Monday, June 28, 2010

Mix it up!

We're lucky, we humans, in that our brains were designed to release dopamine when we learn new things. Dopamine has been shown to be involved in a number of brain functions including ones that influence mood. I'm not a brain scientist so I'm paraphrasing of course but as the linked article states if learning something new releases the "feel good" chemical in your brain then our brains were truly designed to keep learning. We are attracted to "the new" and when we encounter "the new" our brains are alert and receptive.

As we all know even the best of jobs can get mundane and tedious at times. People get bored, fall in a rut and become disengaged for a multitude of reasons. No matter the reasons it's in our best interest as mentors and leaders to encourage an alert and engaged person or team. One "trick" I love using for my own team at staff meetings is to mix it up a bit. We meet weekly but most weeks we don't just sit around and give status. Instead I start the meeting by doing something a little different. Here are some of my (hopefully) dopamine-creating activities:
  1. Bring in a puzzle to solve whether a clever riddle or some cast iron puzzle (such as these).
  2. Show and discuss some thought provoking video (perhaps something from TED).
  3. Discuss some ideas about communication and conversations. One of my preferred approaches is Fierce. (They have very useful techniques with an accompanying book as well as an interesting blog).
  4. Change the location of the staff meeting once in a while. Even a simple change of environment can have a positive and stimulating effect. Just go to another floor, or have the meeting in an open space or a coffee shop.
The goal of all of this is to reawaken everyone's brain and still stay in the work context. Sure it takes time to solve a puzzle or discuss a video but I strongly believe (and have seen the evidence) that when everyone goes back to work they are a little more energized and a little more excited to be working at our place.

How can you "mix it up" at your workplace and with your mentees? I'd love more suggestions!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Not everyone's cup of tea

Coaching isn't just about helping someone to do something. Almost as often and sometimes even more importantly it's about coaching someone away from something.

Most often I've had to coach people away from wanting to get into Management. Now to be fair it must be stated that in most companies the only way to advance is to move into management. Management is the only path to more money or more responsibility. The only problem is many people are not necessarily interested or talented in managing other people. Frankly, bad managers do a tremendous amount of damage to a company both in terms of low morale and lost hours of productivity. Think back to a really bad boss you've had - I'm sure you can remember the stories, the scars, with painful preciseness. Think about how much energy you spent dealing with, stressing over, venting about and working around this bad manager. $$$ right out the door and precious, productive time wasted on your part.

There's a famous saying that holds true: "People join companies but they leave managers."

As a coach working with a managerial "candidate" helping someone move away from an ill-fitting role will not just help that individual but the entire organization and anyone unlucky enough to have to report to this person in the future.

Leading people is a skill - a very specialized skill - and like any other skill some individuals are born naturals, others acquire the skill through hard work and practice and others simply aren't that interested or can't "get it".

The key with entering Management is ensuring that a person's motivations are not self-serving. If money or professional political power are the goals this person needs to find other paths. If this person however enjoys watching and helping others grow, shows great empathy for others, communicates well and exhibits strong interpersonal skills then we have someone much more likely to succeed. How do I go about and figure this all out?

The core of any coaching conversations is: Questions!

Just asking questions isn't sufficient of course. It's asking the right questions and allowing the conversation to meander until you hit the reasons behind the reasons. One of my favorite techniques is asking a person to imagine they already are in the position they desire and then having them describe what this looks and feels like to them. I then I listen very, very intently. If the picture they paint revolves around having a new office or secretary or "finally" getting people to listen to them a red alert starts flashing in my mind. On the other hand if this imagined environment includes strategizing, leading teams and enjoying their own future coaching sessions then I'm glad to pull them further in that direction.

Now I've been very lucky to have worked at 2 companies who were "enlightened". They provided a career path on two tracks: one managerial and one non-managerial. Obviously a conversation around whether entering management is the right next step is far easier in this environment because you can provide an established alternative. But even in the absence of a parallel track these kinds of conversations are critical. Perhaps you and your mentee can help create a parallel, non-managerial track at your company. Or once you understand the person's underlying motivations you can find alternatives for those specifically. Perhaps "management = recognition" to that individual. There's plenty of ways to gain recognition without getting into management. As an example that person could go author and present white papers at conferences and possibly gain even more recognition than getting an internally-focused, corporate promotion.

I'll end by saying that figuring out people's motivations and coming up with creative ways together to satisfy those motivations when operating under constraints is one of the most fun things for me personally in a mentoring relationship. We all have a part to play in this world to make it successful. Some are managers and some are not but all are valued and indispensable.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Mentor like a farmer

One of my favorite sites on the web is TED. There are hundreds of excellent talks presenting new ideas and ways of thinking of things. One of my most favorite talks is by creativity and educational expert Ken Robinson.

This presentation talks about the need to revolutionize the educational system because the current system was created to solve 20th century educational problems rather than 21st century needs. The talk is brilliant and funny and the speaker is engaging and authentic.

The reason I post this here is because there are several critical points he makes that directly apply to mentoring. As I mentioned in my last post mentoring is usually incorrectly thought of as a one way street between the teacher (mentor) and the student (mentee) where the teacher needs to teach something to the student and send them on their way. In fact what some of the best mentors have the ability to do is to re-frame a person's thoughts and approach to a situation and create a space for them to nurture new ideas and approaches. Much like a farmer who can't "make" their crops grow but rather create the conditions for crop growth so to a mentor must create an environment for the mentee to experiment and grow. A mentor is not there just to "teach" them something.

I hope you enjoy the talk and see the many parallels to mentoring that I see!

Watch it here:
Ken Robinson's talk at TED

Saturday, June 19, 2010

In the beginning....

Like so many before me I too wish to add my voice to the caravan of voices moving ever forward in the blogosphere...

I am blessed with many passions: I love music, chocolate, technology, gardening and baking. But among those passions there is one that allows me to connect with people more deeply than all the others - and that's mentoring. I have been extremely lucky in the course of my career to have had several distinguished, talented, empathetic, thoughtful and caring mentors. Mentors can have a massive impact on someone's life simply through interaction and conversation. While no single conversation will necessarily change a person's life any conversation has that potential especially one with the intent of moving someone forwards towards a goal.

First off, I am not a "certified" mentor. I think there are a few too many "certifications" out there these days. I'm sure many have positive intent but many are there to "create a need and fill it". This blog is simply my observations and some helpful resources if you or someone you know wants to read about and possibly discuss aspects of mentoring.

Secondly the term "mentoring" comes with it a connotation of a one-way discourse. Mentee tells mentor his/her problems and Mentor comes up with a perfect solution. End session. Repeat.

Not at all!

As one of my mentors told me when we first started our series of conversations it's absolutely a 2-way street. While one person may have more experience than another and thus be the designated mentor I believe everyone can learn something from everyone else. Many times I've found myself answering my Mentor's questions and giving advice. That only deepens the relationship and allows for growth for both parties involved.

As a side note, you'll notice in my writing that I assume the Mentor/Mentee relationship is a 1:1 activity. I do believe that the most successful ones are done in a 1:1 fashion - only two people. Three's a crowd in many things - so too in mentoring. If there were to be 3 or more people the number of relationships that would have to be managed exponentially rises and complicates the business of a free form conversation and exchange of ideas and feelings. Unless someone out there disagrees - I'd love to hear it!

Again, my intent with this blog is to provide experience, anecdotes, resources and possibly a place for online discussions around Mentoring. It is such a valuable activity and so rewarding for both the Mentor and Mentee that I find excitement in sharing this passion with you.