As I walked to a meeting yesterday, I looked at the chic little pad of paper I had brought with me for note-taking. It occurred to me that this compact, smartly dressed booklet was really nothing more than a steno pad, and I had to laugh at the irony.

Years ago when I started at this company, I spent a lot of time learning the ropes. Combined with the fact that most of my work was project-based rather than covering a standing area of responsibility, I became pretty closely tied with my boss. Eventually he even moved me to an office adjacent to his that offered a pass-through door. All this together time and proximity meant easy access and regular collaboration, but it gave a different appearance to others. People began to assume that I was his secretary.

At 25 and happy to be there, I didn’t pay much attention to that perception. I presumed that this notion would work itself out over time. Thankfully, a man others saw as crusty and insensitive–my boss himself–saved me from reputational doom. He saw growth potential for me within the company and didn’t want others to pigeonhole me into a permanent admin position. Certainly in this case, he clearly understood the importance of perception.

That’s why the first time he saw me bring a standard steno pad into his office to take notes, he forbade me from using it. He told me that if I didn’t want others to think I was his personal admin, I couldn’t look like it. To further underscore his point, he soon thereafter put a chair in front of my door to his office. I had to walk around to the main door like everyone else. My office was to be my office, not an anteroom to his.

I obliged, of course. I was young and hungry to excel and willing to take advice in whatever form it came. I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it; I just trusted his judgment.

I’m glad I did.

The more I’ve thought about his guidance over the years, the more I’ve appreciated its wisdom. Though he has since retired, I am still with the same company. I’ve moved through many positions, but always on an upward trajectory. I’m convinced that his mentoring played a big part in that. He taught me many lessons over the years, and I’ve taken (almost) all of them to heart. This first one, though, is the foundation upon which the rest of them are built: look/act like the person you want to become. If you wait until you get there, you probably never will.

As I looked down at my fancy tablet yesterday and saw a gussied-up steno pad, I silently thanked my former boss for guiding my career in a way that let me carry it with confidence. After all these years, I’ve finally earned the right.

Thanks, Don.

%d bloggers like this: