What Happens When You Lose Your Mentor

He had been my mentor for 30 years. He died yesterday.

He was CEO of the firm where I began my consulting career, and for the first 15 years our relationship was informal, distant. His leadership was less about directives and more about exploring ageless themes — constantly reminding us, “Consider this.” He’d seek leadership clarity on the other side of the complexity: How, despite all the noise around you, do you help people bring the best out in themselves? How do we build strong teams from strong individuals? How do we discuss compensation without damaging our firm’s culture? How do we keep a genuine passion for our clients as we grow? His approach expressed deep trust that we, as partners of the firm, would interpret his stories and questions and apply them correctly. He expected us to raise our own game. His firm’s success serves witness to how leading by treating others as adults can work better than any management fad.

In many ways, I valued his mentorship most after we both left that firm. We would lunch and just talk — conversations in deeper places without agendas. He’d share his latest adventures, his chuckling observations, his leadership nuggets. By then I was CEO of my own firm, grappling with the same timeless leadership issues he considered earlier. I was all ears. The lunch discussions helped me see the core of leadership through more experienced, but still unresolved, eyes. When I once told him that I considered him a great mentor, he just smiled. I’m not sure he thought of himself that way.

As I reflect on the relationship that we built over decades, I realize that though companies do often provide guidance and mentorship to high potential employees, once we hit a certain age, that guidance tends to fade away. And yet that’s when we need it most, because that’s when we as leaders have the greatest impact. Board members can serve as mentors, but they are also your boss, which makes the relationship more cautious — and one that comes with an agenda. We might be provided executive coaches, but they help largely with tactics. As we age and rise to more senior positions, mentors like mine tend to disappear.

As a 50-plus-leader, we are expected to know what to do. We have had our life lessons and are now applying them. Don’t most of us form our leadership styles when we’re young? Today, with the pace of business, who wants a leader “considering” things? People want leaders with clarity of thought and action. They want us to be consistent. They want a decision.

But should there be more? Is there a point at which we age out of having mentors and are obliged, instead, to play only the role of mentor, not mentee? As I reflect on the insights my mentor gave me, I believe this is the case. I probably won’t find another mentor in my career, but the one I did have offered his guidance and wisdom with the implicit expectation that I find my own way to pass it on. Maybe his mentorship doesn’t end with his death. Maybe the final gift he’s given me is the opportunity to reflect on what he’s given me, with the goal of trying to become a mentor worthy of his investment.

My mentor’s passing reminds me that my runway is limited, even short. I’m not sure if I’m yet worthy to pass his insights to others. I’m always surprised when younger people say they consider me a mentor. “Rob, when you said that, it changed my life direction. I want to thank you for that.” Often the “that” are comments, frankly, that I don’t remember making.

But it’s time for me to pick up the mantle. The lessons I’ve gleaned from my mentor — and others who provided invaluable guidance along the way — are now part of me. None of my learnings from mentors are things they demanded I take from them or were forced on me. Their casual reflections from the hard knocks of experience were the source. They provide sparks of insight, even brilliance, derived from the messy context of their life. They placed the insight on the table, not down the throat.

Great mentors, I’ve realized, don’t tell you what to do; they find ways to bring out the best in you. My mentor taught me not to hover and micromanage, but to offer thought-provoking perspective. It’s less important that others do things my way than that we together shape the values and principles of our organization. If, in that process, they find how their personal passion connects to the purpose of the organization, you’ve mentored. I hope I’ve instinctively done that for my colleagues over the years. But now it’s time for me to do that even more deliberately, over lunches, in meetings, in casual “consider this” asides.

Like everyone who unexpectedly loses someone they love, I rue that I hadn’t seen my mentor recently. Who knows what stories and metaphors I have missed the chance to consider. My education from him feels incomplete. And so I know that I must pick up the ball on my own. Whom should I lunch with now? Mentorship, in both directions, especially for those of us in our 50s, is too precious to let slip away.

But maybe we don’t ever say good-bye to a great mentor. The important conversations they slip into our heads never leave.

First Published: 3 June 2019 on HBR.org