Let me set the scene. My career was plateauing. I had done well, but things had started to get a bit stale. Then, I had a meeting/interview with Neil Hobbs. Neil would have the biggest impact on my professional life.

Neil had a reputation of being a tough boss. He set high standards and expected people to achieve them. He didn’t suffer fools gladly. I was nervous. The meeting went well. I told Neil what I thought about the organization both good and bad. And it seemed to hit the right chord–Neil offered me the role of running Marketing then and there.

To say I felt surprised would be an understatement.

After working for him for a while, I realized Neil spotted hidden talent in people, talent they didn’t see themselves. I was no exception; he saw something in me I didn’t see myself. He gave me the confidence to express myself and encouraged me to take risks. It turned out to be the break and the environment I needed to find my stride as a leader.

Neil wasn’t an easy boss as he was demanding, and rightly so.  He was tough, but in a good way. He removed me from my comfort zone. He set high standards and expected me to deliver. He forced me to do my best work, and never accepted anything less than my best effort. His style of management was inclusive, but also you knew who was boss. He had an ethos of debate and then decision. His phrase (which I often use today) was, “Once we agree, we do.”

But let me be clear: to the outside world he was a tough businessman. To his team, on the other hand, he was protective, understanding, and loyal. He would put his neck on the line for you.

I remember on one occasion I had taken a risk and things had gone wrong. He didn’t chastise me but instead applauded me for trying. Then, he went out of his way to protect me, putting himself in harm’s way politically as he did so. As a result, I would have walked over hot coals for Neil.

He took great pleasure in seeing the people he spotted moved on to bigger and better things. He moved me from Marketing to Customer Service, which was quite a surprise for people. This position, incidentally, set me on the path to Customer Experience.

Despite his tough exterior, there was nothing he wouldn’t do for one of his team. He was exceptionally loyal and protective of everyone. These traits inspired loyalty from his team. In some ways, you could say he established a cult. Now I realize the word cult normally has a negative connotation, but it can be good. In other words, if you were a square peg, Neil made sure you were in a square hole.

Key things I learned from Neil:

  • Take a risk on people; it can pay huge dividends.
  • Be fanatically loyal to your team.
  • Be approachable.
  • Be demanding and push people to do their best work.
  • Build a ‘cult’ in your team.
  • Think outside the square.

To this day, I believe a great part of what success I have, is down to Neil for which I thank him. I hear him in the back of my head when I am managing my team or presenting to an audience or listening to a client. I ask myself what Neil would do when faced with a tough decision. I hear him questioning my reasoning when I argue a point with myself. His wisdom, fierce loyalty, and demanding demeanor shaped me into the leader I am today. I can only hope to live up to his estimations of my ability and be the leader he always believed I could be.

Who in your career has made the greatest impact? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments below.

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Colin Shaw is the founder and CEO of Beyond Philosophy, one of the world’s first organizations devoted to customer experience. Colin is an international author of four bestselling books and an engaging keynote speaker.

Follow Colin Shaw on Twitter@ColinShaw_CX