Time flies. It is an unrelenting truth. It doesn’t seem or feel like so long ago I was the youngest player on the varsity football and basketball teams or later the least senior person in business meetings. Fortunately, I will always be the youngest of six siblings but at meetings these days I am more often than not one of the oldest people in the room.
During my career I have covered the age continuum – back in the day working with and having people more than twice my age report to me and in the last decade plus, especially when I lived in China, working with people half my age. I never thought too much about it until a few weeks ago……
I was sitting in a small conference room in Bueno Aires. Across the table from me was a young lady that my millennial daughters would consider a “kid”. I was meeting with her to learn about podcasting. An American college junior on a semester abroad who through a series of chance meetings became my “podcast mentor”. My first business related experience with a “Gen Zer”. If this young lady is representative of Gen Z, I think we are in good hands but as always I digress.
Among the lessons I learned living in Asia for over a decade was to accept help and lessons from any and all demographics. That bit of wisdom is serving me well now. I started cohosting a podcast several months ago with an American living in Argentina. In addition to studying abroad, “Miss Gen Z” is an intern working in my cohost’s company. Although the podcast has gotten good reviews and quickly built a solid following, our newly minted podcast mentor spent the better part of three hours discussing “potential improvement areas” – also known as telling us we were doing just about everything wrong.
I am not known for patience or humility so having someone on the cusp of being three generations my junior reading me the “podcast screw-up riot act” would seem problematic.
Fortunately, in this case, I was able to check my ego and take my lumps (and a lot of notes).
My most recent “mentor” experience got me thinking about past mentors.
Twenty-three years ago I showed up in Japan yet another “clueless American”. I, like most people experiencing Japan for the first time, was impressed by the obvious positive aspects of the culture (civility, helpfulness, strong work ethic, attention to detail, etc).
I began making bi-monthly trips to the Land of Rising Sun. Fortunately, one senior person in the company I did business with (Murai san) watched me try to learn what was beneath the surface of the culture. Gradually he seemed to take an interest in helping me learn how to succeed rather than finding my weak points to exploit in negotiations.
In the 1990’s there was almost no English signage in Osaka making it tough for foreigners to get around. Almost all new western visitors required “handlers” to get to and from meetings if any travel complexity was involved. On visit four or five, I told my Japanese hosts I no longer needed help getting to the office and started ordering things myself in “pidgin” Japanese at dinner. I also started speaking to the caddies when we played golf. My pitiful but determined efforts earned me respect and provided an unceasing stream of laughter on the part of my hosts. I made every conceivable language mistake imaginable but over time I was also understood – well, most of the time.
Besides the obvious benefit of earning my independence when visiting Japan, I also gained a mentor almost three decades my senior. Murai san became my first of multiple mentors I would have over the years in Japan. In general Japanese culture is much, much more subtle than western cultures. It is very difficult for Japanese to tell naturally overconfident Americans when they are wrong, full of sh**, or otherwise off base. Fortunately for me, Murai san and later, after I moved to Japan, my Japanese sensei (teacher) were kind enough to be brutally honest with me when circumstances dictated. Learning Japanese is complicated by the fact that foreigners speaking unintelligible Japanese are always told they are “jouzu” aka skillful. Fortunately, I had multiple mentors more than willing to correct me on a constant basis.
When I moved to China my two most significant mentors were my driver Philip and my assistant Sabrina. Readers of my blog are no strangers to these two. To this day I am not certain if I (or my family) would have had the successful experience we did if we had not crossed paths with Philip and Sabrina.
Mentors are great when things are going well and they are helping you learn or navigate the vagaries of culture or business life but they are even more important when you are in crisis mode. Fortunately, when my corporate life came to a screeching halt in 2012, a former boss one journey around the zodiac younger than I was there to help me make a quick and successful transition to my reincarnation as an independent. He understood me as well as the situation and was kind enough to share his experience and wisdom. Thanks Jon.
If you are lucky, as I have been, your most important mentor will be your children’s other parent. My wife has been my mentor since she was my girlfriend. When we first started dating, I was a socially inept 24-year-old who needed adult supervision to get through customer dinners back in my days in the fire extinguisher business. Her mostly subtle guidance got me through graduate school. After we got married, we began a peripatetic life where no move was made without her counsel. When I was being bullied by my company into moving from Japan to China and essentially told the company to “kiss my hindquarters” more than once it was my better half that guided me to “look at the big picture” rather than making a sub-optimal decision out of stubbornness.
I wanted to stay in Japan or go home. I was angry that the proposed move to China was driven by corporate tax minimization and that my family would be forced to move to a much tougher environment so the company could save what amounted to a “rounding error” in the grand scheme of things. The company tried to play hard ball with me which is rarely a good idea. Left to my own devices I would have refused to lose the “game of corporate chicken” and moved home to a very uncertain future while my daughters were in their teens.
My bride, along with the well placed tears of my daughters at a family meeting, convinced me to put my entrenched ego aside and “just say yes”. So, we moved to China. Had I not listened to my better half, the groundwork for what I am doing today would not have been laid.
I love the saying that “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with”. Ok, so it is a concept not an exact algorithm but likely there is a potential mentor in that five if you are careful about who you spend your time with.
My oldest mentor is 66 years older than my youngest. Take help where you find it. If you are fortunate enough to find capable people sincerely trying to help you, do yourself a favor and listen.
When I start writing a blog post I usually have an outline in mind, this one went in a different direction than I had intended but that is the beauty of blogs. Thanks for reading.