By Keith R. McFarland The hotshot vice-president who took over the marketing group where I worked when I was in my 20s was a great anti-mentor. Arrogant, quick-tempered, and controlling, it took him only about six months to turn a great department into a loose collection of warring fiefdoms. I knew I wanted out, so I observed what I thought at the time was proper etiquette:
I told him face-to-face that I wanted to transfer to a different department. He tried to talk me out of it but finally relented, extracting only one promise: I would allow him to tell the president of our organization about the change.
What I didn't know at the time was that he and the president were at war over some of the same issues that were causing me to flee and that he intended to use my departure as a weapon against the president, who had been my friend and sponsor for a number of years. So my boss said I was leaving my post because I was tired of the president meddling in the affairs of our department. Nothing could have been further from the truth, but the president appeared to believe him and was so offended by the statement that it took several years to repair my relationship with him.
What did my first anti-mentor teach me? That people, even those you view as untrustworthy, are essentially reliable. Wait, hadn't this person betrayed me by lying about my motivations for leaving the job? Yes, and that's precisely my point. His actions were entirely consistent. I knew he was selfish, manipulative, and insecure. So to expect him to behave otherwise was bad judgment on my part.
I realized right then that people are surprisingly dependable and vowed to use what I knew about them to predict how they're likely to act. When my boss asked me to let him relay my move to the president, I should have been on my guard. I should have said: "You know, my relationship with him goes back almost 10 years, and I wouldn't want to offend him by not telling him myself."
AS ANTI-MENTORS OFTEN will, mine self-destructed over the next couple of years. People throughout the organization found that they couldn't believe what he said, and eventually they stopped trusting him. He went on to head another outfit and stayed there for a few years—until co-workers in the new place were able to scratch beneath the polished veneer of his personality. By that time he was on the move again.
The funny thing is, as the years have passed, the anger I felt for my first anti-mentor has dissipated. The lesson to treat every person as reliable (based on who they really are) has served me well as an entrepreneur, whether I'm dealing with colleagues, investors, or customers.
I also learned to trust my own instincts. I left a great job simply because I didn't like working around my boss. That led me to one of the guiding principles of my career: You spend too much time at work to spend it around people you don't like or trust. If you're not having fun, it's time to move on. I apply the fun rule not only to people in my own company but also to my bankers, investors, vendors, and customers. That's right, I've "fired" customers because they weren't the kind of people I wanted to be associated with.
Since becoming a leader of entrepreneurial businesses, I have been blessed with a number of other terrific anti-mentors. Like the businessman who once told me "all buyers are liars." I watched his cynicism about his customers infect his organization and cripple its growth. Or the friend whose ego became so enmeshed with his business that he lost his objectivity and his ability to listen to other points of view. His blindness and stubbornness caused him to lose the very company he lived for.
So the next time you get frustrated with that sleazy office politician down the hall, the slippery vendor, or that manipulative customer, take a deep breath and ask yourself what lesson this person is likely to teach you. Anti-mentors may represent the most important opportunity for growth we're given in life. The key is being willing to learn from others' missteps. As author Douglas Adams once noted: "Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so."
Views expressed in Outside Shot are solely those of contributors.
Keith R. McFarland, founder of McFarland Strategy Partners, is author of the upcoming book The Breakthrough Company: How Everyday Companies Become Extraordinary Performers.