Mentors are important. They can fast-track the learning curve with experience and insight that you just can’t get out of a textbook. But there’s some things they can’t teach you.
Sometimes, you need an anti-mentor.
An anti-mentor teaches you what NOT to do. They lead by example and so their lessons are very powerful. We’ve all had them, and probably didn’t realize they were teaching us something at the time. Or that what they were teaching was so valuable.
I’ve had a couple of bosses who really liked to tear a strip off people. Basically, when something went wrong, they’d be in your face screaming, berating, and carrying on like maniacs. And usually, right in front of everyone else. They’ve taught me a lot.
An Anti-Mentor Story
Years ago, when I was a supervisor, my boss and anti-mentor started tearing a strip off one of my guys in the plant. It was pretty bad, and to make matters worse, it was for something small that was completely not his fault.
Everyone was standing around watching, speechless. But I’d had enough so I got in between him and his current victim. I usually got a lot of respect from him but the challenge set him off and he started in on me.
It escalated to the point where I was about as angry as I’ve ever been. Which was unsettling, and I put a lot of thought into what had happened.
What I learned (a few times):
- Focusing on the right things is key. When you only point out the problem to someone, they focus on the problem instead of the solution. So the problem keeps coming back again and again.
- Freaking out is a time waster. It doesn’t solve the current problem. It just wastes valuable time that could be spent fixing the problem.
- Anti-mentors have a leadership ceiling. Business is about relationships, and at a certain level nobody wants to deal with someone who’s difficult to deal with. And they won’t.
Fast Forward to the Lesson Learned Well
A couple years later I became the plant / operations manager, (remember lesson #3?).
I had a good group of people. But what I needed was a great team. I never tore a strip off anybody. When we had a problem or a screw-up, I created the attitude of “Let’s fix it, learn from it, and move forward”.
Over time, everybody started focusing on solutions rather than just the problems. They became a team. They gave a damn. And that freed up my time to get into the business side of the business where I learned a lot from some really amazing mentors.
But it’s what I learned about what not to do from an anti-mentor that made it possible.