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The Unintentional Mentor

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When I first started working many years ago in a corporate environment, I took notice of office interaction particularly between management and support staff. I've always been a bit of an observer, looking for valuable takeaways from any experience. During National Mentoring Month, I recall a woman who perhaps never saw herself as a mentor to me, but certainly was.

Thirty years ago, after the birth of my first child, I took some serious time off and didn't return to work until my husband and I opened our own business -- a wine shop. With two kids at this point, life was busy, with much more in the way of busy soon on its way. A decade passed. I now had four kids and was working all kinds of part-time gigs; writing, working at a medical office, doing daycare, working nights at the postal service and creating yet another business, a kid's theme party service. I worked far more hours than most women I knew, but much of it allowed me to work around my kids' schedule, which was my end goal. I was involved in lots of community volunteer efforts and life was good, if not a bit frantic at times.

Circumstances forced me to seek more traditional full-time employment once again, which I glibly headed into, not realizing just how difficult the complete life-360 would be emotionally. Quite suddenly, gone were the days in which I took my youngest to story time, of being able to substitute at his school in exchange for free tuition, of meeting regularly with my Girl Scout troop, of picking the kids up at the bus stop or volunteering at their schools -- all the things that were an integral part of my life. It was tricky dealing with the immediate loss, although many of the moms I knew hadn't had an opportunity experience many of them, and many had no desire to. Given the nature of my new job, I didn't have the type of flexibility that I would at later positions; however, I was fortunate to land a job at a time when my family really needed me to and it was a great place to work.

Although I tried my best to hide it, there were times I just felt sad, and often, quite stressed. It was a fast-paced environment where everyone had worked together for some time and I struggled at first to learn the skills needed, the lingo used and do a good job while trying to also deal with some difficult issues on the home front -- a disabled husband, an income far less than what we were used to and lots of responsibilities away from work.

One day, the president of the company, a smart, savvy businesswoman who I much admired, came flying by my desk at her usual breakneck speed. After shooting me a quick smile as she passed by, she abruptly turned around and came back to my desk. Looking me square in the eyes, she asked, "What's wrong? You look so stressed."

I blurted out, "Nothing. I just really miss my kids."

Immediately, I felt embarrassed because it wasn't like I was the first mom that missed her kids. I figured she would think I was kind of wimpy and very unprofessional given that she had been dealing with all of this for years. Her face softened, and she said something about how hard it can be to get used to change and hoped that nothing at work was stressing me out. She encouraged me to let her know if something did. Although it didn't lessen the loss I was feeling, it made me realize she was empathetic and kind. That alone was a big deal, and it was one of the first things about this woman that made me admire her management style.

She would often ask me to do fairly mundane tasks that were necessary and important in some way to a project, proposal or goal. However, she did not just ask me to do the task; she relayed how this piece fit into the overall project. She took the time to explain the specific language or acronyms, to tell what a project was about, or what a report or proposal would be used for. I understood my own contributions as a result and the projects became even more important to me because I felt essential to its overall success. These were valuable lessons and ones I would emulate down the road in working with others.

It wasn't just work-related either. At one point, a woman in our office began receiving flowers and other gifts on a regular basis from someone she was dating. We all got a kick out of the deliveries, some of which were more unusual than others. My boss was now CEO of the company and busier than ever. She came in one morning with flowers for everyone; a different variety for each person. She said that we shouldn't have to wait for someone to send them to us and wanted us all to have beautiful flowers on our desk. It was unexpected gesture that was appreciated very much. She did similar things on various occasions and it was always something special geared specifically to who each person was.

She noticed what was going on with others in the workplace. She cared. She could be quite brusque at times, driven and hard-working to workaholic status more often than not, but she also was warm, had a fantastic sense of humor and seldom forgot something important in our lives. When continued ill health finally forced her leave from our company, her presence was greatly missed, but far from forgotten. These many years and jobs later, I still haven't forgotten -- and what I remember most is a busy woman with so many responsibilities, taking the time to explain to a novice employee how important her own role was and the effect that had on me then and still does.

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