Every now and then, a person you never suspected turns out to be a powerful Mentor. You walk beside someone on the path for a few years. Or a few decades. And one day, you turn around and look back over all the ground you’ve covered together.
And then you get the memo:
While you were busy looking to other people for your learning (or imagining that everybody was learning from you), you suddenly realize that this person you’ve crossed deserts and oceans with…was actually schooling you all along.
That’s a hallmark of mentorship. Sometimes, like that “Footprints in the Sand” poem, you can’t even feel someone holding you and pushing you until you realize you’re in a totally different place.
In this instalment of Conversations with Roy, Yolanda shares a story of one of her key Mentors as she was growing through the ranks at Flight Centre.
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You have a great story of mentorship from your own experience. It’s a take on “the Mentor I never suspected”. Will you tell us more?
Yes, Carole. The funny thing with me and Carole is, I never realized she was a Mentor to me until about a year ago. When I was working for Flight Centre, I knew that she was a huge supporter of mine. And I was also aware that I owed many of the steps of my career directly to her. She was a good friend. But I didn’t really see her as a Mentor. I always saw a Mentor as being someone that you notice, but she was like the Mentor ninja, a silent Mentor.
How old would you have been when you and Carole began working together?
I started working with her when I was twenty-six. And we moved through our organization together. I followed in her footsteps.
Why didn’t you really notice her as a Mentor?
As we worked closer together, I had always felt that I was backfilling her shortcomings. Which, in certain ways, I guess I was. But she was a lot more strategic than I ever realized. And she was propping me up in certain ways when I needed it as well. Now looking back on it, I think to myself, How did I not see this clearly? She is my biggest Mentor. I learned so much through working with her.
With Carole, I feel like she almost fell into that role. It was this perfect storm that created a dynamic between us over 15 years working together. She opened many doors for me. She always saw much more potential in me than I ever did. I always had confidence, but she put me into positions where I was in way over my head, in roles I had no business having. And then I would figure it out. Just as I was about to drown completely, I would somehow find a way to stay afloat, and continue to move through it. At times I would think to myself, Why didn’t she prepare me better for this? But I know now that she had. She prepared me just enough to stay afloat, and the rest I needed to figure out on my own.
Take us back to those times when you would say, Why didn’t she prepare me better? Where was that coming from?
Yeah, I would have been in a state of fear and fluster, doubting my abilities and feeling like she should have given me more tools. Or better tools. Or a ladder or a lifeboat. Something! And, you know, we blame other people when we’re scared, or when we’re not taking full responsibility for ourselves. But of course, she knew I could cope. Even when I didn’t know it. Without her, I wouldn’t have even thought to go for the opportunities that I was given without someone going, You should go for this, and me replying, You’re crazy! She did that for me at least five times over 15 years.
That fits with the idea that a Mentor often can see a deeper and wider set of abilities in the person in front of them than the person themselves can see.
Yes, absolutely. I grew as her mentee and she grew as a Mentor, as I happened to be under or alongside her catching the draft of her own journey. I just showed up at the right time, in the right place to be there as she was moving into her own leadership, holding space as Mentor.
Will you share a story from those years?
One that comes to mind is when I was in a western Canada operations role. Carole ran the Canadian business and there was a middle-layer manager between my role and hers. That middle-layer position was held by someone I will describe as emotionally manipulative and psychologically abusive. When they said, Jump, I said, How high? I was permitted absolutely no boundaries.
Those folk are hard to deal with. It’s hard to even get the ground to stop moving underneath you.
Yeah. I was done working in that kind of environment. But I was hopeful, because our financial year-end was coming, and there had been discussion that the structure was going to change, meaning I would no longer report to this person. But that change didn’t come through. So when it was announced we were keeping the structure, I thought to myself, OK, I’m going to have to do something drastic. Am I going to have to quit? What do I do?
Because you knew you couldn’t stay.
It was not healthy. I was broken under that leadership. So I had a conversation with a trusted peer and she said, “You need to call Carole and tell her exactly what’s been happening.” Because she had no idea. Any of the stuff that was going on—it was pervasive—but she had no clue. We were all terrified of Carole at that time! She had been portrayed to us by this person in middle management as a tyrant.
Right. That’s classic manipulation. The fearful despot trying to get everyone onside, against their would-be opponent.
And so I called Carole and I told her everything, and she said, “Leave it with me.” And within a few days, that person had been given some options…and ultimately left the company. Carole had taken immediate action simply based on my word. And then eventually she promoted me. That’s kind of a heavy story, I guess.
It’s always heavy where culture festers.
She stepped in and she trusted me. She believed me. She heard me. Wow, I’m even a bit emotional about it right now. It was a really hard time, and I was so afraid. It’s easy to get scared of consequences within a corporate culture, especially when there is this tyrannical image perpetuated of a leader. I was so fearful of her and scared to expose the bullying that was happening.
You didn’t want to rock the boat.
I loved my job and I loved the company. And I was terrified of what might happen if I spoke up. But through that experience, she went from this person I was completely intimidated by to someone who…just heard me, and took care of me in that moment.
Let’s talk about trust, because this kind of story probably plays out in a lot of places. Carole trusted you…but you didn’t even know that could be possible. It took huge courage to take your problem to her.
Carole’s conduct through that time completely changed my internal atmosphere. And we talk about that idea a lot at Roy Group. I had moved from being afraid, feeling not worthy, feeling disempowered, to feeling totally valued, totally respected, fully empowered, fully trusted—literally in the course of a few days—through how she conducted herself. I think that was a catalyst to enable me to be open to all the opportunities that came in the years that followed. I shifted from a place of fear and under the thumb to a front-footed, confident place where I could actually see myself moving forward in the organization.
Can you say more about how Carole was the Mentor you never noticed—at least until much later?
I always respected her, but I was young and I thought that the areas that were not her strong points would be her demise. And I was so wrong. In fact, because those weaknesses were my strong points, I believed, Oh, to be a really good leader, you’ve got to have all this stuff that I bring. But actually, I needed to learn more of what she had naturally.
So humbling, those moments of clarity.
Totally. You can’t always see it while you’re in it.
You never really know who might turn out to be one of your greatest teachers. Yo, this was a great conversation. Thanks.