Thanksgiving starts the season when people begin acquiring gifts for family members and friends to show appreciation.  Thanksgiving provides the perfect backdrop for humility, sharing and bonding.  There are many gifts that I’m thankful for, but there is one gift that we all have the ability to share that does not require camping out in front of stores, standing in lines or fighting for a parking spot to get a deal.

Several years ago, I publicly recognized a couple of gentlemen that gave me a priceless gift.  This gift continues to be a guiding principle in my life and is something that transforms individuals into leaders.

In 1984 I began my corporate career at Commerce Clearing House. I was 24 years old at the time.  I was hired by Ken Alison, who was from the South and still maintained a deep southern accent.  About a year later I met his boss, Chester Charles Hart, who we all feared because of his reputation as a strong, decisive and powerful leader.  For some reason Chester asked Ken if he could meet with me one-on-one.  Chester was in his mid 60s and at that time and it was highly unusual for something like this to occur. We were separated by a vast difference in economic status; our ethnicity was not the same; and our company was big into to protocols and chain of command. Chester was a Vice President—one of the most influential individuals in the company. When I heard the news, my first reaction was that I was going to be fired.  I thought for sure my days were numbered because Chester never met with sales reps, he worked solely with his management team.

Little did I know Chester had a gift for me that would change my life forever.

That gift of mentorship began with our first meeting at a hotel lobby in Kansas City. Chester and Ken focused on etiquette, fine dining and dressing for success.  We continued our discussions at a French restaurant where he shared his vision on leadership. This was the first white tablecloth and napkin business dinner in my life and somehow I managed to order two entrees because I did not know what hors d’oeuvre meant. Chester corrected the situation, by commenting on how hungry I appeared. I got the point, scaled back one entree and chose the Dover sole.

Next, Chester and Ken begin to talk about how leaders dressed. The discussion led to me getting a credit card at Brooks Brothers where I immediately purchased three suits, shirts, ties and a pair of shoes.  They also discussed the importance of making sure I understood how to know a team by asking questions and listening. Chester knew everything about his management team including their personal goals and aspirations. Everything they said, I heard.

I believe this lesson was pivotal to the success of all my teams. Chester and Ken showed me the real meaning of the word “effort.”  They said it was important for me to hire people that were driven beyond the job.  Somehow I managed to hire individuals that were driven to success, which resulted in record success on many of my teams.

But what’s really important is the gift that continues to keep on giving. Many of the individuals that I’ve been blessed to work with have gone on to become leaders in major organizations, owners of successful businesses and leaders in their communities. I like to think that my mentorship has steered them towards the right path.

A few years ago I received a call from one of Chester’s grandsons with news that he’d passed away.  He had read somewhere about the relationship his grandfather had with me and wanted to get more stories to share with the family.

To all the leaders that believe in mentorship, I thank you for sharing your gift and thank you, Chester and Ken.

Happy Thanksgiving Day!

Robert Van Arlen – Keynote Speaker & Business Strategist

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