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Who Inspired You to Become a Manager?

A bunch of sticky notes with light bulbs on them.

​With the world turned upside down by COVID-19 and with managers working at home with more time, perhaps, to reflect on their career journey, now is a good time to ask business leaders two simple questions: "Who inspired you to launch a career in management?" and "Why?"

That's exactly what we did, and management leaders were quick to respond. Here's what they had to say.

Martha Aviles, vice president of marketing at Interplay Learning, a virtual reality-based digital learning company in Austin, Texas.

"As a first-generation American, I was driven from a young age to succeed and be in management," Aviles said. "My father was my biggest inspiration. He was an electrical engineer newly arrived in the U.S., and technology was always part of our household."

As a child, Aviles emulated her dad's passion for technology and soaked up information, experience and tips from her father.

"I begrudgingly learned what a virtual private network tunnel was, how to set up a local area network and only learned to type with all 10 fingers because of AOL instant messenger," she said. "Although I didn't know it at the time, this integration of technology since a very young age made me fearless to learn new technologies, and this set the path for me to advance my career into a high-level management position."

Hather Marasse, leadership development expert at Trilogy Effect, a leadership training firm in Ottawa, Canada.  

Often, it takes direction from an educator to get someone on the right professional track. That's especially true if a high school guidance counselor has a keen eye for talent.

That was the scenario with Marasse, whose company client list includes globally recognized brand names like Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, Electronic Arts and Proctor & Gamble.

"I grew up in rural Canada, and a high school guidance counselor asked me what my career plans were," Marasse said. "I replied that I wanted to be a social worker. I'd always had an instinctive awareness and appreciation for community, social structures, interdependency and communication."

The guidance counselor had other ideas.

"He disagreed with my choice, and I remember his words: 'You're great at math, so why don't you study business?' Turns out, his advice was sound. I did study business in university and discovered that I loved it."

Marasse learned how to build and draw upon her instinctive strengths, especially in key management areas like communication, understanding the community and social structures that mattered to employees, and listening.

"Actress and comedienne Lily Tomlin once said, 'I listen with the same intensity that others reserve for speaking,' " Marasse said. "Think about how much management value is placed on being a great speaker. Yet Lily taught me that there is something magical about the power of listening. This quote has led to a lifelong practice of 'generous listening.' "

Bryan Philips, head of marketing at In Motion Marketing, a marketing and communications services firm in Victoria, Australia.

Sometimes a manager needs the kind of inspiration that fits the job.

"I remember as a child, the career and life of Steve Jobs had a major influence on my life, but there are other sources of inspiration that come along as you grow personally and professionally," Philips said.

Case in point: Early in his career, Philips had a manager who pushed him hard—in an already tough job.

"I was working in a call center," he said. "My role was to cold call a certain number of people for days on end. Sometimes I'd get the offer rejected 20 or 25 times before making a sale. Now, my manager was especially difficult to work for in some ways, but he kept me on my toes, kept me focused, and made me keep trying despite the painfulness of each attempt."

Discipline from a manager with the tendencies of a military drill instructor was just what Philips needed.

"It was good for me," he said. "It definitely made me stronger as a manager today than I would have otherwise been. That tough inspiration also made me a better salesman and solidified some of the entrepreneurial and management values that I still hold today."

Brian Matthews, president of Appriss Insights, a risk management and data analysis firm based in Louisville, Ky.

Matthews was inspired by his parents, his teachers and a remarkable manager early in his career.

"My parents are my greatest personal inspiration," he said. "What I learned from them was hard work and rolling up your sleeves. I also had a high school math teacher who made a significant impression on me. He taught us to demonstrate the how and why of an answer. I apply that to my management of teams today and strive to explain the reasoning behind a decision. Your people are going to be more invested in their work if they understand why decisions are made."

Matthews also learned a great deal about being a manager from Patricia Cowan, then head of North American sales at Chase Manhattan Bank. "Patricia fast-tracked me into a sales role at Chase," he said. "Things evolved rapidly as I moved from regional sales representative, to regional sales manager in the Midwest, to national sales vice president by my late 20's."

"Pat's trust in me, her confidence, and the room she gave me to succeed and fail forced me to grow rapidly," Matthews noted. "She especially taught me that when you take off the management training wheels, you may fall a few times, but it forces you to learn quickly."

John Lincoln, chief executive officer at Ignite Visibility, a digital marketing firm in San Diego.

Lincoln's management career has been formed by his own passion for marketing and a heavy dose of high-profile motivators. He now holds a leadership post at a company that counts Office Depot, Morgan Stanley, Fox, USA Today and COX among its clientele.

"Growing up, I had broken my right arm twice, my left arm twice and both my legs playing sports, mostly lacrosse," Lincoln said. "I had six surgeries on my right leg alone".

Being in the hospital left Lincoln wanting to make the most of his time every day.

"After college, I read Tony Robbins's Unlimited Power (Ballantine, 1986) and Awaken the Giant Within (Simon & Schuster, 1992). What I learned is that you don't need to have an actual mentor to be a leader. Actually, you can choose any mentor you want in the world."

Lincoln said he's also picked up leadership advice from reading the works of Jack Welch, Dale Carnegie, Mahatma Gandhi and many other motivational figures. "The information is boundless," Lincoln said. "I highly recommend that people pick [authors] who have developed an amazing life and who have achieved the things they want to. Then, read and consume all their content, and discover all the people who have influenced them.

"You can be mentored by many if you consistently consume information every day."

Brian O'Connell is a freelance writer based in Bucks County, Pa. A former Wall Street trader, he is the author of the books CNBC Creating Wealth and The Career Survival Guide.


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