Tribute to an Inspiring Mentor

We can probably all relate to trouble with a current or former boss  -- lamenting one's superior is common practice; it's the sound of the chorus during Friday happy hours around the globe.

Over the course of one's career, it's not unusual to experience an array of bosses with quite a spectrum of management styles.  On the really tough end of the spectrum there's the mean-spirited low confidence type, the slave-driving workaholic, or one of the characters portrayed in the recent flick, Horrible Bosses.  One of my all time favorite jerk bosses is Lumbergh from the cult classic, Office Space.  (I will admit now that I used the movie as therapy when working for a boss who shall remain nameless.)

There are also the in-between bosses: the low confidence assurance needy but nice guy; the ineffective product of nepotism who wants to succeed but is in way over his head; the gal with one promotion too many; and the woman who is fine -- even likable in her personal life, but so caught up in making the right impression that she forgets that being genuine is a key part of doing so.

Then there are the good, solid managers who motivate, manage with dignity, believe respect must be earned, and work diligently for the team and the organization.  These are the people, like the teachers along the way, who shape us.  While we may not remember all of the details of the relationship, we appreciate the influence on our professional development and have fond memories.

Finally, there is the natural born leader whose spark is so magnetic that we never forget the details.  I'm lucky enough to have worked for someone like this, and his teachings inspire me to this day.

Chris could have been a jerk.  He was a former brand executive from Coca Cola in Atlanta with a really impressive resume including international work experience based in Paris, a MBA from a top school and knowledge of all of the finer things -- wine, art, history, culture. 

Instead, he was a gem.

I was an eager, driven, somewhat cocky 22 year-old woman feeling wonderful about a new dream job at an international wine company and a new Duke degree in psychology (big help for the wine industry) and French (big help in bonding with Chris).

From day one, Chris was a joy to work with.  He knew when to challenge me (frequently), and he knew when to back off.  For example, back then I was used to "pulling all nighters" and finishing semesters -- I hadn't yet learned that work never really finishes, so in my desire to please and perfect, I had a tendency to work very long hours which would render me less effective.  (I'm not sure that I've truly changed this, but as an entrepreneur I at least have a better excuse.)  Chris always encouraged me to find balance and better yet, demonstrated this with the way he lived (and continues to live) his life.

Chris took it upon himself to mentor me -- showing me the foundation of marketing principles and inviting me to understand the creative side of marketing.  (I remember a huge let down when I started studying marketing in business school; it was dry and nothing like the experience Chris created.)  I don't remember him ever talking down to me -- he treated me as an important member of his team.  I also felt supported by him; there was never a hint of inappropriateness and always the right amount of warmth blended with professionalism.

I'm quite sure there were times when he refrained from rolling his eyes at the naivete of my suggestions; instead, he gently explored my rationale and provided insight.  Chris actually made constructive criticism a compliment!  After seeking feedback, I would leave his office  feeling energized, happy and productive.  I still have a treasured book he gave me, Orbiting the Giant Hairball, which is essentially about fostering creativity in organizations, something at which Chris excels.

I loved how he would insist that we leave the office to conduct brainstorms, taste the wine while thinking of ways to sell it (surprisingly uncommon, especially in corporate wine), and always come back to the notion that wine marketing should be both challenging and fun.

I've recently been thinking about why Chris was so influential, probably because I just had the pleasure of seeing him in Napa a month ago, and these points stand out in no particular order:
* collaborative style; warmth -- more like a favorite coach than a boss
* ability to guide in a positive, constructive manner
* excellent listening skills
* respect for the contributions of all team members
* creativity
* enthusiasm
* intelligence; talent
* worldly, informed

* genuine nature
* true passion for his work
* consideration for well being of others

Chris's influence is probably deeper than I know.  If I'd had Lumbergh back then, I would have probably applied to law school as an escape route and abandoned my dreams of running a winery or a wine marketing firm. (Instead, I waited until working in corporate wine to do that, and it was Chris who recommended me to assume the position he was leaving, which was both an honor and a wonderful move for me.)

I only lasted 18 months at that first wine marketing job, not because of any problem with the company -- I was presented with an offer which allowed me to expand and departing was painful.  Chris's influence followed me to the next position and today lives in my company's office and mindset.  I treasure our friendship -- sometimes we get busy and go longer periods than we should without talking, but every time we come together it's an exciting adventure.

If you've haven't worked for "a Chris", may you do so soon.