“How to Find A Mentor” is now a very popular article topic—suggesting that with some strategic thinking and careful searching you can find the ideal person who will guide your career to the desired place. The fact is that your best mentor might be the person who you already talk to 25 times a day. And it could be the person who makes a habit of driving you completely nuts.
When I look back over my career there are a few people who stepped in to be mentors or sponsors—and I can point to job opportunities or promotions that were influenced by their helping hands. But nothing more profoundly directed my career than the wrath of two women who championed nitpicking as an extreme sport.
In my 9 Lives for Women blog post, “Mentors and Monsters“, I talked about these two women—and reminded readers that mentors and sponsors are not always fairy godmothers sprinkling goodwill along your career path. Often the people you learn the most from are the ones that require the most professional stamina and angst.
My first neurotic mentor was my post-college boss in an editorial department run by her iron hand. I was an English major in college, but nothing prepared me for her dreaded red pen. My colleagues and I would submit edited manuscripts for her approval and she would find 50 reasons it was not just right. She challenged every phrase, unearthed more grammatical errors and prodded us to simplify, simplify and simplify complex technical terms. It was not enough for her to hand back the red pen stained manuscript, she towered over us jabbing her finger at each additional error and demanding an explanation as to why it had not been caught. Following her tirade she would retreat to her office—a makeshift salon where she could often be found painting freakishly long red nails.
It was not fun to work for this fiery redhead who never smiled and made us feel like we were two inches tall. But she did set a high bar that erased all possibility of schlock. I learned to read, reread, check and double-check all of my edited manuscripts before depositing them on her desk. In time my colleagues and I were the recipients of less red ink, and we were promoted on to bigger and better roles.
Neurotic Mentor #2 appeared much later in my career to focus on well structured writing. We worked together on investment related books that devoured hours and hours of time. For these books I often wrote introductions or long passages about arcane investment instruments. This mentor, an imperious woman in Armani from head to toe, challenged every word I wrote. “Why is this true?” “How does this relate to the thesis?” “Why is the thread for this idea broken between paragraphs 2 and 4?” She led excruciating literary interrogations—and insisted that we read and re-read every book out loud.
The perfectionism of Mentor #2 extended far beyond the written word. A messy desk meant a messy mind. Meetings were orchestrated to the minute. She knew the ingredients of every morsel of food that would be served at client events and the exact arrangement of every flower in every vase. She marched through the office hallway (with her little dog trailing behind) leaving silence and intense productivity in her wake. She was feared and she lost a lot of employees…but while they were there she got high-quality results.
To this day, I never write or edit anything without thinking about my two unofficial mentors. For whatever project is on my desk, I think that there must be another way to bring it to a higher level. I hear them telling me that it never makes business sense to take the easy way out. They still challenge me, ask me if I’ve dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s, and demand that every idea foots at the bottom line. I don’t remember them fondly, but I know that their impossibly high standards, attention to detail and disdain for mediocrity shaped my career even more than the mentors who offered me kind words and a gentle pat on the back. —KAS
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