Friday, August 13, 2010

Learn = Teach

"The best way to learn (about a subject) is to teach (it)."- Frank Oppenheimer, physicist

The words in parentheses were added to the original quote sometime later by someone else but it rings true for me. There's a strong element of teaching in mentoring. But as I've said before it's a mistake to approach mentoring as only a one way activity. So many mentors I know learned so much from their mentees that it was sometimes hard to know who was playing what role. Usually someone seeking out a mentor is in need of filling a certain gap. My experience has been that within the corporate world many mentees seek out mentors who are in a professional role they would like for themselves. And that's great. The best part however is when the relationship deepens and expands past that initial goal.

"When the Pupil is ready the Master shall appear." - Unknown

I did not seek my first mentor out. My first mentor happened to be my manager at the time. (This is not the most optimal situation as many times you'd like to talk about your manager with someone else.)  I was hired as a technical lead but my team required a Manager - someone that would build a vision, set objectives, make and deliver on commitments, write performance reviews, etc. - a People Leader. I was only a Task Leader - and a perfectly content one at that.  After several months of working together instead of his hiring someone from the outside my boss felt I would be a good person to take on that leadership role. This would allow him to pursue more strategic activities for the division. To say I was reluctant at the time would be an understatement. First off I was perfectly happy to be doing what I was doing - which was working with computers rather than people. Secondly I was scared! "How could I possibly lead people especially those who were older than me?" was just one of a hundred questions that mystified my brain.

But somehow my manager knew I was ready. He asked that I try the role out for 6 months and if I didn't like it I could easily return to an individual contributor role with no ill effects. In fact he would see it as a positive thing that I at least tried it out. Just that one act alone, his creating a safe space for me to take my first tentative steps towards becoming a leader and later a mentor myself, was enough for me to consider him a master at this mentoring craft. That one act alone taught me so much of what it means to grow people including: 1. recognizing when someone is ready or almost ready for a new role, 2. bringing that opportunity to that person, 3. encouraging a person to try it out, 4. creating that safe space for them to try it out!

Although I had this great blueprint for how to grow people I didn't really "get it" until years later when an opportunity arose for me to mentor a direct report into a manager himself. I had to evaluate if he was ready. I had to get over my emotions over his advancement in particular his possibly moving laterally out from under me to another team. I also had to learn how to let go of things and allow him to really manage his folks his own way. At the same time I had to teach him exactly what I was finally able to fully put into practice which was how to grow folks on his new team. It was only when I had the opportunity to teach someone else this particular skill that I felt I graduated myself. In the teaching is the culmination of the learning. And so, seek out to teach what you most need to learn because you will be forced to learn and excel in that skill. Perhaps that's why many of us choose to be mentors in the first place! It is certainly a key reason for me.

"You teach best what you most need to learn." - Richard Bach, author

PS: I'd like one day to invite my first mentor to guest post an article here and hope that he'll accept! :)

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