Friday, October 17, 2014

Doing What Is Required

“It is not enough that we do our best. Sometimes we have to do what's required.” - Winston Churchill

Recently I decided to take the advice of a good friend and start posting on my Facebook page and my Twitter feed quotes that are meaningful to me superimposed on photographs that I've taken. The combination of an image and a powerful quote seems to have found a strong connection with my audience.

Churchill's quote says many things. It raises the concept that someone's best may not always be good enough in life. That's true and can be a depressing realization. But the quote also inspires by demanding us to push past what we consider our best and do what is ultimately required in a given situation. That would establish a "new best" for ourselves. It gets us to achieve more than we originally thought possible. And that is one of the missions of a mentor.

A notion that pops up often in my mentoring conversations is the idea of fairness, or rather the lack of it, in life. A typical exchange I have will center around a mentee's disappointment about being passed over for a promotion or perhaps getting a smaller than expected raise. I listen quietly as the mentee describes for me their list of truly impressive accomplishments ending with the inevitable complaint of feeling unappreciated despite doing their level best.

When I'm asked my thoughts about the situation I reply in some fashion that while it may have been their best the effort was by definition insufficient to attain their goals. I go on to ask what was the gap between their best and what was required. I recognize that not everything is in our control yet this exercise proves extremely useful. Most of the time it leads to a productive conversation. The mentee arrives at some realizations and a clear set of next steps to improve the situation emerge.

Other times the conversation is far less productive. I end up hearing all the reasons that were out of this person's control to have done anything "better" than their best. That's perfectly ok too. At that point I shift my approach and do 2 things: 
  1. Brainstorm with the mentee about actions that could have helped them reach their goals but may not have been obvious. For example, was there a relationship they could have cultivated that would have lent support for their promotion? Or we may look at whether a career change is required to achieve their goals. 
  2. Guide the person towards being grateful for what they already have. Gratitude can be a potent balm.

The reason I chose that particular photo above to match this quote is because I had constructed a story around that little salamander at the time I snapped the picture. It was a very hot day and he caught my eye as I was walking quickly by looking for some shade for myself. As I fumbled for my cellphone camera I was telling myself that the salamander must be cooking on that searing concrete. He had to be having a tough time. He was probably looking for some food or even more likely something to drink. Those sharp white pebbles all around him would certainly not make his hunt any more pleasurable. 

I imagined that he must be thinking he's doing his best to get to what he needs but he's simply not catching a break - heat, pebbles and no water in sight. But if he's going to survive he's going to have to go beyond his best, deal with the situation at hand and do what's required.

When I found my shade I still thought about that salamander and how much luckier I am than he. But neither he nor I nor any of us can fully escape situations when we simply have to do what's required to get what we want or what we need out of life.

I wish for us all the fortitude to go and do just that.

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

Image from:

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.