The Mustache was still moving, but my mind had long since seized up, like Windows 95 on a Radio Shack TRS-80.  The Mustache and I were standing in my plant in front of a machine the size of a London double decker bus.  The Mustache was accompanied, as always, by Bruce, the owner of the rest of his body.  Bruce has a perfect frame for the Mustache.  In his mid-fifties, Bruce is an umpteen time Boston Marathon runner and ran this year’s Marathon around 3:30…injured.  The Mustache is really a paragon of manly sophistication.  I am not talking about some creepy Clark Gable mascara line, nor am I talking about a bushy atrocity that is usually accompanied by a stereotypical Scotsman in plaid.  The Mustache is a perfectly trimmed silvery expression of efficiency.  The Mustache and Bruce are here to coach me.

A self-proclaimed operations guru, companies paid me a lot of money to help them with global operations, which included vast supply chains and multiple manufacturing plants around the world.  A master of making value added operations sing, I was pretty comfortable and smug in my position in the universe.  Then, one bleak day, I picked up the book “Lean Thinking” by some guy named James Womack.  The book generated a fear in me that forced me to face two huge revelations.  First, James Womack is not just “a guy”, but one of the great lean thinkers of all time. Second, I was so focused on maxing out capacity that I missed the whole point of whether or not I should be taking capacity into consideration at all!  I came to the realization that I knew diddly-squat about operations.  Womack ruined my life, and from that point on I was destined to chase and eliminate waste wherever I could find it.

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Fast forward a few years into my lean journey.  I was in the process of transforming the operations of a company with a ridiculously complex supply chain that stretched to every continent.  I decided to up my commitment by going back to school for a Masters degree in Operational Excellence from Ohio State. As part of that program, I was formally assigned a coach.  Once I found out who my coach was, I quickly started stalking him on the internet.  The Mustache was immediately identified as a defining characteristic.  I met Bruce my first week in residence, and the Mustache was already dealing out pearls of wisdom.  Gems like “Can you please pass the butter”, and “I like to ski” had me mesmerized.  Imagine what this guy could do with me after a year of coaching?

Back at the plant, the Mustache noticed that my mind had seized up.  He repeated himself for me slowly, as was his habit when he saw my eyes stare off into the distance.  “Your project is not big enough in scope, you have the ability and the authority to do something really special for your company.”  He then outlined a potential vision of what could be accomplished.  The Mustache was really offering me a choice.  I could do a cool little project that would play to my already existing project management skills, or I could walk with him on a journey of self-discovery, teaching, collaboration, transformation, and leadership.  With my nod of consent, the Mustache became Bruce, and Bruce became my Mentor.

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Henry Eyring, a professor of Business Management at Stanford during the sixties, gave a fantastic speech at Brigham Young University entitled “To Choose and Keep a Mentor”.  I am going to shamelessly rip off some of his thoughts on the characteristics of a great mentor, and what a good relationship looks like.

Your mentor needs to have an understanding of the world you are trying to navigate.

Bruce had a map in his mind of my future potential as a leader and practitioner, not just the project that lay before us.  He had the map in his mind because he has a deep understanding of leadership and operational excellence.  Your mentor needs to be more than a fact and quote machine, but someone who will show you where value lives.  A great mentor will be able to combine theory with practical know how, and how they work in synergy.

Your Mentor needs to have integrity.

This means that your mentor is motivated for the right reasons, and has a reputation of integrity.  That means that anyone that she refers you to will most likely be people of integrity.  It also goes the other way, you will be taken seriously by people when you are referred to them by your mentor.

Your Mentor needs to have generosity.

It would be really hard for you to have a close relationship with a mentor if he was not a generous person.  In fact, he would probably have no interest in a two-way relationship at all unless he was a generous soul that likes to give back.

TRUST is how you keep the relationship.

Your mentor by definition is NOT your peer.  She will of course invite pushback, but there are limits.  She has no interest in forcing you to do anything.  Her mentoring relationship with you is her choice.  Your relationship with her is your choice.  Your ability to take and apply what she is giving you will strengthen that trust.  If you listen to her direction but continually drift away from her map, then you have made a choice in the mentoring relationship.  You have chosen an Advisor.

While I have described here a more formal mentoring relationship, we all have informal mentors in every facet of our lives.  I have a few mentors who don’t even know that I exist. James Womack, the “guy” mentioned earlier, is a mentor.  Alan Weiss, a brilliant consultant’s consultant, is another mentor who has no idea that I am devouring and applying his materials.

Bruce has spent hours and hours on the phone with me, and significant time in person, helping me develop my leadership skills and tools to the point where I can affect change.  I consider him a friend as well as a mentor.  Will I ever catch up to that guy?  Nah….but I am thinking of growing a mustache.

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