The importance of mentors and continual improvements

As we progress through our careers there are undoubtedly some specific people who we either work with or for who have a notable impact on our values and the way we go about doing business. Despite the fact that careers are seldom linear, predictable and able to be planned in the way that they used to, we must still have role models or mentors who we admire and learn from.

These don’t necessarily need to be older or more experienced.  In fact today it’s probably just as relevant to learn from those younger and less experienced as consumer behaviour and influencing is so much changed and constantly evolving.  It’s not to say that we have to follow blindly, but we can learn about mental attitude from generations in front or behind us.

I have an example of each of these.  Throughout my career I have enjoyed working in a variety of environments; some highly structured, others less so; some where autonomy and entrepreneurialism are fostered, others less so. There have certainly been key people in all the roles I have worked, but two stand out.

I spent eight years in the wine buying department at Waitrose – an enormous privilege and a hugely enjoyable time.  My boss for most of that time was a man called Julian Brind who both recruited really with the least possible fuss and then trained me in how to be a good buyer, also with the least possible fuss.

In fact, pretty much everything Julian did was performed in an elegant, (sometimes painfully) polite manner. Despite his enormous workload his desk was almost always empty.  Despite the number of calls from wannabe suppliers, he ALWAYS found the time to speak to them or call back. He always had time for everyone, whether colleagues or press, no matter how mundane, inconsequential or indeed far fetched the approach.

So, what did that teach me? I wish I could claim to have followed in Julian’s footsteps, but sadly my desk is only seldom tidy and I can easily be accused of failing to phone people back if I miss their call first time round. What was so strong for me about Julian’s example was that it set a benchmark in what could be defined as “Business Manners” – a set of behaviours to aspire to, which even if you don’t reach them, can lead to self improvement.

I shan’t name the other person whose behaviours make me want to reach higher, they are still very much in the early years of what will undoubtedly be a stellar career and if they read this it would be embarrassing I’m sure.  But what to learn? Drive, clarity of thought, fitting far more output into a day’s work than hardly seems possible and then doing the same again at home in the evening and at the weekend. Basically, no procrastination and no fear of failure, just do it. 

I think a key element of personal development, whether formal or self taught, is to feed off the excellence of others; weigh up what makes colleagues, competitors and bosses good at what they do.  It doesn’t need to be the most high powered CEOs, it could be the postman or the coach at the children’s sports team. 

What does seem important is to continue to aspire to improve and to learn new ways of working and behaving.  Every new year I set myself resolutions, the key of course is to bring them to life and make the positive changes we want.

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