Great Mentors, Managers or Coaches

Ever had a manager who really pushed you? Demanded more out of you everyday? Someone who didn’t have to say it, but expected you to push and drive for more everyday? To be better. To be on point. To be on time (which actually means 15 minutes early for anything; and when it comes to deliverables or work products it means already reviewed three time by the week before the due date). To be prepared (which might mean having three pre-socialization meetings before the real meeting). To be proactive. To take ownership. To make the client look good. To add value. To be positive. To be confident. To expect more out of yourself.

I was fortunate to have a few managers like that early on in my career – true leaders who constantly issued positive challenges that were direct, prescriptive and lucid directions or thoughts on how to be better, take on more and add more value to our clients, teams and organizations.

Regardless of what you’re doing personally, communnally or professionally – what makes you better as an individual is accountability for your own attitude, efforts and ultimately results. What makes you better overseeing a team is accountability and ownership of your team’s results. And so on, up to the highest levels of organization.

The problem is that today people avoid setting high standards for themselves. They run from high standards placed on them by others. And they avoid setting high standards for other people – because it’s hard – and people today avoid conflict at all costs.

If you want to grow and succeed today – don’t just set high standards for yourself and those around you – seek out people who will set ridiculously high standards and expectations for you personally, in your community and professionally. Finding those people today is hard – seek them out, expect them to challenge you, express gratitude and rise to the challenge.

Why I'm Sharing A Story

I’m sharing this story for a few reasons. First, if you ever find yourself in a management capacity or looking to have more influence over people, I think this is a good lesson. It teaches you that you have to first know your people before you can gauge how much or how aggressively to influence them. For lack of a better comparison, I’m going to draw a parallel to horse racing and training. The jockey knows how much he can get our of his horse – how much he can drive and push the horse. But each horse is different. Sometimes you have a horse that knows zero bounds and would run itself into the ground if you asked it to. Other times, you might be sitting on the next secretariat, but with a sensitive demeanor or poor attitude. People are the same way so you have to learn how to drive them – and sometimes that takes time. My manager knew how to tap into my competitive nature and issue positive challenges for me. Issuing positive challenges are one of the primary tools influencers and high performers use. Second, when we’re talking about high standards required in high performance or influencing people – we have to mention details. In the quick story I’ll share I think it paints the picture for why the tinest details matter. Each time you cut a corner or let something go you’re creating an opening for “good enough” to be acceptable.

Story About The Best Manager I've Ever Had

I remember some of these days vividlly. Even missing them at times – especially the laughs and ridiculous personalities of colleagues or clients. We were about three months into the most challenging engagement I was ever on. It was at a large investment bank, working on an initiative that had c-level visibility and lots of attention, when I first dropped the term irregardless.

My manager – we’ll call him Andy for this story – and I were debating how an array of financial account types (think retirement vs. brokerage vs. trust, etc.) would require different back-end processes to support a front end experience that collects varying types and amounts of required regulatory information from clients.

In the heat of debate, I said something along the lines of: ‘well, irregardless, the individual and brokerage accounts have the same reg requirements”. Andy fired back with: ‘no, that’s not right’ and, perplexed, I said: ‘what do you mean that’s not right? I’m looking at the requirements right in front of me’. Andy just laughed and, while laughing and jumping onto a conference call we were 6 minutes late for, said: ‘Sorry dude, I meant that first part of what you said was wrong. It’s regardless. Irregardless isn’t a word, you know that right?’. I couldn’t help but laugh, knowing he was right, and mentioned in passing that I had my mom to thank for that habit.

Over the course of the next few months I really tried to pay attention to controlling words like that. Bad habits are very tough to rewire. I could have chose to ignore something seemingly so miniscule. Because how much does it really help you to use the mental bandwidth, willpower or discipline to avoid tiny mistakes like that? It’s actually a tremendous value-add. The problem is that it’s not measurable or immediately gratifying and noticeable. Maybe not ever.

A handful of times I did slip and throw irregardless into our nomenclature. Even if it was conversaton about the NFL and how the Jets would turn it around irregardless of circumstances, Andy would make sure I acknowledged using the term.

The engagement was moving along at hyper-speed and I came to know just how detailed Andy was. I’d always prided myself on attention to detail being one of my competencies. But he was on another level, and it just came with ease for him. It was his standard.

That type of a-game standard can be one of two things: intimidating or inspiring. Either you welcome it, and enjoy the positive challenge issued to you, asking you to rise to the occassion or you dismiss it and pick apart the rationale or motive behind it. Accepting the challenge is always the decision that makes you better.

About 8 months into the engagement I had grown a lot and learned a ton from Andy. I had built trust with the clients, as well as Andy, and was driving things on the ground at the client site managing stakeholders while he was overseas or working remotely from out of state.

In one of our last meetings together in New York we had a number of senior clients in a meeting where I was walking through a massive road map of our requirements, process flows and an inventory of product capabilities. Andy was sitting directly to my right at the corner of a big conference room table, and I was answering some questions about potential engagement dependencies with other initiatives when I decided again to drop the word irregardless.

Client A: “What happens if feature Y doesn’t get delivered before X as we expected?”

Adam: “Well, based on our analysis and discussion with blue team, you really don’t need Y before X, because X can piggy-back off of Z’s requirements – which has a guaranteed delivery ahead of X. So “irregardless” of Y’s delivery, we still get X as part of day one minimum viable product.”

*Almost immediately Andy slides over a little bit and I feel a nudge on my foot/ankle, so I glance over at him. He’s glaring at me with a smirk and shaking his head. We have a client who may take the cake for being the toughest we’ve worked with, and Andy can tell he picked up on my “interesting” word choice. After the meeting:

Andy: “Dude, seriously? Great job in there, but irregardless is still not a word. English is my second language. You gotta be better. Especially with ‘client A’ in there. You know how he is – he loves those <consulting firm x> guys – don’t wanna give him any ammunition against us.”

a lesson in high performance, standards and influence

I imagine some of you read this (thank you for making it this far) and said, ‘wow, that’s petty’.

If that’s the case, you’re probably not used to setting high standards for yourself. Or more specifically, having someone set seemingly unrealistic standards for you to live up to.

The story is just one of the many examples of attention to detail and professionalism lessons I learned from Andy. I’ve never in my life been told that I needed to focus heavily on attention to detail until my experience with Andy. And you know what? I needed to hear it multiple times before I owned it and got around my defense mechanism, which was my old narrative about being the most detailed person.

Do you want to have influence on people? Having influence requires you to issue positive challenges to people’s competence, character, contributions and connections to team or community. Today, more than ever, setting high standards is tough because people shy away from them, don’t believe in honoring the struggle, and avoid conflict at all costs. But you can’t back down from them and you can’t expect those around you to back down from their own high standards in order to avoid conflict.

The highest performers, managers, coaches, mentors, etc. change the way you think. They challenge your character. Hold you to universal standards. Never say don’t sweat the details or alowl you to cut even the smallest of corners personally, communally or professionally. Having influence requires you to challenge the way people think, challenge them to contribute more, and to “role model” the way it’s supposed to be done.

Andy did that for me day in and day out. Andy developed influce with me. And for that, I’m fuckin’ thankful. Hopefully this little story helps you think about how to perform better and influence people positively.