Mentor’s Matter was the title of Episode 41 of my daily podcast – Trent365! Whilst the idea of mentors was, of course, not new to me, it was not something that I had ever really given much thought to. Were there people who had influenced my life over the years? Sure. But were they really what you would call mentors? I didn’t really think so at the time. But on reflection, make no mistake, mentors are exactly what they were. And they mattered.
I believe there are two basic types of mentees. Those who actively seek out their mentors and those who seem to stumble across them. The people who consciously pursue their mentors generally have a pretty good idea of who they are and where they’re headed. They may be self-aware enough to know their own shortcomings and seek mentors to fill the gap for them. Alternatively, they may have been very strategic in identifying a person or company who has the contacts and connections to help them get where they want to go. Regardless of the motivation, these mentees are very deliberate in their actions.
For me, I pretty much stumbled across my mentors. Or maybe it was they who stumbled across me. Serendipity is rarely a one-way process. If anyone had asked me at any stage of these relationships if that person was my mentor, I would’ve probably said no. I guess this is because there was never any formal declaration, from either party, that this was a mentor / mentee relationship.
Looking back now, as I nudge closer to my half century on earth, I can clearly identify four mentors in my life. None of these people were actively enlisted for the role. Each of them stumbled in at specific times in my life, when I was probably in need of a bit more guidance and advice than I thought I needed. Interestingly, as I grew and evolved, each mentor quietly slipped away into the background. It was like they were there for a specific stage and once I passed that marker, I was on my own again. At least until I reached the next stage where I needed help.
Mentor #1 – Pumpin’ Petrol
Gary was my first boss in what was my first real job. In what would be a terribly politically incorrect description these days, my mates described my job as a ‘Checkout Chick in a Petrol Station’ (Gas Station / Service Station / Filling Station). I was the Console Operator. The guy who sat inside the store, authorized the pumps to allow people to fill their tanks and then played the role of Cashier when it was time to pay up. I worked 4-5 shifts per week, across multiple sites, whilst studying at University full time.
This was also a time when I was moving out of home. Living on my own and exploring the big wide world of University life. Though I didn’t think much of it at the time, it was clearly a time of significant change in my life. As my boss, Gary was probably the only person I really had to listen to at the time. Living on my own, I didn’t need to do what my parents asked me to any more. My lecturers and professors at University were, of course, talking a lot, but it was really up to me if I wanted to listen or not.
Time to Grow Up
It was Gary who I invariably turned to for advice about living in the real world. In many ways, he became the sounding board of my life at that time. For any of the really big life issues, I’m sure I was still conferring with my parents. And for any academic and career-type advice it would’ve been my University advisors. But for the day-to-day of being a grown up, it was really Gary who mentored me through it, whether he (or I) realized it or not.
After I graduated from University, I took a year to focus on playing American Football. I never really expected I’d make an NFL team or anything like that, but I loved playing the game and I just wanted to spend at least 1 year doing it as good as I could. Effectively, my part-time job while I was at Uni was giving me full-time hours, so I figured I could afford to put my career on hold for a year. It helped that I didn’t really have any clear idea what I wanted to do for a career.
Starting at the bottom
As my Year of Football drew to a close, I decided it was time to get a real job. Time to get started on a career. As it turned out, that career would be in the hotel industry. With my freshly minted Bachelor of Business Degree in Travel and Tourism Management with a Major in Economics and a Minor in Applied Social Psychology, I was ready to start my career journey. And I did. As a casual Bellman. Yep. Not a full-time position. Not even a part-time position. The only relevant opening they had at the time was for a casual Bellman. (for those not familiar with that job status, it basically meant I would be on-call for busy times and whenever one of the real Bellmen called in sick.) Ahhhh, they were the days!
Mentor #2 – Career Time
Paul wasn’t my first boss in this new Career Phase of my life. In hindsight, he probably wasn’t needed for the first year or two. As a low-level hotel employee, I didn’t really need to think about too much. I would just turn up when I was called, work as hard as I could, and then wait for the next opening for first a part-time and then a full-time position. Soon enough I moved into Front Office to be a Telephone Operator. I won’t even mention the non-politically correct, two-word term my mates used to describe this new job on the hotel switchboard back then – but the first word was Switch and the second word rhymed and started with B…).
Anyway, I continued to just do the best I could. I guess I did pretty well because I found myself on some sort of unofficial fast track. Being promoted from job to job every 6 – 9 months or so. Honestly, it was a bit like being at school. Turn up. Do the work. Proceed to the next level. No mentors needed.
Freedom and Responsibility
After a couple of years working my way through the system, I was rewarded with my first Department Head job. Concierge Manager at the top hotel in the group. Now I’d hit the Big Leagues. This was serious. This was what a career looked like. I was now based at the company’s flagship property. This was where all the regional managers were. Each of the Executive Committee in this hotel was a seasoned Area Manager. This was going to be Make it or Break it time. I suddenly had all sorts of new responsibilities, not just for myself but for my team as well. Ironically, with the added responsibilities and the title, also came a whole new level of freedom.
As luck would have it, this was when Mentor #2 came onto the scene.
Paul was my direct report in this new Department Head role. I was managing a diverse team of 30 individuals, across four different job roles. Some were younger, some older. Some were full-time employees, others were not. My department was also a mix of male and female team members. All of this is in my first real management role. It was a busy property. A real pressure-cooker environment. Not only did I have to manage my department, I was also, for the first time in my career, trying to navigate the company politics associated with being a senior member of a flagship property.
Nuggets and Sounding Boards
There were definitely a few distinct lessons I recall learning from Paul directly during this time. However, I’m not sure these few lessons were really enough to cement his place as a mentor in my life. Instead, it was probably the countless little nuggets of advice and support that he provided on a daily basis that made the impact. More of a constant sounding board than anything else. His impact was somehow subtle. Which is ironic because subtle is not a word that anyone who knows Paul would use to describe him, certainly not back then. The lessons themselves weren’t so subtle, but their impact on my life, I think, were.
Apparently, Paul must have done a good job in preparing me for the road ahead because after I left the company, I was mentor-less for a number of years. Though we always knew where to find each other, we didn’t really remain in contact. In fact it was only just recently that we caught up for lunch and a chat. In many ways, it was like not much had changed. Maybe he still has some mentoring to do as I move into the next phase of my life? Or maybe this time around it’s me who might end up mentoring him? Who knows?
Mentor #3 – Ultimate Hotelier
Geoffrey was in many ways the most impactful of all my mentors.
We had worked together at SOCOG (Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games) for about a year and a half. I guess you could say our initial bond was that we were the forgotten step-children of the Olympic Villages. At least that was our take on it at the time. He was the manager of Media Village and always seemed to have a chip on his shoulder about how the Athlete’s Village got all the attention whilst his Village got the left overs. One day I pointed out to him that my Village, the Technical Officials Village, was in effect getting left overs from the Media Village. His Village. Common ground. We bonded.
During our time working for the Sydney 2000 Olympics, we became friends. That was it. Colleagues and friends. But when the Games ended and we all went our separate ways, Geoffrey hired me as his Number 2 to open a new resort in Thailand. THAILAND?!? Wow, I thought. That’s exotic. What an adventure this is going to be. After the massive high of being involved in such a successful event as the Sydney Olympics, I was very aware that the next job would almost certainly be a let down. The only shot I had of getting the same kind of rush/enjoyment/satisfaction as I had with the Olympics was to somehow enter a whole new world. This job with Geoffrey in Thailand would certainly be that.
With me not For me
The offer on the table was to come and work for Geoffrey. I rejected that offer. We had become quite good friends and I didn’t want to risk that friendship by now creating a boss-employee relationship. I told him I would not work for him, but I would work with him. To me, and I think to him too, it was an important distinction. There would be no mistaking that he was still the boss. He was the General Manager. He was the ultimate authority. But wherever possible, in all of our interactions, we would treat it as we if are just two colleagues working together. Working with, not for.
In the two years I worked with Geoffrey I can honestly say that I learned more about the art of hospitality than I have before or since. To some who knew him outside of the hotel environment, that might be surprising. But to many who worked with him in a hotel setting, it would not. He was an old-school hotelier. Many of those attributes don’t translate too well in today’s hotel world. However, when you really peel away the essence of a true hotelier, you realise it is, in fact, very much like an art form. The soul of Mein Host, a term you’ll sometimes hear the older hoteliers use, is one of service, empathy and care. Pretty good attributes to carry you throughout your entire life really.
Even after I left his resort for another opportunity in another country – and another, and another – we stayed in constant contact. Geoffrey was that overall sounding board that I think a good mentor needs to be. Whether it was career moves, financial decisions, or just general life decisions, Geoffrey had become the person I turned to. Many of our chats began as just two friends talking. But whenever a chat led to a more serious thought or decision that had to be made, Geoffrey somehow slipped into the role of mentor. Just long enough to provide his sage perspective. Then he seamlessly slipped back in to Friend Mode again.
I have no doubt that, were he still alive, Geoffrey would still be a major mentor in my life. He was tragically killed eight years ago. What he left was a huge void in my life, and I know many others. I’m sure part of the reason I remained mentor-less for so long after Geoffrey’s death was that the bar had been set so high that none that I met could possibly reach it. If I couldn’t have a mentor like Geoffrey, then I’ll just do without. No doubt another reason was that, just like Paul, Geoffrey had done his job well. He’d prepared me and equipped me for what lay ahead. Again, none of this was ever spoken. It just happened. It just was.
Mentor #4 – Here’s Gerry!
We first met each other more than 10 years ago. He isn’t a ‘spa guy’. Then again, in many ways, neither am I – even though I am. Whilst he may not be in the spa business per se, Gerry certainly is involved in it. Indeed, he is a person who has had considerable influence and impact on the spa and wellness industry over the years. But there are many others I have known that have had arguably more impact. Yet somehow my relationship with Gerry has developed from casual acquaintance to friend and now, it seems, mentor.
I’m not sure that Gerry himself would even acknowledge his status as my new mentor. For sure it’s not an unfamiliar role to him. No doubt many have actively sought him out as a mentor and still many more have probably done so less formally. But ours is not really a relationship where one actively seeks the counsel of the other. At least not consciously. There have certainly been a few specific occasions where I have requested his advice. However, much like those early lessons that Paul taught me, I don’t feel that these specific nuggets necessarily define Gerry as a mentor. Like with all of my mentors, it’s more about the general than the specific. It’s the unexpected insights rather than the requested knowledge.
Why Gerry? Why now? I’ve asked myself those questions a few times recently and I still don’t have an adequate answer.
Perhaps it’s because I’ve taken to putting out lots of content in the last year or so. Although most of my stuff so far has been online, be it online or offline, content is content. Gerry’s had multiple books and articles published, so it may be that I’m trying to tap into that knowledge and experience. Above and beyond any specific questions around the topic of writing or publishing.
Maybe I’m coming to a bit of a career crossroad and so subconsciously I feel the need to bounce some ideas around. To be clear, I don’t know that I actually am at that crossroad, but a number of factors would suggest if I’m not now, I could be any time soon.
It could also simply be because I’m getting older and have decided I should be surrounding myself with smarter people. No disrespect to those I’ve been surrounded by up till now, but Gerry is a pretty clever cat. He’s an academic. Even the things he modestly claims to only know a little bit about, he seems to know lots about. Certainly more than me. So maybe by hanging out with him occasionally I’m hoping to up my own intellectual game? Intelligence by osmosis. Ok, so maybe not exactly by osmosis, but I am convinced being around smart people will make you smarter. I’m just not convinced that this my motivation.
Not that any of that really matters anyway. Gerry, like all my mentors, is not someone I have sought out to scratch a specific itch or fill a particular need. There is no agenda. It has just happened. Serendipity.
Friends and Mentors
Friendship, at least in my case, has been a significant factor in the relationships with all but my first mentor. Gary and Paul were bosses first. Paul went on to become a mentor and ultimately a friend. I’m not exactly sure why Gary didn’t go on to become a friend. Maybe because I was much younger than him? Or maybe it was just because my life headed off in a very different direction? Geoffrey and Gerry were friends first. Whilst Geoffrey did later become my boss, this was after we had already become friends. Gerry was someone with whom I would cross paths at Spa & Wellness events over the years. In more recent times, those meetings have led to follow on discussions until finally it seems he is becoming Mentor #4.
That’s how my mentors came and went. Though it may not be the same for everyone, I do firmly believe that for most people, different mentors are needed for different stages of your life and circumstances that you face.
The serendipitous mentor appears without request and disappears just as quietly.