Get Ahead With a Mentor Who Scares You
This post was originally published in the Harvard Business Review.
“You’re the best!” the four American Idol contestants cried to their voice coach Patty after narrowly escaping elimination, “We couldn’t have done it without you!” As they celebrated, I couldn’t help but notice that their hero was the same irascible, no-holds-barred woman who had been shown yelling and screaming at the same contestants just minutes earlier, leaving her devastated charges in tears.
With the group’s success, Patty’s tough-love approach was validated (much more clearly, perhaps, than that of the show’s previous tough-love artist Simon Cowell). Though her tactics were questionable, they certainly brought out the best in her team; she truly helped them to become better singers and performers. I’m not saying that you should go out and be like Patty, but if you’re young, ambitious and motivated, you should take a page from that foursome.
Go out and find the most qualified or talented mentor, coach, or manager you can, and subject yourself to everything they can throw at you.
As a rookie, you’re not necessarily supposed to know anything, anyway. All you’ve got is your good attitude, your enthusiasm and a strong work ethic. And when you’re new to a job, people expect you to have bumps and bruises along the way as you move up the learning curve. You also want to take that drubbing now so that you avoid it later on (when your ego takes more of a bruising, when the thought of an 80-hour workweek and simultaneous childcare makes your stomach turn, or when you think you’re simply too old to take that kind of treatment from someone else). So take advantage of that early grace period and test the waters, take risks, put yourself in harm’s way so that when the stakes are higher and you’re not allowed to mess up, you’re uber-qualified and up to whatever task comes your way. You don’t need to be a masochist to really get out there and try your mettle — and learn a lot.
I had a Patty of my own early in my days on Wall Street, and I can’t say enough about how much I learned under his tutelage. His name was Will and he was whip-smart, utterly unflappable, relentless, standing out from all of his type-A overachiever peers at our investment firm.
In fact, a lot of my own peers ran like the plague from a staffing with Will, but for some reason I actually sought him out and asked to work with him. As scared as I was of subjecting myself to his intimidating brilliance, I think I was more terrified of not being able to hold my own with him — what would that say about my own future in the hard-knocks world of Wall Street?
So I decided to take my pain early and learn as much as I could from the master. I found that he and I were kindred spirits in terms of our senses of humor and I managed to tease him about being so smart and demanding when I wasn’t falling flat on my face or screwing up a piece of analysis. But bit by bit, I managed to hold my own and as time went on I began to not only to meet his expectations but to exceed them.
I’ll never forget the elation of getting a shout out from Will for work well done — that really meant something. It meant something to me and it signaled to others that I was legit. After that successful engagement with Will, I rode that victory into other demanding teams and carried with me a new found sense of confidence in my abilities.
Who is your Will? Who can you learn from? How can you challenge yourself and take your game up a notch? If you’re young and ambitious and driven, don’t run from the challenge, run towards it. If you’re terrified of a star manager in your organization, go find a project to do with him or her. Cram as much learning as you can into the front end of your career. You may not love it while you’re going through it, but you’ll carry that learning and success with you as you move up the ladder.
The singers on American Idol have bigger fish to fry than Patty now, but no doubt as they practice and sing their hearts out on national TV, they’re grateful for the discipline, the learning, and the coaching they received from her that set them on their way.