Think back to a time when someone believed in you more than you believed in yourself. Imagine what they saw looking at you and wonder again why they invested so much of their precious time in you. In the long term what was in it for them other than the satisfaction of watching a seed sprout into a beautiful healthy plant?
In my working life, I have been blessed to work under some exceptional leaders. Not every leader I've worked with has been a people developer (heretofore referred to as coaches), but luckily at the beginning of my career I was paired with leaders who were fantastic coaches. The amazing thing about coaches is that they have the power of building confidence in people who work with them.
I experienced 5 types of coaches in my early working days that I want to thank in this article.
The raw materials molder
This coach is the person who took you as you were and decided to mold your raw potential into something stronger. In my case, it was my manager at Zales Diamond Jewelry in Tallahassee, Fl. Prior to hiring me my work experience consisted of burger flipper at McDonalds, selling men's suits and accessories at JC Penney (a department store), and hawking luggage at Bentley Luggage. I guess he saw the sales experience and believed I could be trained to sell diamonds and high end jewelry as well. He had the amazing attribute that he could relate to anyone from any walk of life - from janitors to senators and every one in-between. And he taught me the single most important lesson I ever learned about leadership - to see the human being, not the title or persona. Under his tutelage, I went from a charismatic, friendly person to a sales man skilled at meeting customers where they were and helping them find joy via jewelry. And if it wasn't for this coach, I would never have won my first pharmaceutical sales internship - so in a way I owe my entire career to him!
The strengths discoverer
The second coach who transformed me was my first District Manager when I joined Schering-Plough (SP) as a management associate back in 2002 - my first job after graduating with my MBA. He was known as the top DM in this particular sales division and it wasn't hard to see why. Before I interviewed with him, he gave me a book called Now Discover Your Strengths. I was tasked with reading the book and taking a 45 minute assessment that would spit out my top 5 talent themes. I found the subject matter of the book to be nothing less than revolutionary. From the western education system to the workplace, we were spending all our time trying to develop weaknesses and gaps when true development came when focusing on identifying, developing, and driving a person's strengths and natural abilities. I took the assessment and learned that I possessed a combination of 5 talents that could make me unique and powerful - if I invested time and energy to turn them into reliable strengths. Although I didn't really work closely with this particular coach after being hired (he was covering my district temporarily as the position was vacant), the gift he gave me in strengths finder has been the bedrock of my career success ever since - and it's a gift I continue to give to others.
The strengths developer
The distinction of best coach I ever had goes to my 5th manager at SP. I had graduated from the management associates program and landed on the Cardiovascular franchise team as an associate Product Manager. At first I was reporting directly to the Sr. Marketing Director but a few months later I got a new boss. This individual had been in SP a long time and had made the difficult matriculation from sales and sales management into marketing. He was a breath of fresh air when he came in - a no BS, humble, very real guy. Not to mention the fact that he was hilarious and used his sense of wit and humor to relax everyone around him and get the best out of his team. When he found out my talents, rather than give me some typical marketing assignments, he basically molded the position around my abilities and then applied the right balance of pressure and release. I truly blossomed due to his coaching and approach to leadership. His door was always open and he was the first manager I'd ever had who would make the impossible possible for his people who in turn would run through walls for him. To this day I try to embody the principles of realness he embodied and remember that a leader's job is to serve their people first.
The diversity diviner
The strength developers' boss was an extremely charismatic leader known as "the Mayor" in SP because he couldn't go anywhere in or out of the building without people speaking to him and acknowledging his presence. He had rescued me when as a management associate I'd found myself with a manager who saw no value in me and allowed me to earn a coveted spot on his team. Over the many years that we worked together, we always had conversations about the importance in me helping him find and bring more diversity into the organization. I was amazed that he not only valued my unique strengths but he also coveted my general perspective from being an African-American and felt more of this perspective would greatly enhance our effectiveness. From him I once again learned the lesson of seeing the human behind the job title and leveraging the backgrounds of different people to improve the effectiveness of team dialogue and decision making.
The safety net
My last, but certainly not least great coach was the head of our team, the Sr. VP of Cardiovascular Marketing and Market Access - a powerhouse of an individual who had built and sold his own Pharma company, then retired, and then come out of retirement to join SP. He demanded excellence from everyone working with him but also fought tirelessly for his people during difficult times and inspired extreme loyalty due to his philosophy of each person covering everyone's back so there would be no blind spots. He was the individual who approved me for 5 promotions in 5 years (taking me from Associate Product Manager to Senior Marketing Director) - truly living up to the "pay for performance" philosophy. The moment that sticks in my mind about this leader was when I was promoted to be a Business Unit director in Brazil. At the time, I had never managed people in my career and had no previous P&L experience. Suddenly, I was on the executive management team, leading sales leaders, marketing, market research, and medical colleagues, and basically representing SP as a leader in the cardiovascular community. Before I left, we had a sit down and he told me that no matter how I did in the new job, or how badly I messed up, I had a home back on the team in the U.S. for as long as he was there. The security he gave me allowed me to throw myself into the new job, take risks, and drive up the learning curve even faster because there was no fear that I was ruining my career.
With coaches like these in my corner, hopefully you can see why I'm feeling confident about my new job. I was literally built for this by them. Now my purpose is to become a blend of all 5 types of coaches for the people in my organization. It's a tough act to follow but if I get lost, I will simply reconnect with the lessons I've learned, recalibrate my approach, and continue forward.
This week I am reaching out to each of these individuals and personally thanking them again for all they've done to make me who I am and I'm encouraging everyone reading this to do the same.
Who were the coaches who developed you that you need to thank for your current success? Tell their stories in the comments below!
If you like this article, please give a thumbs up and/or comment and follow my growing leadership tribe on twitter.