Partners and Padawans

Musings on corporate mentorship and the humility needed to grow a winning team.

Power, prominence, title, and any number of carrots dangling at the top of a corporate ladder can consume us and our peers.

Unfortunately, in a hidebound sprint to the “top,” folks run the risk of missing an opportunity to contribute to a team’s growth. Mentorship, teaching hard skills, and taking the extra five minutes to get a teammate’s life update at the water cooler are a few behaviors that fuel a stronger team…and a stronger you. This post isn’t about being an effective mentor; rather, it’s about two extreme ends of an organization’s spectrum, both experientially and in title, and thoughts on how we can bridge the actual (or perceived) gap between the camps.

But first, a quick segue to a Star Wars reference so that I can lose my more socially-inclined audience.

The Jedi track isn’t too dissimilar from our corporate structures, one enters as a bright-eyed Padawan (student of the Jedi way); and a select few grind it out to the prestigious Jedi Council (governors of the Jedi Order, they probably manage the Jedi’s bottom-line too; but George Lucas spared us that detail). In the journey to the top, there’s a lot of learned experience and growth along the way.

Concurrently, there’s a lot of attrition in the ranks. The Jedi’s worst two-weeks’ notice is Annakin Skywalker (turned Darth Vader)–the remarkably gifted Jedi who was supposed to bring balance to the force (a corporate equivalent of tripling EBITDA)–joining the Sith (an evil rival enterprise) because of a simple: “no, not yet” from the Council.

We’re surrounded by Annakin Skywalkers in the workforce…you may even be one yourself: Talented individuals who’ve grown tremendously under the tutelage of their Obi Wan (company mentor) who; ultimately, walk away from their company because of the same, “no, not yet” or the more painful, “no, never.”

I can’t fix your company’s promotion approval process, and I’m not proposing that every Padawan needs to become a Partner. Rather, I’d like to offer a few items for our friends on both sides of the spectrum (and everyone in between) to consider as we all strive to build better teams. After all, there’s nothing worse than losing your brightest Padawan because of poor communication, unmet expectations, and many other potential pitfalls we face daily.

For the Padawans (my analyst friends in the trenches, following the light of Excel and PowerPoint):

  • Be Patient – You still have a lot to learn, and that takes time. Up until your first gig out of undergrad, life is a sprint of short-term seasons (like the season when you were in the middle school band playing the trumpet with braces, hypothetically speaking); that’s not the reality anymore, you’ve got 40+ more years to master your craft.
  • Work Hard – This isn’t rocket science, but it is…difficult. I’m not authoring an ode to workaholism; but, you need to earn your stripes and sometimes that yields long and grueling days. Remember, that Partner you look up to (and is now ruining your life with all the hard work you need to do) has been there before, and they worked hard.
  • Extend Grace – My first year as an analyst, I remember having the same conversation with a Partner at least ten times. Always initiated by them, always on script, and always leaving me wondering if they have ever listened to my answers in the previous rounds. I understand it now; busyness can be a major inhibitor to meaningful conversations and building authentic relationships; and Partners are really busy. Don’t villainize a teammate for having a full plate, extend grace and try to help them lighten the load.
  • Prove It – If you want to be a Partner one day, start being one today. Francis of Assisi famously shared, “Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary, use words.” It’s easy to talk about being a partner in your firm, it’s much harder to live out the standards that are probably written down (and hopefully lived out) by the incumbent folks that have already “made it.” Prove you’re a partner in action, with humility – healthy organizations will reward that in the end.

For the Partners (looking at the Managing Directors, Executive Leadership Teams, VPs, and managers as well, those titles just didn’t serve alliterative purposes in the title):

  • Gift Time – I’m asking you to give generously of what’s likely your most precious commodity nowadays, time. The analyst whose eye is twitching because of the financial model you asked them to build would love to grab a cup of coffee with you. Mentorship, culture, and fostering a team that will follow in your footsteps are all predicated on your ability to deliver here. Carve out time intentionally.
  • Be Humble – You made it to the top (even though you still; unfortunately, have a boss), emanate the humility you’d like to see across your whole team. Listen, do real work, and don’t be afraid to sit in the pit with the overcaffeinated friend you made at the last bullet point.
  • Share Wisdom – Your experiences have morphed you into the person, and professional, that you are today – impart wisdom to the folks who ask for it on your team (maybe even with the ones who don’t ask for it, too). Being the smartest one locked away in the corner office doesn’t benefit the growth potential of your hungry Padawans, feed them consistently.
  • Prove It (had to double-down on this one for both audiences) – you wrote the book on being a Partner, now you get to do the hard part of living it. Don’t worry, you don’t have to be perfect (the Padawan is going to extend ample grace), but you need to be good. Live up to the values you espouse, it’ll motivate your team and inspire the next batch of leaders you need.

Frankly, there are days where we’ll all fall short of the mark here – Padawans and Partners alike. There’s a life to lead outside your office, and sometimes it’s heavy and burdensome. The moral of the story is this, we need teams that have healthy Padawans and Partners. Teams that can work together in a trust-filled, safe environment. Teams that have comparable tenacity to reach a common goal. I hope some of these guiding principles help us get there together.

What do you think?  How do we ensure healthy leadership and followership behaviors?