6 life lessons from one of my best professional mentors
It was the year 2008 and I was in my 2nd year of Engineering. I was also going through a teen-life crisis- lost and not sure about what I wanted to do in life. I was going through bouts of anxiety, mild depression and a lot of misplaced anger. I wanted to quit engineering and do something different.
One evening, I told my mother that I wanted to quit my studies and become a race car driver. She listened patiently and once I was done with my rant she said something that really touched the deep recesses of my soul. The kind of impact that only mothers can really have on their sons.
She said and I quote, ‘Shut up and make sure you go to college tomorrow. I don’t want to hear any more of this stupid nonsense.’
Well, that was that. I realised that my dream of becoming Michael Schumacher would, most likely, not be realised in this lifetime (But I continue to drive like him on normal road trips, much to the chagrin of my family).
Things eventually worked out. I completed my engineering with a top rank in the university and then did what any respectable engineer in India would do — got some work experience, pursued an MBA from a ‘reputable’ college (earned a gold medal there too) and joined a tech company. Interestingly, I worked at a small retail business after my engineering and was recruited by a technology company after my MBA. (Vice versa might have made more sense but no one’s complaining).
Anyway, while I was going through the 2008-phase, I watched this movie called ‘Batman Begins’ starring Michael Caine. Why did I mention Mr. Caine and not Christian Bale? Because I was enamoured by the character played by Michael Caine — ‘Alfred’, Bruce Wayne’s butler and guardian.
I was so amazed by the character and inspired by the concept of an ‘Alfred’ in one’s life. I still believe that everyone should have an ‘Alfred’ in their lives. What an amazing coach, and what an amazing mentor.
“Why do we fall, sir? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.” — Alfred.
Wow, just wow.
I did create an Alfred inside my mind (the soul/awareness/the voice in my head) and it does work quite well (except when I start arguing with it, out loud, in public — becomes a bit embarrassing then).
I was also blessed to have been mentored and guided by another individual, an Alfred in every sense of the word. While I shall not name the individual, what I learned from him can truly help many others who are trying to find their footing in this enormous and unpredictable world out there.
So here are 6 lessons I’ve learned from the Alfred in my life.
Lesson 1 : You really don’t know your own limits.(And frankly speaking, there are none)
When I started working in the world of tech, I knew nothing about it. I learned a bit of ‘cloud computing’ for my interview and we used G-Suite (now, Google Workspace) extensively in college but that was about it. I never imagined I’d be part of a technology company, EVER. But I was recruited at one, and later on I found out that it was my mentor who had vetoed me in. Strangely, everyone else on the interview panel had rejected the mechanical engineer who’d sold books for a living. (Frankly speaking, even I would have rejected myself).
I was blown away by many things that happened over the course of the last few years: To be given the opportunity to join a technology company, trying to consult CxOs about their own IT infrastructure, working with founders & product managers in helping redefine user experience on their applications, and eventually being able to lead a business unit, scaling it globally in about two years.
These are just some of the unimaginable things that my mentor got me to do.
I would have never ever thought of doing any of this if not for the crazy belief my mentor showed in me. Yes, it was completely crazy. I didn’t even know how to swim when he pushed me into the deep end of the ocean, again and again. And looking back, I would agree that this was the only way I learned how to swim, and stay afloat!
I am so grateful that another human being believed in me more than I believed in myself.
In summary, there are no accidents, there are no limits and there is no need to short-change oneself by thinking that we are made for anything less. I am now trying my best to believe in myself, BE more and DO more than I think I can.
Lesson 2: There’s no harm in asking for more. (Don’t discount yourself or your own team)
In the initial phase of my professional life, I was quite a simpleton. I was happy with small wins and inching forward slowly & steadily. I also tried to keep prospects and customers happy. I was scared of losing customers, or losing a deal because of a higher quote. I was also scared of asking too many questions or challenging the status quo beyond my own limits.
One day at a lunch meeting with some eminent folks from the industry, my mentor asked for an unimaginable business opportunity from the folks seated on the table. We were a much smaller organization back then, and such a large opportunity would have been unrealistic for us to manage, and everyone knew that we would not even be in the consideration set for taking on the given engagement. And yes, the people at the table politely refused, stating the size, scale and complexity of the engagement was too elaborate for them to consider us as feasible partners. I felt bad but my mentor made a joke and moved on.
I later asked my mentor why he felt he needed to ask for something that absurd knowing very well that we would be turned down. He said, “What’s the harm and why do we need to say no to ourselves? Let the world say no if it wants to. Our job is to ask, and let our intentions be known to them, that’s all”.
That was life changing for me.
Why should we be the ones who negotiate with ourselves or reduce the extent to which we can dream? Who stops us from aiming for the stars? The fear of disappointment? Of rejection? Well, we should be okay embracing our own vulnerability. That’s when REAL growth starts to happen.
Lesson 3: It is okay to be the ‘bad guy’ (Stand up for what YOU believe in)
I know many people who love being the most delightful person in the room, being everyone’s friend, praising colleagues, and trying to do their best to ‘be there’ for everyone around them. They are bright & sunny optimists, always painting a flowery picture, acceding to most requests and enjoying their popularity. Such a demanour is great when things are going well, people are doing their best and the team is functioning in an optimal manner. (So basically 10% of the time).
But, when the going gets tougher, or when people start to shirk off, or not play to their expected levels, teams and organizations start to suffer. A true leader should be able to take hard decisions, pull up laggards and tighten loose screws right then & there. A leader who is unable to look anyone in their team, in the eye, and give constructive feedback, or call a spade a spade, is a leader who is setting herself/himself up for failure.
In my younger days, I faltered quite a bit and was a bit arrogant, and thought I was right all the time. It did affect my mentor too, at times. But he made sure he spoke to me on every occassion and explained to me how I was wrong, and how I should correct it. Even though he shared a great relationship with everyone, including me, he made sure that camaraderie never came in the way of moving in the right direction. He was always direct, indiscreet and emotionless while giving feedback.
Yes, I got hurt. Yes, I got angry at him when he corrected me (and I thought I was not in the wrong). Yes, I chose not to agree with him (mostly). But soon I did learn how to acknowledge my faults, pick myself up, not make any excuses and grew stronger from within.
Now when I look back at those instances, I shudder with embarrassment. Oh, the naivety of it all. I’m so grateful to my mentor for being there, for beating me down (constructively) and helping me stand back up on my own two feet.
As a leader, it is important to be the strongest person in the team and have the ability to give constructive feedback, as and when required. That’s the only thing that keeps the growth engine going. A leader will always turn out to be the ‘bad guy’ but more often than naught, a true leader will also be a respected ‘bad guy’.
Lesson 4: ‘Others’ won’t always get you. You have to trust yourself (and be there for yourself)
Being a people pleaser came naturally to me. It stemmed from an inner sense of inferiority that I nurtured all through my school life. Later in life, with professional success, I started becoming the centre of attention in social circles. I started realising that my presence was a source of joy for others. Hence, I tried to be there for everyone, help others and be kind to others. All good things, no doubt, but in my quest to keep everyone happy, I would tend to become a bit too nice at times and not give accurate feedback when it was required. There were obviously times when people misunderstood me and got me wrong. I’d go into a shell and try hard to get back on their good books. In the process, wasting a lot of time on mundane activities.
My mentor was quite different. There were a certain set of values and beliefs he lived by, and still does. If people align with it, great. If they don’t, good for them. As long as you’re clear on your ‘why’ and it does not harm anyone, keep doing your thing. People will love you, hate you, support you or belittle you. You just need to keep your head down and get on with your life.
And that’s about it. Grow, evolve and reinvent yourself but don’t expect others to understand you or even support you. And that shouldn’t matter as long as your core and your soul are in alignment with your karma and duty.
Lesson 5: If you can’t have fun and laugh at yourself, what’s the point of it all? (A laughter a day keeps the cobwebs at bay)
Humour, fun and laughter are at the cornerstones of all my endeavours. Since my late twenties, I have been quite chilled out, enjoyed being laughed at or made fun of (and also enjoyed laughing with, and making fun of others). I have developed a sense of inner confidence and clarity of character that allows me to be so very comfortable with who I am. No one can (for the most part) really faze me.
And in complete accordance with the laws of attraction, I have had the honour and privilege of being around people who are fun too! I have to say, being able to meet people in leadership positions who are comfortable with who they are and are not at all insecure about their position, is such a breath of fresh air.
My mentor was no different. Having fun with colleagues, ensuring we all knew each other’s quirks, and enjoyed each other’s company meant a lot to him. If he made a mistake, he’d make sure he was the first person to laugh at himself and make a joke or two about the whole situation. And he expected the same from the rest of us. It really made all of us gel better, be better at work and never really take everything too seriously.
The whole point of working, and the grind, is to be able to live a comfortable life. And frankly speaking, all the comfort (and discomfort) stems from the mind itself. Keep it light, free and ready for some jokes, every now & then.
Lesson 6: At the end of the day, put all your differences aside, and have dinner together like a family (The simple things are the most important)
Yes we will always have crazy schedules, mundane business meetings, large scale events and pressurising situations. We will all go through the rigmarole that is life, day in and day out. As long as we’re doing something worthwhile, pushing the envelope and becoming better, there will always be discomfort all around us.
This positive pressure drives us, helps us perform and makes us who we are, at work. But it certainly doesn’t need to spill over on to other parts of our life. Learning to compartmentalise is one of the best teachings my mentor shared with me.
I remember, early in my professional journey, my mentor and I were at this high level meeting in Singapore with the Global CTO of a large Fortune 500 company. We were prepared, more or less. I had asked our tech teams to join in from India on VC. Everything was planned but the CTO had a completely different agenda on her mind. Right from the beginning we were on the back-foot. Once it ended, my mentor asked me to prepare the minutes and have it emailed. He was not happy with how it had gone. After some back to back calls, he called me, asked me why I thought the meeting hadn’t gone as planned. I responded, gave him an action plan of how we’d proceed and then stood there, waiting to be lambasted.
He said, ‘Great, let’s find that South Indian Restaurant we had planned to visit. I’m very hungry.’
I was shocked. In a good way.
And this is how he is. Always chilled out, and open — inviting people home for a meal, meeting his family and children, letting them be part of his life. He is a taskmaster and passionate about the work he does but at the same time, he does make sure that at the end of the day, we all are able to enjoy some bit of peace, together.
That’s what life is all about. In the end, we are all part of the same cosmos, trying to do our best, valuing our loved ones and being there for those who need us most. It’s fine to have differences but all those differences in opinion should never spill over on to relationships. Always find the time to enjoy a dinner, a drink and a laugh.
The end. :)