A Challenging Question – Who had the Biggest Influence on your Career?

Recently, a media publication posed to me a question that was at first tough, but after a moment, rather straightforward to answer. The question read, ‘Who has had the biggest influence on your career?’


When I was 28 and working for the corporate headquarters of Staples, Inc, I was assigned my first executive boss, Mike O’Brien. We were stationed on a 1-year assignment in Shanghai, China to build a warehouse with modern Japanese and American technology to support the expanding Chinese retail operations of the Fortune 500 office supplies company. Mike soon became a mentor to me and I learned a number of great lessons from Mike over the year in China, many that I still lean on today. My favorite four are below.

Lesson 1: If the answer to your question will not change your plan, don’t ask the question

Mike had a method of removing inefficiencies in everything he touched. This resonated with me and I quickly learned how to produce more in less time. At the beginning of our year working together, I would ask him myriad questions about processes or for his feedback on vendors I worked with. If he judged the question as valuable, he’d provide detailed answers. However, on some questions he would respond with a question back, “Eric, what are you going to do with the information I give you? How will it change your plan?”

Many times I realized that the response would not change my next step. After a while, I truly understood that if I am not going to do anything with the requested information, then I should NOT ask the question.

Planning product layout was one of my primary tasks at the Shanghai warehouse

Planning product layout was one of my primary tasks at the Shanghai warehouse

Lesson 2: Your Job as an Employee is to make your Boss’s Life Easier

Mike explained to me very succinctly one day that the job of an employee is simply to make their boss’s life easier. When I thought about my job in those simple terms, it made my actions very clear. Whenever I thought about sending him an email I thought, “Am I making my boss’s life easier?” Or, was I simply presenting my boss with a problem for them to solve without offering a solution of my own. This helped me exponentially in the way I communicate with my clients, vendors, employees, etc.

Lesson 3: Polite at ALL Times

Now, in some ways, my boss Mike was a strict leader, but I can truly say he was also one of the most courteous people I have ever met. He taught me the importance of always being polite. Mike told me that regardless of how you feel, you always greet somebody politely and formally in an email. I once sent an email expressing my disappointment in one of our employees to how they had responded to a situation. I started the email by simply saying, “Samuel – You did not adequately…”

Upon review from Mike, he instructed me to never start an email that way. Even when frustrated, Mike stated that you always offer a courteous greeting, rewriting it to “Hello Samuel. I would like to provide you feedback on this incident…’ would suffice.

I adapted my communication style immediately and to this day you won’t get an email from me that does not start with “Hello X…”

Lesson 4: Always Add Value

The fourth and greatest lesson that Mike taught me was that in any situation, I should always add value, even if just a small amount. He explained to me that employees find problems, leaders find solutions. His point was that there was a better alternative instead of telling him (or any future boss I might have) about what the issues were and leaving it for my boss to resolve. His advice was that I should always include my suggested recommendation with the problem in order for my boss to either; (a) accept my solution, (b) reject it, or (c) build off of my proposal to get to the optimal resolution.

Lessons Learned

Overall, I am truly indebted to my previous boss Mike and for what he taught me. I often smile in business situations when I make a tough decision or write a strong, but courteous email, and say to myself, ‘That was Mike.’

Mike O'Brien's Birthday - 2007

Mike O’Brien’s Birthday – 2007