A little over 20 years ago, I ran away from reality. After five years, four moves to three states, five employers (three in my chosen field of HR), and six bosses, I decided to pack it up and head back to where I started; Baton Rouge and LSU. I’ll go back to school. Re-boot. Hit “CTRL-F5.” Whatever. I just didn’t want to be in Waynesboro, MS. I was miserable. My wife was miserable. Hell, even my dog and cat hated that place.

But it was more than that. I was miserable because I had no idea what I really wanted to do. I knew what I’d majored in, Human Resources Management. And I knew what someone with that degree did, manage human resources. But I had no idea what I should be doing in order to be happy in that career. What I needed to be happy in ANY career. So I just kept picking opportunities hoping the next one would make me happier than the one I was leaving. It was like tearing up the house looking for something when you don’t know what you’re looking for.

I had been a lifeguard for LSU Rec Sports my first time in school so I went to see my former boss, Elaine. She took me back in and I went to work for John Drew, Assistant Director of Facilities. John was in charge of keeping stuff from breaking, fixing it when it broke, and keeping the messes to a minimum. Yep, I was a janitor. I mopped bathrooms and locker rooms, fixed broken exercise equipment, and cleaned windows…LOTS of windows! I also painted intramural fields, maintained pools, and did some landscaping.

John was older, a bit of a rebel, and not really popular with the younger student workers. He and I got on fine, though. I didn’t realize it at the time, but working for John was the beginning of my learning how to actually be a productive member of the workforce. He was my first mentor. Here’s what I learned:

Read the instructions before acting or asking questions

One day, John told one of our crew to go, “Miracle-Grow the shrubs out front. Be sure to read how much water and powder to use!” He handed Joey the fertilizer, a bucket to mix and sent him on his way. An hour or so later, he sent me looking for Joey. I met Joey outside covered in mud, sweat, and bits of shrub. He had dutifully read the water to powder ratio and mixed it carefully in the bucket. Then he started digging up each shrub and dunking it in the bucket of fertilized water. He’d read the part of the instructions about mixing. He stopped before he got to how to apply the water….. When someone provides you with thorough instructions, read them. All of them. Most of your questions will be answered there.

Be self-sufficient

As you can see, John’s way of assigning work was to say, “this needs to be done…” He expected you to be responsible. Gather the things you needed to do that job and do the job. Well! No drama. No parades or trophies because you did what you were supposed to do. But he also expected you to deal with any issues that came up. Think beyond the simple instructions. Don’t expect that everything will just be given to you. If all you can do is process the information given to you then you’re no different than a spreadsheet.

I expect more out of you

I didn’t get paid any more than any of the other students on our crew. I wasn’t their boss. But because I was a few years older, the others looked to me to be in charge of the team when we worked together. There were times when I’d slack, goof-off, or just drag ass. John took me aside after a few months and had a talk with me. He didn’t yell or cuss. Instead, he laid it out simply. You’re older, you’re more mature, you have more influence than you know so I expect more of you. Set your standards higher than what you see. Be what you have the potential to be, not what everyone else is.

I believe in you

After what most would consider a dressing down, John turned around and handed me the keys to my freedom. Quite literally. We painted intramural fields. He handed me the schedule, the keys to the paint shed, and the keys to the truck. This is your job, go make sure it happens. Instead of reigning me in, John set me loose to make my own schedule. In HR we call this “job enlargement,” the addition of responsibilities (and status) to grow the employee. A year later, as a result of the responsibility I’d shown, I was running the Outdoor Recreation program. His confidence inspired me to do my best for him. Find people who believe in you, be loyal to them, work hard for them, seek their guidance, and then be awesome for them; it will pay dividends in the future.

John’s method was simple; use the available resources to know your job, set high expectations, and then invest. I didn’t want to let him down. More than any other supervisor, he brought out the best in me. But it was his role as my first mentor that really changed me. He taught me, challenged me, and pushed me. He made me uncomfortable, made me mad, and made tough. He also made me strong, successful, and smarter about work, life, and my future. As a mentor, he left me a better person. Think about your John Drew. If you don’t have one, seek one out. Until you find him, keep asking, where are you John Drew?