Jeff Imelt, from GE once quoted Mentors as “People you trust to provide feedback and advice”.
Mentors opens doors, are generous of spirit and time and best of all, a mentor’s time is free.
It all started in 1998 when I needed some help to design a national sales team. I could not find such help readily available in Romania so my CEO suggested to interview a fellow called Bob Henson and perhaps he would come from the USA if he had the right skills. We spoke; I loved this fellow after 2 minutes and we agreed for him to come over.
After 6 weeks of consulting, mentoring and design, my new sales structure was complete with org. charts, job descriptions and a calendar of milestones. Bob had delivered on his promise.
Looking back, this process was no different than any other consultant I had hired in the past except for 2 things: I was not aware at the time that I was actually interviewing my lifetime mentor and that Bob’s expertise came for free – his expertise was provided by the IESC or the International Executive Service Corps which is a NGO based in the US that provides executives on short term projects in developing countries.
After 1998, Bob worked for an International agency doing telecommunications consulting work across the world, often falling under the umbrella of the United Nations which allowed him and his wife Phyllis to travel to some countries that were not as easily accessible, like North Korea and Cuba.
When Bob was asked to travel for work, he’d receive a stipend that would be just enough for him to buy a ticket for his wife. After a while, their frequent flyer miles added up, helping them pay for trips. By 2011 he had visited 200 countries. He then decided to Go for it and attempt to visit all the countries in the world.
According to The Travelers’Century Club, “there are 324 territories or sovereign states, certain exclaves and island groups. Although some are not actually countries in their own right, they have been considered because they are removed from parent, either geographically, politically or ethnologically”.
While busy travelling the world, Bob kept providing me with sound advice on my career and actually lined me up for a few job prospects and contracts. As you can imagine, Bob is what Malcolm Gladwell would call a ‘Connector’ in his bestselling book “The Tipping Point”.
Bob has demonstrated at 80 years old, that one’s age should never be a limiting factor especially when you‘ve got an important goal to achieve. He had told me many times “Paul nothing in life worth achieving is ever easy…it’s had work”.
To this point, Bob has proven his courage once again by visiting one of the most violent countries in order to reach the magic number of 324…Libya. During my recent interview with Bob, here is how he described his visit to Libya:
In November 2014, Bob called a friend in Egypt and asked for help. The trip would be completely clandestine—late at night; they met their driver and translator Armann in Alexandria, Egypt. Bob and Phyllis hopped in the back of his car to ride 185 miles across the desert to Libya.
They both hid from armed Libyan soldiers behind the backseat of a 1976 Mercedes coupe at the Libya-Egypt border. Not too many Americans find themselves trying to enter Libya at midnight as you can imagine.
At the border, the tension immediately increased. Phyllis wore a scarf on her head to conceal her white hair. Bob’s must have been visible to the soldiers, he said. They slouched behind the seat. Together, they prayed.
Armann stepped out of the car and explained the Hensons’ desire to enter the country. After a few minutes of negotiating, Armann told Bob to pay the soldiers $1,000. They got in.
Their destination—the capital city of Tobruk—was about 100 miles west of the border. A few miles into the country, Armann veered the car to the shoulder, unrolled his prayer mat, grabbed his Quran and prayed. Bob and Phyllis who are Christian, prayed with him.
“When even the driver is nervous, you can imagine how we felt,” Phyllis said. “I was physically shaking most of the time inside Libya.”
When they got to the city, Bob and Phyllis mostly stayed in the vehicle. Bob took pictures from the back seat. They exited the car just one time to use the restroom at a hotel near the airport. They stood in the lobby of the hotel for a few minutes and mostly kept their heads down. They tried talking to people, but they were not received incredibly well. They even tried to eat food, until Armann told them the food they were served was camel.
“It just didn’t feel right being there,” Bob said. “Traveling so much, you get a certain feeling that you know it’s not safe. So we decided it was time to leave.” A couple miles out of the city, they heard an explosion. They later learned a car bomb had exploded just feet from the hotel they had just left.
Back at the Egyptian border, the tension increased again. Only one of the soldiers they had paid earlier in the night was still working. Armann negotiated for two hours. In the end, the Bob had to pay $2,000 in cash to leave the country (the original amount the soldiers asked for was $5,000). By the way, this was Bob’s money, not his employer’s stipend. Hitting a record of 324 countries carried a price tag and the adrenaline rush.
“When we crossed back into Egypt, I cannot tell you the peace we felt,” Bob says. “It was a weight off our shoulders. When we truly realized we were safe, we realized we had done it. 324. It was done!”
Through their amazing journey, Bob and Phyllis have visited each of the Pacific Ocean’s 39 islands, some of which are so remote they had to ride cargo ships just to get there. They’ve circumnavigated each of the seven territories of Antarctica multiple times. Their stories, like the one from Libya, are simply awesome. These are the kind of stories you see in movies but sorry folks, there’s no editing, computer graphics, SFX or Photoshop here. Bob and Phyllis are the Real Deal. They are probably 2 out of 8-10 people in the world to have accomplished this important milestone!
Robert Kiyosaki’s successful book called ‘Rich Dad, Poor Dad’ describes your network of friends, colleagues and/or partners as critical. He sums it up as: “take a look at the 10-12 people that you interact with on a regular basis and this will dictate your level of success.” Bob is part of my circle of 12 most important people and he’s an inspiration.
Bob is a Mentor, Friend, Hero, Connector and Role model. How many people do you know that can qualify for all these labels?
Like most mentors he has led by example with his insights, his willingness to give back, his courage while remaining a humble gentleman.
We’ve all heard the expression that “behind every great man is a great woman”. My last interview question for Bob was if he had any advice to give to those who would like to travel the world. “Yes”, he says smiling and looking at Phyllis: “Take along a good Admin Support”, in other words your spouse, partner or buddy.
Bob’s view is that attempting to travel to 324 countries or any other worthwhile endeavor in your life… “You must remember that you can’t do it alone”.