Learning what not to do is as important as learning what to do: the anti-mentor
It was a sweltering afternoon, and I was sitting in a cramped office with Mark, a senior leader who was renowned for turning businesses upside down. His track record was stellar, but sit with the guy for ten minutes and you realize, in no uncertain terms, that he's also a prime example of how not to be.
Mark was my anti-mentor, a term I coined to encapsulate those who teach us valuable lessons not by exemplifying the right behaviors, but rather the wrong ones.
Don't get it twisted - Mark was a genius when it came to numbers.
He could glance at a spreadsheet and instantly tell you where the inefficiencies lay. He could predict conversion rates and revenues with near-mystical precision. He knew so much about Finance that I could always learn something new just by sitting next to him.
But emotional intelligence? Zero. The man could turn a casual coffee chat into an excruciating affair.
He'd regularly call you on your day off for some non-urgent matter, never mind your work-life balance. Mark was all about results and gave zero regards to the human element.
We were all in awe of his expertise, but when it came to being attuned to human nuances, let's just say he was as out of sync as a glitchy software.
We were collaborating on a massive project to re-platform a client's legacy accounting system into a new ERP. The stakes were sky-high with millions of dollars in potential cost savings on the line.
Mark was laser-focused on efficiencies and his KPIs. But here's where the glitch in the Mark 1.0 software became evident: he was utterly tone-deaf to the emotional climate of his team.
Case in point: Richard, one of our most diligent junior consultants, was visibly struggling with the new software. Now, for anyone else, this would be a neon sign flashing "Needs Support!".
But Mark's response? He said in a team meeting: "Let's not forget we're not here for a learning curve. If you can't keep up, maybe you're in the wrong place".
The tension was palpable. Any reasonable leader would have pulled Richard aside, given him some targeted coaching, or maybe even offered additional training sessions for anyone feeling shaky. But not Mark. He just wanted to up the "efficiency" metrics, regardless of the human toll.
And this wasn't just a one-off event.
Mark had a knack for making simple conversations become torture chambers. A one-on-one meeting with him felt like you were a line item on a balance sheet: necessary, yet devoid of value beyond your ability to contribute to the bottom line.
He'd ask about your weekend only to transition into: "Good, good, now what about that functional specification…" as though human interaction was just a minor inconvenience on his critical path.
You might think: "Well, the guy's successful, right? What's the issue?"
The thing with Mark was that he had a revolving door of employees in this teams. Talented people came, saw the madness, and often ran for the hills.
I stuck around longer, not because I wanted to emulate him, but because I realized the value of understanding what not to do. It's one thing to learn how to steer the ship, it's another to know what icebergs to avoid.
I watched Mark micromanage to the point of absurdity. Delegation was a foreign concept to him. I observed this, made mental notes, and promised myself that when I got to a position of leadership, I would trust my team.
After all, as Steve Jobs said: "It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do".
However, it wasn't just about learning to delegate or respect personal boundaries.
Watching Mark in action taught me the importance of empathy in leadership.
I witnessed client meetings where his lack of EQ killed potential deals. He was a bull in a china shop, charging through delicate negotiations with the finesse of a wrecking ball.
Mark had the business acumen, but he missed the soft skills that often make or break a deal.
How do you convert these thoughts into actionable insights for your own journey?
It's simple, really: be observant.
While you're just starting out, you're also at the vantage point where you can see different leadership styles, work ethics, and project management approaches up close without the heavy burden of responsibility.
Let's say you get staffed on a project with Sarah, a mid-level consultant notorious for her poor communication skills.
Your gut reaction might be: "Damn, why did I get stuck with her?".
Think differently. Instead of dreading the experience, see it as a live case study.
Sarah becomes your anti-mentor for communication. Observe how her lack of clarity impacts the team's morale, the project's progress, and even the client's faith in your firm.
Take mental notes: How could this situation be improved? How would you handle it differently?
Fast-forward a few months. You're leading a smaller project and you have to deliver some complex information to your team.
Cue flashback to Sarah. You remember how her vague emails led to that mini-crisis around deliverable deadlines. So, what do you do?
You take the anti-Sarah approach: a clearly laid out email, bullet points and all, followed by a quick huddle to ensure everyone's on the same page. That's it, you've just sidestepped a potential pitfall by learning from your anti-mentor.
Another quick example.
Ever worked under a manager who's all about utilization but couldn't care less about the human element? I did. And it sucks.
Your immediate take-away is: "When I'm in a managerial role, I'll make sure to check in on my team's well-being, not just their billable hours". It's that simple.
Your anti-mentor has just taught you a valuable lesson in leadership and human resource management without even knowing it.
Learning from an anti-mentor doesn't mean you actively seek out poor examples: you must adapt your behaviors based on both positive and negative examples around you.
Whenever I found myself in tricky situations, I'd ask: "What would Mark do?" And then, quite consciously, I'd do the opposite.
This is a textbook example of via negativa, a term used by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to describe knowledge or wisdom gained through elimination or understanding what not to do.
In consulting, where soft skills like empathy can often make or break not only your career but also that of entire teams, Mark and Sarah in our examples serve as the Anti-Mentor.
You learn from them not by emulating their actions but by avoiding them.
Every time Mark fails to show empathy, he unknowingly provides a lesson in the importance of emotional intelligence in the workplace. He's a cautionary tale, an object lesson in how not to manage a team or run a project.
Learning from Mark and Sarah is indeed a via negativa experience: you become better by identifying the negative space around what good leadership or effective communication should be, and filling it in with the opposite of Mark's or Sarah’s actions.
In your early years of consulting experience, consider every interaction with an anti-mentor as an inverted lesson. You'll find yourself saying: "When I get to his position, that's exactly what I won't do".
Here's to the anti-mentors: because knowing what not to do is often the first step in figuring out what you should be doing.