It was the summer of 1999 and I was mulling over several fantastic job opportunities, thanks in large part to an assist from a great friend and mentor of mine, Jim Spuller. Jim had been in national sales leader roles throughout much of his career. With his help, I had enjoyed a very accelerated interviewing process and was zeroing in on one opportunity in Atlanta and another in Phoenix.
The Atlanta role had my full attention. They were going to bring me in to revamp their employee benefits department. I would be responsible for growing my own book of business as well as hiring, firing, and building out the team. They had big plans for me and made sure I knew it. They promised to find my wife a job and set her up with a few interviews while in town. They took us house hunting in the Buckhead area of Atlanta and showed us plenty of southern charm.
At twenty four years of age, they had pulled out all the stops when it came to recruiting. The more they swelled my head, the less critical my thinking became. I didn’t bother to ask why an established and successful firm like theirs, based in the south, had not built a bigger presence in Atlanta. It didn’t seem odd to me that they were placing their bets on an inexperienced guy from Indiana. Nope, they were right. This job was perfect for me!
Compare that to a more candid environment in Phoenix. No management job. Just a sales role befitting a young person with some potential and a little experience. They made it painfully clear that I wouldn’t make or break their year, but rather would be just another addition to the team. After all, in their eyes, their opportunity wasn’t just a promotion to the major leagues; it was a roster spot on the best team in the majors. “Son, joining us is like playing for the Yankees. We expect to win every year!” said the regional office head. It was a nice visit, but unfortunately for them, they didn’t have the vision that the people in Atlanta did (I told myself).
A Cold Dose of Reality
I phoned a few people I knew in the insurance industry to get their feedback on my likely decision to move to Atlanta. After all, a big company had finally noticed all that I had to offer! If I’m being honest, I was really just looking for them to agree with me, validating my decision. Thankfully one of these mentors gave me the cold dose of reality that I so badly needed.
Steve Pahl had recently joined my alma mater, Indiana State University, as the first ever head of the Gongaware Center, a program aimed at developing future leaders in insurance and financial services. (Ironically enough I had met Steve through Jim Spuller). Steve asked me some questions and listened to my carefully articulated reasoning about choosing the Atlanta position. He always showed great patience and attentiveness but never shied away from telling me his opinion. He gave me what turned out to be some life altering advice.
“No offense, Tim, but what could you possibly add to that operation in Atlanta? You don’t even have yourself figured out yet! You’ve been out of school for two years and you’re going to be really good someday. But right now, you need to go to an established high performing operation, a well-oiled machine that can make youbetter. The last thing you should be doing is trying to build your own machine.”
I’ll admit, he caught me off-guard and I wanted to argue. I solemnly protested and finally ended with, “You really think Phoenix would be better?”, but I knew he was right. My ego was bruised, but in that one moment, Steve not only saved me from a less than perfect match for my skills but helped lead me to what turned out to be a very special opportunity in Arizona.
I was lucky to have folks like Jim and Steve playing such a major role in my early career. What made them such great mentors?
How To Do It Right
According to Steve, a good mentor will show curiosity, empathy, attentiveness, and candidness. “The worst thing they can be is impatient or come across as self-important,” said Steve.
They both will tell you that mentoring requires a willing, interested, and able mentee. As Jim likes to say, “A mentor can’t ‘want it’ more than the mentee.” Steve agrees, “The thing I’ve enjoyed the least is trying to get a mentee to truly commit and act upon agreed personal action plans.”
Interestingly, mentoring is really about listening. Said Steve, “Just like a good job interviewer, a mentor should ask 20% of the time and spend the other 80% listening. Let the mentee talk about who they are, what they plan to accomplish in the mentoring relationship, and how they will contribute to their own success.”
Jim has built his approach on teaching mentees to think for themselves. “Nothing works better early on than giving them projects or problems that you may already know the answer to,” said Spuller. “Along the way, challenge them to think and explain why and how they came to their conclusion.”
“Avoid being a know it all. You’re not,” commented Steve. “Particularly when it comes to really knowing and understanding your mentee. You may have valuable experiences, insights, and contacts. But how that fits with what your mentee needs and wants is unique and specific to that person. In a successful mentoring relationship the mentor has a lot to learn from that mentee.”
Mentoring requires a healthy mutual respect. “I think you need to treat your mentee as a fellow adult or at least as an adult child, but never a child. Have anintense curiosity as to what the mentee needs and wants from the relationship and make it clear that constant and mutual feedback is critical,” said Steve.
“Likewise the mentee must over time show their commitment to the relationship by acting upon advice and recommendations provided by the mentor. The mentee must take action!” stated Steve.
Jim added, “There certainly is a life cycle in mentoring. It goes from instructional, to directional, to coaching, and then asking for your blessing.”
Steve sees it similarly, “I enjoy the process and the product; actually seeing the mentee change: becoming more confident, more articulate, and more directed.”
What’s The Risk?
The risk is that you miss an opportunity to help your mentee when they need it most. You likely hold tremendous influence over your mentees – whether you know it or not. A relationship, a job, a career and possibly more could be on the line. In that time of great need, will you exercise the curiosity and interest in your mentee they so badly need? Will you be empathetic and yet still candid?
The key is whether or not you’ve built they type of relationship, based on mutual respect and reciprocal growth, that allows you to deliver a very candid message or provide key support. It’s about them, but it’s also about how good it feels to know that you’ve truly impacted someone’s life. Oh, and you might just learn something new yourself!
Do you have a favorite story about a mentor relationship of yours? If so, I invite you to share below.

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