Sunday, September 7, 2014

Every Calling

"Every calling is great when greatly pursued." 
                                                    - Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

I love this Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. quote because it articulates a key theme in my mentoring work and likely the mentoring work of many others. While often mentees seek advice about particular industries, career paths or specific skills I have found that just as often mentees seek the confidence (or in some cases the 'permission') to make a difficult decision about the path they find themselves on. Sometimes that decision is about whether to pursue something they love despite the lack of certain benefits such as monetary gain. In other cases it is the opposite where they were trying to decide whether a perceived gain was worth pursuing on an ultimately unfulfilling path. 

As an example I'll share a conversation I had with a mentee who concluded that they had reached their maximum potential as an individual contributor and was contemplating with trepidation whether to follow a management career path. They no longer saw neither greatness nor joy in their current role. They felt that becoming a manager, while a riskier and somewhat unpleasant choice, would at least give them a bump in salary. 

After the mentee finished describing their dilemma I started asking many questions. My curiosity centered on the underlying motivation for moving towards a management role and moving away from their current role. I wanted to understand whether this dilemma was arrived at by choice, by boredom, by financial pressure, by misunderstanding or by something completely different. As it turned out that individual didn't feel like their amazing contributions were being noticed. They thought occupying a managerial position of power would get their accomplishments noticed and that their greatness would finally be recognized and rewarded.

I led the conversations that followed down two parallel tracks. The first track was based on finding fulfillment in what they were already doing - basically finding the joy in every day life. The second track focused on improving communication and networking skills. I hypothesized that these were lacking as these are precisely the types of skills that gets one 'noticed'. So instead of focusing on obtaining another position sometime in the future we worked on improving skills and bringing out the greatness that the person already had within them today. After many months this individual let me know that becoming a manger would have been one of the biggest mistakes they could have made. 

Which bring us to the quote above which inspired this post. I see the role of a mentor to encourage/remind/inspire folks to keep in mind that any calling including the one they are currently in (as long as it's not unethical or immoral or hurts anyone of course) can be great if pursued and done greatly. And I believe that the pursuit of greatness is in everyone's capacity.

I'd like to end this post with another quote that is meaningful to me. It is one of the keys to being an effective mentor:
“Really great people make you feel that you, too, can become great.” 
                                                                              - Mark Twain 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Scaling a Mentoring Program

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In my work with and within organizations that have mentoring programs I'm invariably asked about a common challenge: The program is getting extremely popular so how do we scale (expand) it?

Typically mentoring programs are set up by the Human Resources, Employee Training or Organizational Development department. These teams tend to be small and are made up of extremely resourceful (no pun intended) people who creatively do a lot for a company with very, very little. And while running a mentoring program does not usually require a lot of cold, hard cash it does take a lot of coordination, communication and time for it to be really successful.

Most formal mentoring programs are set up similarly with people signing up to be a mentor, a mentee or both. The signup usually includes a short profile that needs to be filled in by the applicant and includes questions about interests and expectations of the program. Once the deadline passes and the application period closes the daunting task of matching mentors and mentees is left up to the small team running the program. The time it takes for the team to read every mentor application, every mentee application, cross reference and discuss each possible match and then communicate the final mentor/mentee pairing decision is enormous. The folks involved in the matching exercise also have their "day jobs" thus extending the matching period even longer than first estimated.

As mentoring programs get more popular and companies find themselves with more applicants the pairing phase gets exponentially longer. In many instances this growth ends up freezing the pairing process. The program eventually becomes too successful for itself and gets put on hold never launching its next wave of mentoring relationships.

What can be done?

My answer to the matching bottleneck is for mentoring programs to put the onus back on the mentee to find their own match. I advise mentoring program coordinators to stop laboriously force matching people with the likely result that several of those pairs won't be good fits. Those program coordinators would instead spend that time:

  1. Advertising and communicating about the program. A key part of a mentoring program's success is a company's visible support of the activity. This company backing essentially gives people "permission" to spend time seeking out mentors and enriching themselves with this activity.
  2. Offering learning sessions about what to look for in a prospective mentor and how to approach them.
  3. Offering learning sessions on how to be a good mentor and how to be a good mentee.
  4. Brainstorming with prospective mentees to come up with a candidate mentor list - a list of people they should consider approaching.

The above approach allows a small group of folks to set up a supportive structure for mentees. Mentor/mentee pairs who are not force matched have a far better chance of being successful because the participants picked each other with little direct intervention from an "outside" person. I see this as a win-win-win situation for all parties involved.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Mentoring for the Wrong Reasons

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My main goal with the OnMentoring blog and YouTube channel is and has always been to inspire people to find or to become career mentors. It is usually far easier to convince someone to be a mentee compared to a mentor because the benefits are more obvious from the mentee's perspective. So this posting is highly unusual for me in that I want to refer to an article entitled "Mentor or Martyr? Beware the Rescuer Trap" by Manfred Kets de Vries about a set of circumstances when you should not become or continue as a mentor.

The article uses the term "Rescuer" to essentially mean someone who cannot separate their own emotional needs from those of the person they are trying to help. To the Rescuer the act of mentoring is more to fill a void in their own life rather than help another. Serial rescuers "feed off a vulnerable and dependent person and feel satisfied when able to elicit gratitude and appreciation". In other words a "rescuer" is in it for themselves which is the antithesis of why one should be mentoring. The article includes a set of insightful questions a mentor can ask themselves to ensure they are not "Rescuers". It's a really good read.

I'd like to share some additional bad reasons to be acting as a mentor:

  1. Don't do it to "look good" or "get promoted". As in the rescuer situation above someone that's mentoring solely so they look good to their own management is much too focused on themselves to be of any real use to a mentee.
  2. Don't do it purely to network. While networking is a likely outcome of most mentoring relationships one shouldn't become a mentor in order to immediately gain access to a mentee's contact list. The reverse is also true.
  3. Don't mentor as a replacement for good leadership. I've occasionally seen managers who were having problems leading their own team go and take on a mentee.  I can only speculate as to reasons why. Perhaps it was to make themselves feel worthy of their management role. In this situation I very strongly urge that person work on making their own team and their own relationships successful before dedicating any time to mentoring others.
Of course most people do not fall into any of these categories and so I continually ask everyone to consider becoming someone's mentor. And if you do happen to fall into one of these categories hopefully the issue can be resolved and you have a bright mentoring future ahead of you.