My first mentor was a fellow named Barry Wheeler. I was a seventh grader in Brasstown, North Carolina where there was no brass and no town. It was an isolated, rural community with a post office and a general store. Barry was a school teacher who taught special education students. From Barry Wheeler I learned why mentor relationships are so valuable.
Barry was an avid photographer and had his own darkroom in his basement. He had an idea of giving each of his students a camera and a roll of film each week. If they could take photos of their own familiar home environments, perhaps they could become interested in writing about what they saw and be more engaged. Barry tried the experiment for about a month, but soon realized he had a tiger by the tail. Developing and printing all those photos in his darkroom because a daunting task.
That’s when Barry approached my parents and asked if I might be allowed to help out. In exchange for my help in the darkroom, Barry would teach me how to shoot, develop and print photographs. And thus began a wonderful friendship. Even though I didn’t know the word at the time, or even understood the concept, Barry became my mentor.
Not only did Barry teach me about photography and design, he invited me over to visit him and his wife, where I learned to play chess. Barry would stroke his chin and say, “Well, now, Martin. That’s an interesting move.” Which was a mentor’s way of saying, “That wasn’t the brightest move you could have made. Want to rethink that?” I learned a lot about strategy from Barry.
I learned about music, too. My parents only listened to classical music. Barry gave me a used vinyl album once. “It’s yours,” he said. “You might like it.” It was Dave Brubeck’s Time Further Out. Thus began a life-long love affair with jazz. Barry also played, of all things, Led Zepplin, while we played chess. To this day I can’t hear “Whole Lotta Love” without seeing Barry, chin in hand, contemplating the chess board.
Barry also introduced me to literature. One time he brought me a book. “You might enjoy this,” he said. It was The Hobbit, well before J. R. R. Tolkien became the popular author he is today. When I took the book back to Barry and told him I liked it very much, he said, “Well, there are three more. They’re a bit tougher and longer, but you’re welcome to borrow them, too.” To this day, The Lord of the Rings and Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Shadows in the Street” go hand in hand.
Barry Wheeler was the first of many mentors I’ve had through the years. Mentors are important, and anyone who doesn’t have a mentor, whether formal or informal, is missing something vital in a career. That’s why, as we designed the Leaders Ought To Know® program, we made sure to include mentoring as a key element. At least once a month, the Learning Activities direct participants to meet with their mentor about one of the topics related to leadership. In our face-to-face workshops, we hear again and again how important that mentoring relationship is.
If you agree with Jim Rohn’s statement, “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with,” what’s been the best thing to come out of the mentor relationships in your life and career?