A Letter to the Best Mentor: Thank You for These 5 Essential Career Lessons

UPDATED: April 3, 2024
PUBLISHED: December 13, 2018

To the best mentor I’ve ever had,

I’ve been fortunate to have had great supervisors, managers and mentors throughout my career, but you were the first one who insisted that I be myself.

As a vice president at a Fortune 100 company, I thought I knew what I wanted and how to get it. You taught me that I had not only the confidence to do my job and do it well, but also the ability to elevate my thinking outside of my wheelhouse—to become a business leader, not just a communications leader. Thanks to you, I stopped thinking about the “success” I had attained in the communications world and realized that I had only scratched the surface of what could be beyond that.

Thank you for teaching me the five most valuable lessons of my career:

1. Always be a badass.

Everyone told me to bring my best self to work. You didn’t make it a management platitude, though—you meant it.

When you told me to wear whatever I wanted to my first day on the job, “even if it’s a shower curtain,” I didn’t realize that your leadership team was dealing with a massive crisis at the time. You didn’t have to take the time to welcome me, but you did. The more I immersed myself in the company and the team, the more meaningful that (admittedly offbeat) suggestion became.

You didn’t want me to conform to my preconceived notions of what that job would be like. You wanted me to be myself and to address challenges the way I wanted to rather than the way others would expect me to. I could rock the boat when I deemed it necessary, but I doubt I would have had the confidence to do so if you hadn’t constantly reminded me that I deserved that clout.

It didn’t matter that I came from a different background. You showed me that I didn’t have to apologize for myself or my ideas.

2. Keep your sense of humor. 

As if telling me I could wear a shower curtain (as long as it wasn’t transparent!) weren’t enough, you always kept things light. No matter how heavy things became, you made it OK to have fun at work. Our team blared music in the boardroom, danced on tables, wore silly outfits and created funny cards for one another. We didn’t just do that for the fun of it, though. We did it because the odds were constantly stacked against us and we needed the reminder that things were not as dire as they seemed.

Work is work, but life is more important. Sure, we were professional, hard-charging and committed. We pursued aggressive goals and timelines, and we held one another accountable. But no matter now heated the situation became, you reminded us that we still had time to enjoy the ride.

I credit that levity for our ability to bring the company and its products back to market better than ever. Because we worked together, I have followed the same philosophy with my team. We “embrace the suck,” like you taught me, by laughing at our situations and overcoming stress through teamwork.

3. Provide real criticism. 

You were never judgmental, but you never let me get away with any nonsense either. If I made a mistake, you let me know it. If something wasn’t good enough, I heard about it. But you never made it personal. You never screamed or pointed fingers. You worked with me to make it better.

Whenever I needed an avenue to vent, you listened without raised eyebrows. The same was true when I needed career advice or perspective in my personal life. Your respectful perspective allowed me to be transparent without worrying about office politics or my future.

During one of our one-on-ones, you turned a project update into a personal conversation because you could tell I was off my game. You rearranged your schedule just to talk. I can’t tell you how much that meant to me personally and professionally. I now try to offer my employees the same courtesy so I can help them grow the way you helped me.

4. Give instructions and step back. 

The reality is that I’ve had bosses in my life that liked to micromanage. You never did. Instead, you hired me and others to do our job, gave us what we needed and got out of the way.

Rather than see yourself as our overlord, you acted like our biggest advocate. You removed roadblocks and helped us fight when we needed a little extra muscle. It felt more like a partnership than an employer-employee relationship.

I remember when we had a heated disagreement in a meeting with several other people. After the meeting, you called me into your office and we hashed it out. But I never felt like you were chastising me. You empowered me to do anything, even disagree with you, which taught me to be confident in my views and comfortable sharing them.

5. Embrace work-life balance. 

When our company wasn’t doing well, we often worked late nights and weekends because our job was to ensure the business survived. Despite the stress, you encouraged work-life balance and embodied it.

You brought in healthy snacks and exercise equipment so we didn’t stagnate at our desks. When we worked long hours, you always found a way to make it up to us (and our families, too). Because of your influence, I take work-life balance more seriously than ever—even now that I’m calling the shots. Your philosophy of “health and family first” continues to inform the way I live my life and lead my team.

Neither of us work for that company anymore, but I’m glad we still keep in touch. Your counsel and perspective have shaped me into the leader I am today. You continue to inspire me, even from afar. I know that no matter where you are, you have my back. I hope to be the same kind of mentor to my employees that you have been to me.

Related: How to Excel as a Mentor or Mentee

Emile Lee is a senior vice president and the global head of communications at Dun & Bradstreet. With more than 20 years of experience in international communications, Emile develops communication strategies that help companies burnish their brand image and reputation, engage their employees, and further their thought leadership.