How Mentoring Can Make The Difference
"Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me... and I learn.”
"You are the human form of Xanax, do you know that? "
That's what a co-worker called me the other day, and it may very well be the best professional compliment I've ever received in my career.
For the last three months, I've been fulfilling the role of mentor to another associate who was brand new to her leadership position. Her job and responsibility was to take over a team of customer service individuals from a departing manager who was leaving the company for another opportunity.
The good news was that meant a promotion and bump in pay for Lucy, both welcome changes for any manager wanna-be who has career aspirations with a current or future employer. Having been a rising star on the team under the exiting manager, she was intricately aware of the company culture and performance of the crew she was poised to assume. That was a bonus as she could then hit the ground running.
The flip side was the group had issues in both performance metrics and personnel management. Neither issue outweighed the other's importance, but there were opportunities and needed change in both categories that would only serve to strengthen the position and value of the business to the client. Some work had to be done, and Lucy was excited and equal to the task at hand.
What she didn't expect was taking on clean-up duty as the departing manager had - for lack of a better description - checked out months prior to leaving. Having been promoted internally from that very team, gaining true respect was going to be a issue. Moving from an in-the-trenches employee to "The Boss" over the very group you've served with can be difficult and intimidating for an inexperienced leader who is tasked with inevitable and immediate change.
Nervous and excited were only two of the words you could use to describe Lucy's mood as she entered her first few days in her new job and responsibilities. We spoke daily and reviewed the progress she'd been making with the business and her teammates. Although my job was to show her the ropes and expectations of her job, it really involved much more - coaching and encouraging, to educate and facilitate, and most importantly, offer counsel and support when it was needed the most.
Slowly but surely, she began to feel more at home in her job. Occasionally a managerial panic attack would set in. You know the ones...the "Holy shit, I hope I'm not really mucking this up" moments. Those are the times when you begin to question your actions and decisions while wondering if the end result will dictate your next move to the unemployment line.
"I know what you mean," I'd jokingly tell her. "I'm famous for waking up at 2 am and I can't get back to sleep because I'm thinking about all of the crap I have to deal with at work. My wife would hate it, because I'd toss, turn and lose sleep, and she would too. Then we'd both be cranky the next morning. Now THERE'S a productive combination."
Having both been in that situation with our respective spouses, we mutually chuckle. Then, a deep breath to re-focus on the message.
"You know, sometimes the decisions you make feel like a moving target. The best thing to do? Make sure your aim is true. Never be afraid to ask for advice or counsel from another manager, because we've all been there. That's all just part of the gig when it comes to being handed responsibility for others the first time around. We've all been there."
After some discussion and encouragement, she'd come down off the cliff and logically re-think her position and approach. Colin Powell, a role model and mentor for so many people said it best...it's never as bad as you think it is. Give yourself some time to reflect before moving to the panic stages.
The Books Methodology To Mentoring
I've been fortunate to be in a mentoring role several times in my career. From that experience, I offer three tips:
Pick your mentor wisely. Not everyone can be one. I once was given a mentor upon starting a new job peddling upgraded cell phone services to existing customers who were already under contract. Data devices were still in the infant stages of development compared to what's available today, but the push was on to get clients into the latest and greatest equipment. Clearly, I had some learning to do. To that end, I was assigned a mentor to oversee my progress and development.
The problem? Junior (not his real name, but he was much younger than I) was far more interested in just telling me what to do, and not the why. When I asked him why a particular account was marked a certain way, his response was "it doesn't matter, and you don't need to know that. Just tell the customer the information." If I asked him to explain the methodology behind a particular process or policy, he would respond much the same way - "that's not important. Your job is to sell."
That didn't sit well with me as I'm someone who likes granular details. That's how I feel empowered and knowledgeable and in a better position to service the customer over the long haul vs. the quick shot sale. Knowledge is power, or in this case, a tool in the intellectual arsenal.
Come to think of it, this could be why I don't trust salespeople or telemarketers.
Mentoring is about demonstrating and teaching, not just telling. As a facilitator for a private university here in Wisconsin where I teach college-level classes, I am charged with instructing students on how to be an effective leader and manager by using some basic guidelines and managerial theories.
One of the best ways to gain understanding is through practical application. I can talk about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs for hours and bore the hell out of my class while doing it, but until I relate it personally to the students, chances are it won't mentally stick.
Self-actualization, the pinnacle of Maslow's theory, means separate things to the same body of students. For example, the 19 year-old high school grad could see it as maximizing their pay, whereas the late-fiftyish Boomer views it as returning to school for a new career because they hate the old one they're leaving behind. Until you explain it in terms that is applicable to the student, it's just words in the textbook.
Effective mentoring works much the same way, especially when it comes to leadership applications. I can talk about principles all day, but until I relate it to the trainee on a personal level, it doesn't hold the same level of importance.
Some may describe that as the light bulb moment. I would add "show me, don't just tell me."
Mentoring is about support, coaching, understanding and counseling. I've long held a belief that in addition to the title of mentor, a leader also holds another - counselor. If you want to define that as being a human form of Xanax, so be it. You and I have likely been called far worse.
Everyone needs to have a support system at every level of leadership, either inside the organization or outside...perhaps both. My wife and I have shared stories and situations at our jobs that we've both needed to talk about because it offers outside perspective that we may not have considered previously.
What makes this particular role a challenge is the urge to repair things, which isn't always optimal. For example, I admit fully that I'm a fixer. so if you bring an issue to me and ask my advice, my first instinct is to resolve the problem...boom. That's not always the best as there may need to be a progression to get to the resolution. Systems thinking refers to this as repairing the problem without analysis of the symptoms.
There is also a learning progression path that the person being mentored must traverse in order to learn. Show them the hallway, turn on the lights and tell them how many doors are in the room, but let them open each one and investigate what's behind. As a mentor, it's our job to offer insight on each choice. If an immediate resolution is required, so be it. Otherwise, avoid a rush to judgment.
Through it all, think of yourself as the hall monitor there to support and offer guidance.
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These are only a few tips that have worked for me...surely there are others that have worked for you. Care to share with the rest of us? There's plenty of space below to discuss, debate, brainstorm or disagree. I'd love to hear them, and so would others!
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Cartoon image courtesy The Far Side
Text Copyright © 2016 by Andrew Books — All Rights Reserved
Andy Books is a Client Operations Program Manager for a leading provider of technology-driven communication services. He is also an Adjunct Faculty member for a Wisconsin-based private college.
When not working or teaching, you'll find him in his Wisconsin home laboring on unending projects as well as fulfilling his most important role, that of being a Dad, husband, and all-around family man. He is an Unfluencer and member of Writers for Writers and Publishers and Bloggers writing groups on LinkedIn. His collection of writings can also be found on Blogpoets.com, Bebee.com and goodmenproject.com.