The accidental mentor: Your boss

Flickr user Natural Step Online

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY Executives don't just fall out of the sky. Business leaders aren't born that way. Success is not a given, a preordained event for a select few. It comes to those who are driven to learn, work hard, and achieve.

Think of your career as a marathon that's full of obstacles -- and it's anything but a linear path. You'll gain confidence from success and powerful insights from failure. You'll also learn critical lessons from what I like to call "accidental mentors." Your managers.

It happens all the time. Something is not going according to plan and you're puzzled, unsure of what to do, how to handle it. So you ask your boss. He doesn't give you the answer, but he tells you how he would figure it out. It's like the verbal equivalent of a whack upside the head. The neurons spark.

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It's strange, but you don't usually know when you're learning something important. I sure didn't. But if you're motivated and receptive, the lessons sink in.

Likewise, managers aren't always aware that they're teaching, coaching, or mentoring. They're just doing their jobs.

Some companies put a high priority on mentoring as part of a manager's job. Usually, they're companies that have been around and successful for a long, long time. They turn out lots of great executives and leaders. That's the kind of company where it pays to start your career.

For my first job out of college, I chose a company with a stellar reputation that hired nearly all its engineers right out of school and promoted from within. Most of its executives had been with the company for decades. I chose Texas Instruments.

That was 1979. A lot of you weren't even born yet. But the impact of my early managers and the lessons I learned are still fresh in my mind, 33 years later.

When I walked in the door for my first day at work, I was in a new city, I was clueless, I was terrified. The guy who hired me and became my first manager, Bill Frazee, introduced me around and got me started. What did I learn from Bill? How important it is for a manager to show confidence and faith in an employee who has none of his own yet.

Also, when you're faced with an enormous, overwhelming project -- something you've never done before, like designing a semiconductor chip -- just take one step at a time. Whether you're planning, strategizing, assigning tasks, or executing, just put one foot in front of the other. Everything will work out. And if it doesn't, you'll learn from it and do better next time. Big lesson.

Dick Carroll was Bill's boss. Dick was a savvy, 30-year manager in the body of a 300-pound offensive lineman. He looked like Mr. Clean. Dick taught me that whining doesn't get you anywhere but positive thinking gets you everywhere.

Also, if you want to get anywhere in life, you need to look and act the part. Showing up at noon in torn jeans with a hangover isn't going to cut it.

Dennis Best was Dick's boss. When I had a bad review, I went to Dennis to find out why. I'd been working on sort of a backwater research project with another group. It wasn't deemed critical, so nobody fought for me at review time.

Dennis told me to stick my neck out and get in the line of fire, to push for a lead role in the group's most critical project. He said that, succeed or fail, people will respect your guts and willingness to take chances on behalf of the company. That turned out to be one of the most important career lessons I've ever learned. He was absolutely right.

Four years in, a senior manager named Wil Shurtleff took me under his wing and gave me my first manager job. He liked my determination and drive, something I'd learned from Dennis. Wil was old school, hard and tough. One time he tore into me in a staff meeting. It really took me aback. Later, after calming down, I met with him and explained why he was wrong. In the next staff meeting, he apologized in front of everyone. That meant a lot to me and I've never forgotten it.

When it was time to leave TI, I thanked Wil for all he'd done for me, for believing in me and giving me the opportunity to shine. He said I didn't I owe him a thing, that I worked for and deserved everything I got. He was a real class act.

I learned more about leadership and developed more management skills during six years at TI than the next two decades. And if I deconstruct my leadership style today, it's essentially a mosaic of all those accidental mentors from the early years of my career. I don't care what Wil said; I wouldn't be where I am without him and the others. Thanks, guys.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Natural Step Online