energy has spread to everything she touches and when times are most difficult, she rises to the occasion (see sidebar Mentors).
I borrow this term, maestro, and suggest it be modified for a non-musical application. Maestros are individuals you "experience" and who can direct you with your career. They pick up the vibes, rhythms and tones to help you keep your career moving along.
A maestro is the person who picks up on a mood at the company holiday party and potentially tells you it is time for a job change. A maestro is fundamentally different that a mentor in that the mentor has a longer, more impactful relationship than a maestro.
Teachers are often maestros, conducting you as you pass through the school and pointing you in a direction. They also can make an impact as you remember them many years later. A maestro provides you with direction, not just education (see sidebar Maestro).3
The final group are the mosquitoes. Corporate mosquitoes suck the blood out of an organization, destroying the working environment to further their own gains. To these people, their personal ambition is all too often the only goal of their short-lived rise. They generally fail from moving on to another engagement and leave in their wake a broken company; and like the insect, leave the organization diseased (see sidebar Mosquitoes).
The take-aways from these observations are:
1. Seek out mentors at every stage of your career. Cherish them. Also, act as a mentor when you can.
2. Retain and encourage your maestros. Listen to them but don’t blindly accept all of their recommendations.
3. Recognize mosquitoes. Remember they are not going to change and long term, they will destroy the organizations over which they have authority.