An Unexpected Mentor

NOV 24, 2020

My second mentor in life appeared in 1999.

In the midsummer of that year, I joined a multi-national company as a general manager for their operations in Hong Kong. I remember walking into the workplace on my first day and I immediately felt out of place. I almost felt invisible as I was a petite and seemingly inconspicuous Asian woman working in an office filled with six-foot-tall towering Western men.

My role as a GM was, in fact, more like a middle-management position; I had a team to lead and a boss to report to. In the first few months at work, I was buried by never-ending figures and back-to-back meetings.

I would never have expected to cross paths with my new mentor in life on this particular conference call. ‘Mr B’ was my boss – a man who at that time, was keen to highlight the errors that I had made.  “Deborah! This number is wrong! Make sure you’re getting the question right before you answer it! It’s a foolish mistake!” Mr. B shouted. The call was brought to a silent standstill. As a newly appointed GM, I didn’t know how to respond. My team of four exchanged glances, and after a while, we forced some laughter to diffuse the situation and break the silence. I tried my best to wind the call down, and I distributed our work accordingly to wrap things up.

After the call, I immediately dialled Mr B. again and directly expressed my opinion to him. “Mr. B; I understand that the data I provided was wrong, and I take full responsibility for that, but I would appreciate it if you would not undermine me in front of my team in the future. You could have spoken to me or even scolded me privately about my mistake. What you did to me was not appreciated at all.”

There was complete silence on the line for a few seconds, and I could imagine his expression of disbelief. Mr B was a Westerner who had a well-known reputation for being smart, intelligent but difficult to deal with in the workplace. He had lived in Asia for a few years, and he must have been used to the typical Asian attitude of modesty and submissiveness. I could easily have been taken as an Asian woman who was obliged to obey each of his demands. Calling him out on his behaviour must have been a total surprise.

“Oh… I’m sorry about that; I didn’t know what I have said would have upset you.” He replied after a long silence.

“Isn’t it normal for someone to be unhappy in this situation?” I asked.

“My attitude was indeed a bit harsh just now, I do understand why you might have been upset.” Mr B responded.

“I hope you can understand the comments you have made did greatly undermine and subvert me in the management of my team.” I explained.

It didn’t come to my mind about the consequences it would bring after the phone call. All I knew was getting my resentment off my chest and being. Mr. B turned out to be a fair and reasonable gentleman, and he apologized profusely.

The incident was never mentioned again, but I had gained Mr. B’s respect and confidence. After that day, he would often come to me for my opinion on dealing with challenging situations at work. I believe that he now admired my honesty, and we have gradually built a great working relationship that was based on mutual trust and appreciation.

After that day, Mr. B was always very courteous and polite to me. I remember I once made a small mistake again, and I jokingly told him: “I’m definitely going to get scolded by you again!” He laughed and responded: “I would not dare to shout at you again, or else you’ll call me after to scold me instead!”

A mentor is someone who allows you to be the best version of yourself – and Mr. B could do exactly that. He had the ability to assess one’s skills and flaws, and he knew precisely the correct attributes needed in our line of business. He nurtured my strengths and allowed me to produce excellent results with flying colours.

Some managers don’t understand how to harness their subordinate’s strengths, and continuously misallocate work that leads to undesirable results.

Mr. B helped me enormously throughout my career and has brought me to where I am today. His influence has encouraged me to become a better leader and taught me how to bring the best out of each person and utilize their strengths. Up to this moment, Mr. B and I are always still in touch. We would constantly seek each other’s assistance when faced with challenges and help each other through thick and thin. You don’t meet people by accident; they are meant to cross our paths for a reason, and sometimes when you least expect it, you could meet someone who will completely change your life – and this unexpected mentor was undoubtedly a present that fate has bestowed upon me. 


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