The Mentor

In the 1990s, I worked for about 18 months for a man who owned a number of businesses. He was in his early 50s then and was financially successful. He liked me a lot and was my first true mentor, and I learned a lot from him, including, ultimately, that I had no desire to be like him. But it would be a while before I knew that.

He was married to a beautiful woman who had been an Olympic-level track and field athlete. Together, they had a 12-year-old daughter who excelled academically and athletically. She went to a parochial private school, and in the summer, went to camps – basketball camps, soccer camps, baseball camps.

They lived outside of Memphis in a huge house on a golf course, and she volunteered and lunched, and he kept starting businesses. He had worked for FedEx in the early days and had cashed out with a bunch of stock which he parlayed into a number of companies – everything from cleaning supplies to service businesses to eventually, a bank.

Officially, my job was as a troubleshooter for his nationwide janitorial company – I went in to fix troubled accounts, which usually meant taking the clients out to eat and then firing half the employees. It got so that even the threat of my visit would turn troubled accounts around because the employees knew heads would roll if I showed up.

When he first taught me this technique, I asked how he knew which employees had been causing the problems.

“I don’t,” he said. “But it doesn’t matter. They don’t speak English, so you couldn’t find out anyway. Just fire half of them, and the rest will be so scared they will do whatever you tell them.”

Fear, the mentor taught me, was an effective tool for getting people to do what you want. If that sort of thing is important to you.

He wasn’t a smart man, and he knew this. But he told me that what he lacked in brains he made up for in effort.

“There are people who are smarter than me. I can’t control that. But they can’t outwork me without my consent”.

He routinely scheduled meetings – especially unpleasant meetings or meetings with sales people – for 6 AM.

In fact, 6 AM on Monday mornings was when he would fire people, his rationale in those pre-internet days being that then they had a whole week to work on finding a new job rather than being fired on Friday at 5, and then you can’t do anything constructive until Monday and have the whole weekend to fester.

Many mornings the mentor would meet me at job sites at 4 AM and we would go visit accounts, then eat breakfast after the sun came up. He would tell me stories of business victories and drop bits of wisdom he thought I should know, and we would go over various things I was working on. My unofficial job was to be his sidekick and mentee – it filled a lot of needs for him at that stage in his life. I joked to my wife at the time that he paid me to be his friend. There was, it turned out, a lot of truth in that.

Once while eating breakfast, I told him that if I was as successful as he was, I would not be out at 4 AM looking at accounts. I would be in bed.

He laughed and said that part of the reason he was successful was precisely because he was the kind of business owner that checked on accounts at 4 AM.

“But you are in your 50’s”, I said. “You are successful. When do you get to sleep in?”

In six more years, he told me. He stabbed a piece of pancake and put it in his mouth, then pointed at me with the fork.

“There is a six-year plan.”

His daughter was 12, he told me. In six years, she would be 18, and then he would divorce her mother and cash out and retire.

“Truth be told, that’s the real reason I’m out here most mornings. I just don’t want to be home when my wife wakes up. If the choice is to make money or spend time with a woman I hate and a kid who hates me, well, that’s an easy choice.”

I was floored. He had every single status symbol I associated with success: A beautiful family, a nice home, lots of money, and control of his schedule. People feared him, respected him, and some of us wanted to be like him.

But all he had really done was build a life in which he was miserable and spent much of his time trying to pretend he wasn’t. I was reminded of Steven Covey’s comment about the man who climbed the ladder of success, only to find it was leaning against the wrong wall.

I can track so much of who I am now back to breakfast that morning in that diner. I wasn’t sure what I was going to be yet, but I was sure what I did not want to be – someone who sacrificed so much to build a life everyone envied, but from which they themselves wanted to escape.