Written By: Michelle Kommer
One of the benefits of hindsight is the ability to see yourself in the “before” stage that immediately precedes a significant life event, like “before cancer”, “before COVID”, or “before kids” – your younger self who had no idea what was coming… and to feel a sense of appreciation for simpler times, pride (or maybe disappointment) for how you managed, and hopefully a little chuckle and a lot of love and grace, for the person you will never be again.
This is a story about one of the most influential persons in my life, Mona J. Flaten. Mona was my first boss, and mentor, at a time long before we understood the importance of mentors like we do today. Mona was the Vice President of Internal Audit at a large regional bank at the time. She had joined the company with many years of experience working for the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) – the federal government agency that regulates banks. In every respect, Mona defied whatever stereotype may have popped into your mind about auditors and regulators just now. In direct contrast, she was bright, bold, and lived and laughed out loud – she was in a word, sunshine.
Years after she hired me for that job, I asked her “why me?”. I probably expected her to respond that she could see my potential or something similar. That was only part of her answer – the other part, she explained as laughed, was “you wore a pink suit to the interview, had multi-colored hair, and I wanted to shake things up a little.” Over the next decade, I would leave her supervision to take other roles in the same company, and our relationship evolved from boss, to peer, to friend.
While difficult to summarize, these are a few of the important lessons Mona left me with over those years.
- Lead with (loving) honesty. In the audit function, it is a normal part of the job to have to communicate “deficiencies” with auditees (unfortunately those reports are not structured to include praise for all that is going well.) To this day, I remain inspired by Mona’s unique ability to communicate particularly difficult information directly, yet in a way that was not hard, cold, or personal. Similarly, as a boss with a large team, Mona was responsible for providing performance feedback. I was on the receiving end of both regular performance reviews, and I admit with some embarrassment, some “unscheduled” and deserved conversations to discuss my performance. Without going into detail, now with 20+ years of HR experience under my belt and thousands of similar conversations (from another angle), I can still say that she was the most adept communicator of tough information I have ever known. Why? Because she had a talent for being extremely direct and specific but could wrap the message in care and concern. Since working with Mona, I continue to model her example and this has served me (and hopefully others) well, reminding me that “people may forget what you said, but not how you made them feel.”
- Stay classy in conflict. As noted, the audit function can be inherently controversial. While under Mona’s leadership, our goal was to “create value” through our work, not many auditees experienced enjoyment out of the process. In fact, there were times when things got downright nasty –for example, on one occasion, a Bank President started screaming at the audit team during an exit meeting, in disagreement with the findings. On this trip, Mona had accompanied us, which was out-of-the-ordinary, as one of a few times she shadowed us each year. I and the whole audit team were SO grateful for her presence, given the situation before us. As I wilted in my seat and wished I could disappear, Mona allowed him to finish his tirade, then calmly straightened her back and proceeded to say “[John], I take exception to your tone, but want to acknowledge your concerns.” She went on to matter-of-factly explain why – well, why he was wrong. And she did it with class, poise, and with her special direct and confident tone. In the years since, I cannot count the number of times I have called upon those few short words, “I take exception to your tone”, to move through conflict and kept my cool (when I wanted to respond in kind) because of her example.
- Have fun and laugh at work…and everywhere. Even in the seriousness of our role, which frankly, did not inherently create joy, Mona showed us how to find fun in our day, and that laughing at work (and at yourself) was important. She showed us her whole self, and because of that, we learned not just how to be good at our work, but how to be good teammates and good people. This was a gift that I have carried with me always – if you can have fun auditing, you can have fun anywhere (!), and it is possible to take your work seriously, without taking yourself too seriously.
After Mona (“A.M.”)
Mona was killed in a motorcycle accident in 2011, just over ten years ago, creating an unwelcome “before” and “after” in my life, and the lives of the many others that loved her.
Sitting here, “A.M.”, I can think of all the little and big things I would do/ask her/share with her if she were here.
I would have taken a picture with her (our friendship pre-dated cell phone pictures and selfies), I would have appreciated her more. I would not have farted in her red corvette – she was extremely prim and never let me live that down. (Mona never made gross noises and she even “cute-sneezed”). [Editor – that one is to see if you are paying attention. LOL! DELETE!] Simply, I would have paid more attention.
But this is not a note about regret (I don’t believe in regret, only learning), it is a note about appreciating the moment you are in, and the people with whom you share that moment. It is about remembering somewhere deep in your heart that at any moment, you could be in the “before” and not know it. A reminder to do the things now that you wish you would have done if you were looking back from the “after”.
Mona J. Flaten, I know you can hear me. I will be forever grateful for your mentorship, friendship, and the impact you continue to have in my life. Thank you for being you and believing in me. You are the original HighRoadster.