In 1940, the Christian minister and civil rights champion Benjamin Mays became the president of Morehouse College, the first university for African American men located in Atlanta, GA. Shortly after his tenure there began, Mays met the 15-year-old Martin Luther King, who had skipped both the nine and 12th grades to enroll as a freshman at Morehouse. King developed a close relationship with Mays and was an eager student.
Mays influenced King by his own example, guiding him toward the ministry and the preaching of a social gospel. The two men were so important in each other’s lives that they eventually made a promise – he who outlived the other would deliver the eulogy at his friend’s funeral. Sadly, on April 9, 1968, Mays saw King’s mahogany coffin delivered to Morehouse on a wobbly farm wagon pulled by mules.
Benjamin Mays and Martin Luther King are just one of many famous mentor/protégé pairs – there’s Socrates and Plato, Aristotle and Alexander the Great, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, and Camille Pissarro and Paul Gauguin. Due in part to the prestige of their mentors, all of these protégés went on to be extremely successful themselves. It’s a strategy that has worked time and time again: if you’re truly terrific at your work and put yourself in a position to be noticed and admired by your boss and other senior level executives, you are much more likely to land on the fast track.
The best place to start is with your immediate manager. Even though you may think she’s aware of everything you’re contributing, this is most likely not the case, especially if you work in a large organization with thousands of people, or a small organization, where every employee wears a variety of hats. If you want to be the person your manager considers her right hand, here are five musts:
You know the moment in a team meeting when the boss apologetically asks everyone who can take on an undesirable task and all of your colleagues look down at the table? Be the one who looks her straight in the eye and accepts with enthusiasm. Once you take on the assignment, don’t hold it over her head. Be gracious and complete it to the best of your ability. Take a leadership role in the group even if it’s outside your comfort zone.
If you’re excellent at the job you’re currently doing, then chances are you’re ready for a new responsibility. Look around your group and department and select a process or product that could be improved with your care and expertise. Make sure your boss knows how and where you’re taking initiative, and don’t neglect your day job in the process.
Managers hate when they have to keep hounding people to get their work done. Once a task is on your plate, your boss shouldn’t have to mention it again. Complete assignments efficiently and on time, even if it means occasionally coming in early, staying online after hours, or neglecting your personal life.
Establish a relationship with your boss that goes beyond the pleasantries and your daily to dos. Find out what his priorities are and the results he’s expected to achieve on his end, and do what you can to further his causes. Learn the names of his wife and children and ask about them often. When his name comes up in conversation with others, speak in glowing terms. Schedule regular performance meetings so that your boss knows exactly where you’d like to take your career and so both of you are on the same page as to how you can get there.
Your manager might not have time to keep up with all the goings-on in the industry and in your organization, so you should do it for her. Read the trade publications that have been sitting on her desk for weeks and provide her with a summary of interesting developments. If you hear learn something critical about a competitor or another department, alert your boss immediately. Just be careful to err on the side of information versus gossip.