Learning Through A Firing …

image-300x300I have had several great mentors during my career …

One of the best was the guy who fired me …

 Ken took over the leadership of our department midway through my tenure at the college.   He replaced a person who was, shall we say, less than ideal.   No, let’s say someone who lacked courage in many aspects of his leadership and management behavior.

This had created several conflicts between us over time.  I, being young and real eager to “do things right”, was aggressive and tried to be hard-nosed.   He was complacent and did whatever was necessary to avoid confrontation.

Did I mention we both worked in student development on a college campus … try avoiding conflict and confrontation in that setting.

So I welcomed Ken’s new approach with open arms.  He was a very experienced administrator, had deep feelings and a sense of history for the institution as an alumnus, and dedicated to moving programs and people in a progressive direction.

I gained much in the way of experience working with Ken.   He handled students and colleagues in an amiable, yet no-nonsense fashion.  Taking full advantage of being the “new broom” on campus, Ken confronted several challenges and some misconceptions left hanging by his predecessor.  

I loved the feeling of proactive and courageous movement and connection with this new and exciting leadership …

Sometimes, when you are rolling along, on top of the world, you are tempted to take advantage of situations, of authority, of freedom.

The day when Ken called me into the office was one of the hardest in my memory.  He asked one simple question, to which I had no choice but to honestly reply “Yes”.   This brief conversation was later followed by a longer discussion in which I was informed that my employment contract would not be renewed at the end of the spring semester.

This was not good news for a young man with a mortgage, a wife, four children, and a crappy old mini-van …

The interesting thing is what happened next.   Ken and I continued to work as before, with the knowledge of my new status kept between us.  To the outside world, life just rolled along.

My internal life was something else …The next few months were painful, as I grappled with what I had done, sharing that knowledge with select family and friends, tried to secure a job somewhere else, and worked to restore my credibility with Ken.   We engaged in many long and difficult conversations around the situation over time.   At these times, Ken was a testing board for my thoughts, and not a boss with judgments to make.  I wanted to leave on a higher note than I then was at.

It was a dark, painful, and very reflective time … 

Sometimes you have to just grapple with one question:   “Who do I really want to be?”

The “Punch Line”:  I had come to peace with what I had done, fixed what I could, and was busily moving on, working hard and planning for whatever would come next.   My life was not easy, because some issues remained from what had happened, but some days I was able to just roll along, forgetting temporarily what I had done.

I was frankly stunned when Ken asked me into his office and said “You can stay if you want.  I’m satisfied and very pleased with how you have conducted yourself over these months.”    I did not expect or even hope for this outcome.  I ended up staying for another semester, before accepting a wonderful opportunity at another campus in another state.

The Learning:   As I reflect on this experience, I realize that while I had to make this journey, I would not have been in the situation without Ken.   He fired me to force a confrontation with my own behavior, then walked with me as I did so.   Even after our paths diverged, he continued to be a positive force in my life.

He knew I would only grow and learn through confronting my choices.  Since that time, I have used this knowledge and found it to be invaluable in guiding me to better decision. 

Mentoring is all about learning, not teaching.  Teaching implies that someone provides answers to you.  Learning puts the emphasis on your own role in the growth process. 

I read a lot of books about leadership, learning, business, and human behavior.  I choose only ones that seem to have something to say to me on a personal level.  The following is one of those …

Mentors are those who “help another learn”, as Chip Bell and Marshall Goldsmith so wisely state in the newly revised book“Managers As Mentors: Building Partnerships for Learning”.    This is possibly the best definition of mentoring I have run across. 

As I started to read this book, I almost immediately thought of Ken and his hard leadership lesson which he taught me.  The idea that a good mentor is someone who helps someone else learn resonates nicely with me. 

Learning is not always about the classroom and it seldom requires teaching.  It does require reflection.  The right person can spark that reflection which leads to learning.

Mentoring is all about learning, not teaching.  Teaching implies that someone provides answers to you.  Learning puts the emphasis on your own role in the growth process. 

That’s what Ken did for me and what I try to do for others.

Enjoying memories of “bad times” in the Heartland ….


Chip is the author of nineteen books, including Wired and Dangerous (co-authored with John Patterson). He is a senior partner with the Chip Bell Group and serves as a consultant, trainer, or speaker to major organizations. Chip’s new book, Managers as Mentors, co-authored by best-selling author, Marshall Goldsmith, is available on Amazon and at select bookstores nationwide.

Disclaimer:  Received copy of this book for review and happy as a clam to have done so.  Opinions about value of this book are mine and not influenced by anyone or anything else.   

3 thoughts on “Learning Through A Firing …


  2. Pingback: Flow Learn Grow: Self-Defense as a peaceful individual | Jesse Talks Back

  3. Thank you for your candor, John. I am reading Managers as Mentors as well, and combining a prompt from another challenge “talk about a job you left” with my post about this book (that’s the goal anyway!). This all resonates with me.


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