Friday, December 30, 2011

We Live Like Kings

Gratitude is a topic that I've brought up numerous times on this blog. It's so important a topic I'd like to end this year and start the new year with it.

Gratitude allows one to take a difficult situation and reframe it into something more positive. I aspire to live my life each day with as much gratitude as possible. Like anyone I'm not always successful at focusing on what I have rather than on what I have not. I share this challenge with most of my mentees at one time or another.

So what do I tell them and tell myself?

I remind myself and tell them that in many ways we live like kings! In fact in some ways we live better than kings!

If you go back far enough and think about the wealthiest and most powerful royalty of centuries ago did they have:

  • hot running water instantly available? Likely not.
  • delicious foods from around the world easily accessible? Nope.
  • the ability at all times to instantly communicate with family & friends? Hardly.
  • the power to travel great distances in a matter of hours? Never.

And here we are with plumbing, supermarkets, cell phones, airplanes, etc. Our standard of living is stunningly higher than the richest and most powerful of years past. For some reason this concept amazes me.

My favorite related story is that of King George I and Handel's "Water Music":
The Water Music is a collection of orchestral movements, often considered three suites, composed by George Frideric Handel. It premiered on 17 July 1717 after King George I had requested a concert on the River Thames. The concert was performed by 50 musicians playing on a barge near the royal barge from which the King listened with close friends...George I was said to have enjoyed the suites so much that he made the exhausted musicians play them three times over the course of the outing. [from wikipedia]
If the King wanted to enjoy a piece of music more than once he had to force the musicians play it again. We can just put a song track on our MP3 player on repeat and enjoy that music experience endlessly.

For all this advancement I remind myself (and others) to be grateful. We live in a wondrous world full of everyday miracles.

In this spirit I wanted to take a moment and show my gratitude to you, Dear Readers, for visiting my blog, 'liking' my postings on LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. and sending me encouraging comments and questions. Each visit and each 'like' I receive inspires me to keep writing. I am truly grateful for all of that! Thank you.

May 2012 be a year of peace, joy, prosperity, health and fun for you and your loved ones! 

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Why mentor?

image from:

"The greatest good you can do for another is not just to share your riches 
but to reveal to him his own."
 - Benjamin Disraeli

As the year comes to a close and many of us find ourselves in a reflective mood I wanted to pause and examine a question that I (as author of this blog) have taken a little for granted: Why be a mentor?

To be a mentor one must have a genuine interest in people. I got into both leadership and mentoring roles because I love helping people develop. I have no greater professional satisfaction than watching people achieve things they themselves thought were beyond their reach. I myself have benefited tremendously from and have been unbelievably lucky to have had mentoring since very early on in my career. My first mentor, whom I hope to interview and post about in the coming months, had a profound impact on my career choices and subsequent successes. The inspiration for this blog came from my desire to encourage as many people as possible to start mentoring. I also wanted to create a space for questions and discussions about mentoring as an "art". I wanted to "pay it back" as much as "pay it forward" so to speak and took to writing and speaking on mentoring as a means to realize this goal.

Mentoring is a selfless act at first blush. It demands sacrifice in that the mentor makes both a costly time commitment as well as an emotional commitment to the progress of the mentee. So why would you as a person or your company as an organization initiate such a commitment?

There are many advantages to the mentor and to the mentor's organization! Here are a few top reasons why one should mentor (in no particular order):
  1. Companies improve retention and employee satisfaction - Taken from a key study on mentoring, "[Mentoring] programs can dramatically improve employee retention by helping individuals enjoy stable relationships with people in power. In addition, new employees are attracted to the organization by internal employees who are satisfied with the company. The authors also state that staff retention is not entirely a function of salary and depends heavily on employee morale. Mentoring programs, by filling individual needs to feel respected, boost morale and increase retention."
  2. "The best way to learn a subject is to teach it." - Whatever topics you choose to cover in your mentoring relationship one of two things will happen for you as the mentor: 1. As you give advice you'll have a chance to question and validate or improve upon your experience and current thinking on the topic; 2. In your efforts to answer some challenging questions you'll likely learn something new about the topic or about yourself during the process!
  3. Mentoring is a two-way street - In some of your better mentoring relationships you'll find your mentee going beyond asking for advice. They will hopefully start to bring fresh insights and new perspectives on a topic critical to your own success.
  4. Getting to the next level - If you are looking for advancement, especially if it's one that would transition you from an individual contributor to a management position, being an active mentor will certainly work in your favor. In fact it may even be the key differentiator between you and another promotion candidate.
  5. Networking  - The more people you know, no matter the level, the bigger your network. The bigger your network the more you're open to new opportunities and the greater the pool of resources you have to draw upon when you need to - now and in the future. That's a great thing. Period.
  6. You'll impact a life. You'll leave the world a better place.  - Have you ever wished that along the way you could have had someone more experienced give you some advice or guide you or open you up to possibilities sooner? You can be that person for someone else. That is an amazing gift to have the power to give.
If you are reading this posting as a (possible) mentor then you're already likely to know some of the above.

If you are reading this posting as a someone wanting to find a mentor perhaps you can use this article to help convince the person you've chosen as that mentor to join you on this wonderful journey.

"Mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and 
a push in the right direction." - John Crosby

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Power of Reframing

This classic perceptual illusion serves my purpose today extremely well. If you are not familiar with the image above take a good look and tell me if you see an old woman with a large nose looking down with her chin nuzzled in a fur coat. 

Do you see her?

Or do you see an attractive young woman looking away?

That image clearly demonstrates how two different, almost opposite meanings can come from the exact same picture - the exact same set of black lines on white.

Now shifting from drawings to everyday problems there is a category of them I like to call "problems of perception". This is a type of problem that mentees often approach mentors with that a simple reframe can cure. 

What do I mean? Take a look at the follow statement:

"No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it."      - Albert Einstein 

I'd like to take the liberty and slightly rephrase Einstein's quote: "No problem can be solved with the same frame of mind that created it." To solve the problem one must think differently. One must in some way undergo a paradigm shift and/or question the assumptions and/or question the meaning of the problem itself.

There is an excellent article on problem reframing at this link from which I will borrow a story, a quote and an idea.

First off, the idea: There are two ways to reframe a situation. One can reframe the context or one can reframe the content. Context reframing is looking at a situation from a different perspective and discovering a solution from that new angle. Content reframing is to change the meaning of the actual problem itself.

Let me explaIn...

Here's a story from the aforementioned article that gives an example of context reframing. The same item viewed in a different context invites an opportunity:
An Executive Director at a human service agency was looking for inexpensive raw materials to make dried flower arrangements for the agency gift shop. He called up the local funeral parlors and asked what they did with flowers after the funerals. As expected, the funeral parlors disposed of the flowers. The parlors agreed to give the agency the flowers at no cost. The agency transforms the flowers into beautiful arrangements to sell in the agency gift shop at a good profit. Throwing away dead flowers many not seem like an opportunity to many, but when you can reframe them into another context, you have created free raw materials. [from "Quality Performance in Human Services Leadership" Edited by James F.Gardner, Ph.D., M.A.S. & Sylvia Nudler, M.A.S.]
The same materials, dried flowers, in a different context becomes a gift rather then the refuse of remembrance.

Content reframing is about changing the meaning of something without changing the thing itself. As an example, here's a suggestion I find myself making to mentees who complain of bosses that micromanage them. I ask them to think of their neurotic manager not as a boss but as an assistant! Here you have someone willing to take the time and solve your problems for you. This "boss/assistant" doesn't just solve problems for you but lays out a detailed step-by-step path forward. Fantastic! This frees you up to focus your own mind and time on solving more complex challenges, discovering more creative pursuits or learning new skills. You can't change your boss (other than by leaving that team) but you can change how you interpret and respond to their actions by changing the meaning behind those actions.

To use another quote from the linked article regarding content reframing:  "A famous army general reframed a distressful situation for his troops by telling them that 'We're not retreating, we're just advancing in another direction.'"

The old woman/young woman illusion above is another, playful way of thinking about it. You can see two opposing visions without changing a single line in the drawing.

Reframing is not just a problem-solving tool but a communication one as well. In any debate the person who controls the frame of the discussion almost always wins the argument. By setting the context of the conversation in a succinct, understandable way and inviting listeners to share that same perspective on the problem you are more easily able to guide your audience to the conclusions you wish to reach.

I didn't invent reframing nor any of the examples mentioned. I just wanted to bring to light the subject both as a proven problem-solving technique and a powerful communication approach.

Finally and most importantly, reframing is much more than simply seeing "the silver lining" of a dark cloud that ruined your weekend. It is about seeing the dark cloud itself as a blessing - a bringer of much needed water for example or an opportunity to stay indoors and bond with family or friends. By practicing reframing you go beyond tolerating the dark cloud and become a person that's glad it exists!

I challenge you to challenge yourselves and your mentees to take a current negative situation or experience in your life and reframe it into a positive and perhaps even opportunistic (in the good sense) way.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Curiosity: The Ultimate Attribute

image from

Recently someone I know asked me to pick one and only attribute I would make absolutely sure to try to impart to my children to increase their chances of success in life.

I could pick only one.

My initial, confident response was independence. Surely someone who feels their success is dependent on something or someone else would lead a lifetime of disappointment and underachievement. It is the independent mind that creates something from nothing. It is that mind that doesn't assume because you went to a certain school, grew up in a certain neighborhood or with a certain set of parents or have a certain amount of money you have a guarantee of success.

It is also an independent mind that is least likely to get taken advantage of.

After answering the question accordingly and justifying my response (which was well received by the way) my mind for some reason kept thinking about that question and I became unsure.

A place I try to guide all my mentees towards is that of always being CURIOUS. Curiosity is an attribute that keeps a mind open. It is a skill that keeps many a conversation from becoming unnecessarily confrontational because you approach the conversation with questions. You approach with an open mind as opposed to a closed position. Always being curious is both an attribute and an attitude that keeps joy and wonder in one's life because of all the "newness" that one encounters in that mindset (see my dopamine posting).

"I have no special gift. I am only passionately curious" - Albert Einstein

Many older, happy people credit "staying young at heart" as a secret to old age. In my opinion staying young means staying curious. My great grandmother who lived well into her nineties would always say "each and every day I learn something new."

A curious nature will also not take things at face value and so would presumably have the benefit of not getting taken easily advantage of.

Heck, even NASA named its new Mars rover Curiosity!

The good news is that curiosity is something that can be practiced. How? Here is the secret:

When you find yourself about to make a statement either out loud or in your mind turn it into a question. For example, before stating "This laptop is really good" instead say (or ask yourself) "What makes this laptop really good?". Then listen for answers or look for answers yourself. You'll start to notice things you never did before. Do that with all you encounter. It's as simple as that.

I guess my answer to that one success attribute question is now going to be: "stay curious - be successful!"

What attributes do you think are key to success? I'd love to hear your thoughts! (Email me or leave a comment below.)

"The greatest virtue of man is perhaps curiosity."

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Can you be mentored 'from below'?

Image from: Johns Hopkins

Back in July I participated on a Mentoring Panel. One of the many questions we were asked was "Can you be mentored from below?". The panel wasn't quite sure what that phrase "from below" meant so we requested a clarification. The questioner went on to explain by giving the following example (I'm paraphrasing) "Can a VP of Engineering be mentored by a developer? In other words can someone higher up in an organization be mentored by someone lower in the organization?".

The short answer is YES!

That may seem counter-intuitive at first and the discussion that ensued is important to share because it makes some key distinctions between mentoring and feedback. Read on.

First off, if you are a mentee seeking a mentor don't consider the organizational hierarchy or even just your workplace as the sole source of mentors. Remember that:

  1. You can have more than one mentor at any given time. Each mentor might specialize in a certain subject or subjects you'd like to cover.
  2. Your mentors can be found throughout your extended network of family, friends, old schoolmates, etc. and not just through people you know at your job.
  3. Age doesn't matter. Someone younger than you can mentor you on a range of subjects you are less familiar with for example, today's executives could learn a lot about social media from folks just graduating college.
While it's common to look for a mentor to be someone you'd like to emulate it's not necessarily true that this person will be at a higher level than you on an organizational chart. Just because someone may be a Vice President in your company doesn't necessarily mean they are 'smarter' than you nor does it mean you both will necessarily be a fit. As discussed before the most crucial ingredients in a mentoring relationship are trust and fit. If you can get that kind of relationship from someone at a "lower level" then go for it!

Another thing to point out is that successful mentoring relationships usually end up with the conversations and advice-seeking going both ways. After a time the mentor may be asking a mentee for guidance. This has happened to me numerous times on both sides of the relationship. As a mentor asking for perspectives from my mentee you could say I was then being mentored "from below".

A distinction I'd like to make however is one between feedback and mentoring. Many times folks within an organization would like to give a leader feedback about a person or a situation. Or a leader may ask for feedback about a particular person or situation. Feedback is fantastic but that's not the same as mentoring. Keeping an open dialog with your leadership team is key to making both yourself and your company successful but feedback tends to be about a specific situation whereas mentoring is broad ranging, ongoing and occurs with some regularity. I hope that distinction makes sense (and if not, then ask me about it!)

When looking for a mentor be sure to take a 360 degree, up, down and all around view of your possibilities. You'll be happy you did!

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Difference An "If" Makes

"The memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. has been a little controversial — but not for the right reason. Someone, somewhere along the line, made a decision that makes King look like something he was not: an arrogant jerk." 
This memorial was at least 14 years in the making so how could this possibly be? In summary the article goes on to discuss how a Martin Luther King Jr. quote destined for a prominent place on the memorial was morphed from its original:
"If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace.  I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter."
to this phrase now found there:
“I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”
A "drum major" is the leader of a band. It is someone that commands attention. But MLK was using this term in a pejorative way. He was referring to a drum major as someone who becomes a leader only to get attention. Unfortunately there are many self-centered "leaders" in this world like that. In the first and original quote MLK was basically saying that if you were a critic ready to accuse him of seeking out the limelight then fine, at least he did that for noble causes such as peace and justice.

In the final paraphrasing this meaning is lost. The new monument in Washington D.C. didn't have enough room for the full quote so the decision makers did some editing. Sadly by taking out the "if" clause it makes it sound like he'd declared himself the righteous leader for peace and justice. That does come off as arrogant and not even close to the original wording.

I bring up this story to make a point about how difficult good communication can be for anyone. If a 14 year effort can lead to monumental errors in wording what does that say for our day to day communication efforts in the work place or in home life?

What it says to me is threefold:
  1. Always choose your words carefully - always! Don't get lazy. Better to be silent for a few seconds longer and package your message sensitively than risk a quick response that fails to deliver the proper message.
  2. Be precise and give context when repeating the words of others. 
  3. When someone else has made an error in communication be sympathetic because these errors happen to all of us - even those of us smart enough to be tasked with historic burdens such as communicating a great leader's thoughts and accomplishments to society.
One final, related note - here's a quote from Mr. King on communication which I espouse:
"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."
- Martin Luther King, Jr.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

An OnMentoring Conversation With: Jerry Pico

In my effort to inspire new mentors I believe it's valuable to show the varying paths and positive effects mentors and coaches have had in this world. I have been blessed to have worked with several mentors and coaches. As part of a new feature on the OnMentoring blog I'd like to showcase mentors and coaches that have impacted me directly or impressed me with their work or their approach. I hope to interview several mentors and coaches over the coming months and share with you some of their history and insights on mentoring.

In the first post of this new series I'd like to introduce you to Jerry Pico who is a past business coach I’ve been fortunate to work with. He possesses all qualities one must have to be an impactful and effective coach. His open, even-keeled, caring approach has helped many people achieve their goals. I met Jerry several years ago at an outplacement agency during a career transition of mine. Among the help Jerry provided me was guidance on making my next career choice.

Jerry has been working with individuals and teams to define and achieve success in their own terms for over 15 years – including for more than 10 years in his coaching and organizational consulting practice, People & Knowledge Works Consulting.

From his website: "His organizational consulting practice was focused in the disciplines of Talent Acquisition, Development and Retention through the practices of Coaching, Facilitation, Learning and Leadership Development, and Organization Development.  In August 2011 Jerry decided to pursue an exciting new international career opportunity that would leverage his talent acquisition and consulting skills, and joined the EMEA recruiting team of W. L. Gore & Associates GmbH in Munich, Germany."

When I approached Jerry about being the first interviewee in this OnMentoring series he was very enthusiastic about participating.  I’m extremely grateful for his agreeing to speak with me!

And now I'm honored to present an OnMentoring conversation with…Jerry Pico!

1.      OnMentoring: Hi Jerry. Thanks so much for agreeing to speak with me today.  I wanted to start ‘at the beginning’ of your coaching/mentoring experience. When and how did you get into mentoring/coaching?

Those are 2 different questions as those are two different activities. I got into coaching 12 years ago via the Human Resources Master’s program at the University of San Francisco. Part of the curriculum was centered on coaching. I trained in 2 schools of coaching and in that time developed co-coaching relationship with members of the course.

As for mentoring, I got into it by being mentored myself. This was very valuable to me. Naturally I fell into mentoring others formally and informally. All my work is about helping people and mentoring is an extension of that. This initial mentoring occurred somewhat simultaneous to the Master’s program.

2.      OM: What was the biggest impact any of your mentors ever had on you?

I’ve had 4 formal mentors and countless informal ones. The biggest impact of any of them had on me, formal or informal, was the choice of my current career. 3 of the 4 mentors guided me into this career and nurtured me into becoming Organizational Development consultant. If it weren’t for these mentors I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today nor doing it nearly as well!

Here’s how it played out: My first mentor got me into the Human Resources Master’s program and into Organizational Development. My second mentor was actually the husband of my first mentor. Over a dinner conversation I learned that he did the exact kind of work I wanted to do. He was an organizational development consultant with a particular specialty around diversity and cross-cultural facilitation. My third mentor was a subject matter expert in organization leadership and leadership development which was another one of my interested specialties. I later went on to teach university courses in this field.

And actually my fourth formal mentor is really my first real mentoring experience. He was from my past life when I was a very successful sales manager in insurance. He taught me business and life skills that I carry with me to this day!

Since diversity is so important to me and one of the areas in which I wanted to be mentored and to learn about I consciously chose two mentors who were persons of color (one also being a woman) so that I could gain perspectives very different from mine.  My choices were good ones and many of the lessons I learned were somewhat painful but infinitely valuable. I gained insights I could not have obtained from people who were like me, i.e., other white males. So in some cases it is good to have mentors who are like you but it is also good to consider others who may be different.  [editor’s note: one can also have more than one mentor at any given time]

Let me just interject something here about mentoring that I find missing in your blog postings: it’s all about give and take. I think as a mentee it’s important to give back to your mentor. That was my experience as I did pro bono work for my mentors. One of the differences between mentoring and coaching is that coaching is more service for fee and mentoring is much more of an exchange.

3.                  OM: Thanks for sharing your history and that interjection. I think giving back to your mentor is a wonderful suggestion! I’m curious if there’s one question you make sure to ask all your mentees/clients?

I think the core essence of my work both as a mentor and a coach is helping the people I work with achieve clarity. People who come to work with me do so for some reason. I want to understand why they want to work with me specifically and why with me at this time. I always work through a set of clarifying questions to get down the real reason for why they want the relationship. Ultimately for the relationship to be fruitful I need to understand what they want out of the relationship. In the case of mentoring I also ask “what are they willing to give or offer in return?” This is important because by the mentee having some skin in the game everyone benefits more from the relationship.

4.                  OM: How has social media affected your coaching style or approach?

It hasn’t really yet. The only example that comes close is Skype which provides a richer medium than phone for remote coaching/mentoring sessions.

5.                  OM: What advice would you give someone interested in becoming a mentor or a coach?

There are 2 ways to being coached (fee for service, manager as coach) and there is mentoring. I think that either way with mentoring or coaching it’s all about giving. That is the core essence. These activities reflect the basic human need to help other humans. You have to go into it really wanting to help others. Make sure you are clear about why you are going into mentoring – it needs to be about service.

6.         OM: Anything else you wished I asked you about?

2 things:  I concur with something you stated in your blog about when looking for a mentor. I want to emphasize that mentees should make sure to find someone they want to emulate. The second thing is simply that I would highly encourage as many people to become mentors and equally encourage people to ask for mentors. Not enough people become mentors; and many people are often reluctant to ask someone to become their mentor and really miss out on a potentially life-changing opportunity. Partly because of our busy lives and partly because they aren’t sure about what mentoring involves I find people hesitate to participate.  Hopefully we can all work to change that!

OM: Thanks so much Jerry for spending some time with me! I really enjoyed our conversation.

Me too. Take care!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

3 Tips On How to Make Decisions With Limited Information

Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay 

"In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing." 
- Theodore Roosevelt 

Life is all about making decisions. We make hundreds or even thousands of them every day of our lives. Some decisions have greater impact than others. Some decisions have greater impact than we realize at the time we’re deciding. Sometimes some of us avoid making decisions and this can get us into trouble.

When I deal with a mentee who has difficulty making decisions or is having to make a particularly tough choice I start to probe. I want us both to understand the underlying cause for this “decision-making hesitation”. A common complaint around why it’s so challenging is that the mentee doesn’t have enough information to feel comfortable making a choice. Sadly, it’s not often we have all the data points we’d like to have before deciding something. Analysis paralysis is certainly not the way to go.

So, what to do?

I’ve found the following 3 tips extremely helpful when faced with this situation. I advise the mentee to:
  1. Go with your gut. - Often times our gut is leaning in one direction and it’s our brain that’s providing an overriding, paralyzing narrative. There is a terrific book by Malcom Gladwell called Blink which is about trusting your initial instinct. It discusses the "mental processes that work rapidly and automatically from relatively little information". If your gut/subconscious/whatever you want to call it is trying to tell you something let the message play out in your mind. Don’t try and suppress it. Your gut is simply another data point for you to consider. The best thing to do is be honest with yourself.
  2. Ask around. Ask for help. Build an Advisory Board. - Maybe you don’t have to make this decision all on your own. Like any corporation go ahead and establish an Advisory Board for yourself and set yourself up as your own CEO. Ultimately the CEO makes the decision but often has the benefit of an Advisory Board that brings additional information and perspective to a situation.
  3. Be comfortable with mistakes – those are opportunities to learn! - The very best tip in my opinion is to have a positive attitude towards making mistakes. I try to impart this idea to all of my mentees: Embrace mistakes because mistakes have a golden gift of knowledge wrapped up in them. If one sees mistakes as an opportunity to better oneself it makes it easier to choose in the first place. There will be benefits no matter the outcome of your choice. This topic alone will be the subject of a future posting.
When I'm faced with a difficult choice I open my mind to my gut, ask around for opinions and look forward to the results of my choice because I know in almost all cases something good will ultimately come of it.

"Nothing is more difficult and therefore more precious than to be able to decide."
- Napoleon Bonaparte

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Art of Debate

Image from

The announcement came over the antiquated high school loudspeaker early my sophomore year: "Anyone interested in starting a debate club please see Ms. Jones, club advisor." (name changed). Something in me for some reason told me to pursue. I guess even at that time I was naturally drawn to take on "organizational challenges" so I followed the instructions. I met with the requisite teachers and became the club's President. All this despite not knowing thing one about debating.

Once all new members assembled our club's advisor, who was a speech teacher by day, began the most rudimentary course in the Art of Debate allowing our novice minds time to process and practice key debating lessons. She taught us the differences between a values vs. a policy debate [if interested, more info here]. She taught us that we must define our terms early in the discussion or be lost. She showed us the supreme importance of clash - which is ensuring we reject or at least address each point made by our opponents. She perfected our arguments and extracted eloquence from our nascent communication abilities. Through these lessons and these contests with other students from other schools we gained confidence. We gained the ability to synthesize our thoughts in the heat of a discussion and succinctly target our opponent's proposals. We also gained an incredible ability to deeply understand and pursue an argument from many opposing viewpoints.

I can't recommend enough the debating activity to anyone in high school or college. It will certainly arm you with skills you will use for the rest of your life.

One big advantage of having the ability to know your opponent's position is that it allows you to very successfully tear those arguments apart and convincingly build up your own case. When I transitioned into the working world equipped with this ability to deftly argue my point of view and easily disarm others I hadn't a clue how damaging it could be if used indiscriminately. These skills, used incorrectly, will actually hurt your ability to communicate effectively with your team members or your boss. An argumentative employee, even if they are right, will not be looked favorably upon by a manager nor find a warm reception from colleagues.

A few years into my young career I was achieving success but not as much as I had expected in the team/partnership area. I wondered why. In speaking to an informal mentor of mine about this he asked me the following question:

"Would you rather be right or be happy?"

At that time I naively thought those two were the same! I mistook being able to convince others that my viewpoint was the right one as being equivalent to success. In an unexpected way being armed with debating skills closed my mind to other forms of communication. Debate, by its very nature, is a confrontation. Sometimes confrontation is very necessary but in the real world it should be used sparingly and appropriately. 

Nowadays when mentees of mine approach me about being 'right' in a certain situation and are frustrated at their efforts at convincing others I recount for them my experiences and ask them the same question. I try to ensure they've only used the Art of Debate as a final resort rather than an opening move.  

To be clear I would not trade my debating experience for anything in the world. But now I'm grateful for the wisdom of knowing how and when to apply those capabilities and for being able to use some of those skills in less confrontational ways.

The aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress. 

Monday, August 1, 2011

What is a Mentee's Role? 5 Key Attributes

Image result for mentee

This past Friday I was invited to participate on a panel hosted by a technology company in San Francisco on the topic of mentoring. It was a fantastic session with many great questions! Over the course of the next few months I'll be taking some of those questions and turning them into broader blog posts. To start off this 'series' I'd like to discuss the role of the mentee in a mentoring relationship.

I've already posted tips on how to ask someone to be your mentor and tips for starting off with a new mentee but never really covered this particular angle. If you are a mentor feel free to use this as a guide to help start off your conversations with possible mentees. If you are a mentee please use this as a checklist to ensure you are more than just willing but fully enthusiastic about each of these attributes!

For a successful mentoring relationship to occur the mentee must be:

  1. Proactive - The mentee must be proactive in 2 important ways. First, it is usually a mentee that seeks out a mentor and rarely the other way around. It is the mentee that stands the most to gain, at least initially, from these conversations and therefore needs to be the one to do the reaching out. Generally folks with enough experience to be mentors are extremely busy and won't seek out mentees to make themselves even more busy. Secondly, it's key for the mentee to approach each mentoring conversation prepared with topics to discuss. You may or may not end up covering every topic. Over time you'll probably get to a point where formal preparation becomes unnecessary. But at the beginning a mentee should not expect a mentor to have a list of things to talk about other than ask some general questions (i.e. "are you happy?")
  2. Trustworthy - The mentoring relationship by necessity needs to be a confidential one. Only by being trustworthy can a mentor feel free to share their own personal experiences and advice with the mentee. Without trust and confidentiality from each person the conversations will at best fail and at worst damage someone's career or feelings.
  3. Patient - Patience is required by the mentee in a myriad of ways. Sometimes a mentee needs to be patient just to get on a mentor's calendar. Other times advice given on particular topics takes time to internalize and implement. Mentoring is not a tactical, one shot type of activity. It's a relationship and a series of conversations. And as in any relationship patience is a key ingredient to success.
  4. Good listener - Of course it's critical for a mentor to be a good listener so it's easy to forget that a mentee needs to be just as good a listener. There's no point discussing topics with a mentor if the mentee doesn't have a determination and mindset to listen to the suggestions offered.
  5. Committed to the time required - Finally, both the mentor and the mentee need to make a commitment to each other regarding the time required to build a solid mentoring relationship. It doesn't have to be a large commitment (I usually do 1 hour every 2 weeks with either person able to cancel should an urgent matter come up) but it still needs to be a commitment nonetheless. Without some regularity in the mentoring relationship the conversations will lose their arc and their focus. New mentoring conversations almost always build on past ones so keeping those threads alive and close will benefit greatly.
As in any maturing relationship once your mentoring one solidifies the logistics become less formal (i.e. how often you meet and how much of an agenda the mentee needs to bring) but other aspects such as patience and trustworthiness go on forever.

One final recommendation: as a mentee write down a short list of results you want out of mentoring. What does a successful mentoring relationship look like to you? Whether you decide to share this list with your mentor or not, it's still important to crystallize and communicate your expectations at the beginning of the relationship so you can ensure you are both on the same page.

Good luck!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A "New" Communication Tool

Consider this: you have two colleagues at work - Joe and Tom. Joe is someone you've consistently gotten along with. He is supportive of your efforts, acts positively towards you and has always provided you and accepted from you constructive feedback. Tom on the other hand never seems to value your contributions. He politely laughs off your suggestions and makes seemingly innocent but unhelpful comments about your work.

Now you've just presented a proposal for a new project at a team meeting with both Tom and Joe in attendance. That afternoon Tom, your less gracious colleague, stops by your office to say that your proposal isn't workable in its present form due to expected cost. You're likely to brush that feedback off given its source. But say 5 minutes later Joe, your friendly colleague, stops by and gives you the exact same feedback word for word. You get chills up and down your spine as you begin to believe that the proposal really isn't workable. Why is that same message taken to heart this time around? Again, because of the source.

Over the years in working with mentees "interpersonal communication" is among of the top 3 most popular topics brought up. I am always asked for tips on how to better communicate with "difficult people".

We are all taught that effective communication is the burden of the one communicating. If I am trying to get a message across effectively then I must know my audience, understand their perspective and motivations and package my message accordingly. I can do this "message packaging" in the moment or I can prepare for months (for ex. when asking for a raise).

Either way there is an often overlooked tool that is critical in effective communication especially in interpersonal exchanges - and that tool is respect.

In the situation with Tom and Joe above the message being given to you is the same but Joe got through to you when Tom didn't because you know that Joe, unlike Tom, has always approached you with respect. By consistently showing respect Joe has kept his channel of communication clear and open to you. You are able to receive his message without prejudice. Tom's consistent disrespect over time has shut you down. No matter how polite or accurate Tom's feedback is it simply doesn't matter. This is critical to keep in mind in your relationships with others and its correlation to your effectiveness as an influencer and communicator.

Respect doesn't mean you have to agree with or even like the other person. It does mean always keeping in mind that they have a perspective and hold a truth which is just as valid as your perspective and your truth. By consistently approaching your colleagues and your loved ones with respect no matter how incomprehensible their views you will have a strong built-in advantage over time of having your communication more easily heard. And being heard is a necessary first step to being able to successfully influence an outcome.

The tough thing about this tool is that it needs to be consistent over time. Unlike telling stories, using metaphors, selecting the proper modality, etc. in which to package your message the "respect" tool is one that is about your daily attitude and approach. It is a far more difficult communication tool to master and at the same time perhaps the most powerful one.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Happy 1st Blog Anniversary!


Thank you.

Reflecting upon the past 12 months of OnMentoring blogging those are the two most appropriate words I can use right now. I've written many times about gratitude and that's the overwhelming feeling I have today. 

I want to thank all the readers, known and unknown, who have kept me inspired through emails, comments, "likes", "retweets", in-person feedback or simply by just visiting the blog.

I'm excited about the future!! I have many more topics to share (several that came from suggestions from YOU) and a couple of new features including interviewing some of my past mentors and possibly even guest posts. Stay tuned for those.

And once again, thank you! This blog has meant more to me than I ever imagined it would 12 short months ago. Let's all keep mentoring and conversing!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Perseverance Pays Off!

This article regarding Ann Curry's approach to work and recent promotion captures many key themes I've talked about in this blog over the past year. These are themes I weave into conversations with mentees because they present a proactive, positive approach to career development.

In a nutshell the article talks about Ann Curry's actions when she was passed up for a promotion 5 years ago to the top spot at her workplace, NBC's Today Show. A promotion that instead went to Meredith Viera.

From the article:

She acknowledges she was upset about being passed over when then-NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker, seeking a bigger name for “Today,’’ personally recruited Vieira from “The View.’’“Sure, I had the sense of ‘I wish I had been asked,’ ’’ Curry recalled. “But shortly after that I said to myself, ‘Look how lucky you are. Look at what a great job you have and look how great she is.’ I opened my arms wide and never looked back.’’

Instead of leaving her job, instead of closing up shop, instead of holding a grudge, Ann Curry redoubled her efforts and in a sense reinvented her career. Five years later she is chosen. More importantly, per the article, her promotion was supported by her colleagues precisely because she built her personal brand through hard work, enthusiasm and perseverance. The consensus was that she deserved the promotion. That's the best way and sometimes the only way to get advancement.

My favorite part of the whole article though is this quote:

"Too many people come to their jobs with attitude, not gratitude" - Ann Curry
Perfectly said! This blog has covered gratitude in the past as well. Gratitude will make you rich beyond your wildest imagination. Sure she was upset initially. That is only human. But Curry had the wisdom and the grace to channel that energy into positive steps to increase her value and further her career.

Whenever a mentee of mine is disappointed at a turn of events in their life I have them consider the following things:
  1. Could you have done anything differently to produce a different result?
  2. Can you formulate a positive strategy for the future and channel the anger and sadness into executing on this strategy?
Please read and enjoy the article as it captures a lot of key ideas I hold dear and promote with my mentees: Namely that perseverance, gratitude and building your personal brand will only lead to magnificent success!

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Divine Art of Letting Go

Image from: Musings from a Writer

When the best leader's work is done the people say, "We did it ourselves." - Lao Tzu

Transitioning from an individual contributor to a leader is not a simple task. Up until someone becomes a leader/manager they've only tasted success as a direct result of their own work. They exerted control over a problem domain and time and again delivered solutions. Those solutions were rewarded well until one day the long-awaited promotion to "management" arrived.

But just getting the title of "manager" does not automatically bestow the wisdom and self-confidence of achieving results through others. As I learned myself many years ago that takes time and practice. It takes the development of new skills including, in particular: creating space and letting go. A great leader creates the space and lets his or her team go to learn, grow, experiment, succeed and even sometimes fail. It is often through our failures and mistakes that we learn the best of lessons. So to, my new manager, with your new team!

How does one make this difficult transition?

One helpful trick I've used and shared to make this transition easier is a very simple reframe: A new manager typically has an understandable sense of 'loss of control' when suddenly having to depend on others to deliver results by which he/she will be measured and compensated. As you are no longer doing the work directly how can you be sure it's getting done and done right? At the first sign of trouble or doubt many new managers unfortunately jump in and complete the task themselves to ensure success. This is a terrible mistake because it doesn't allow the team member to learn for themselves and it doesn't teach the new manager to guide instead of jump in.

The reframe I propose to a new manager is not to think of yourself as having lost control but instead visualize having gained incredible tools for increased productivity! Each member on your team is an extra pair of hands and eyes and a brain that will allow you to achieve more than you could ever achieve by yourself. As a manager/leader you will set the vision, the tone and the approach (preferably in concert with your team) to deliver results that are greater than the sum of all of you put together and orders of magnitude greater than you would have delivered yourself!

When you let go of your team you allow them to act with their own creativity and initiative. As each member brings their own perspective and talents to the table a cohesion forms and an environment builds for tremendous productivity.

I've found that when a newly birthed leader sees not the loss of control but instead sees the extension and multiplication of himself/herself it significantly eases the discomfort of this new role.

Why did I title this posting "The Divine Art of Letting Go"? Why "divine"? 

By no means is this blog meant to be 'religious' in any sense of the word but I'd like to borrow the metaphor of the Creation from Genesis. In the beginning there was nothingness. God had to first create the space in order for the rest of creation - the heavens and the earth and the light and the dark, etc. to proceed. Many consider the ability to create as a divine attribute. I wanted to borrow that notion to elevate the nature and importance of this "letting go" concept. Creating a space and stepping back to allow for learning and growth of your team is very difficult and even unpredictable but it is also mystical and magnificent because you've enabled others to realize their own greatness. I also use "divine" because I wanted to convey the sense that it takes a "supreme being" to actually be able to successfully 'let go'.

Another parallel, one that I face weekly with this blog, is when authors are about to begin writing they start with an empty page or an empty screen. It is this empty space gives the author a place into which they can build and grow their story.

I now present you with your empty space. What great things will your team achieve?

"When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be." - Lao Tzu

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Asymmetry of Networking

Today's posting is more of a question.

I have discussed many times on this blog about the power, the benefits and the necessity of networking. There is a direct correlation between your success at your job, your job search and most any other endeavor and how networked you are with the world. Networking doesn't guarantee success of course - nothing guarantees success. But being connected certainly significantly increases the chances of it.

Most everyone would prefer to have a recommendation from someone they know (i.e. someone they are 'networked with') rather than choose something all by themselves. Social media is our modern day networking mechanism. 21st century businesses are being built around the power of recommendations (or the 'like'-ing) of something or someone.

Now we come to my assertion: in the job seeking, job hiring/recruiting world the power of networking is asymmetrical. I have recently been both a job seeker and a job "hirer"/"recruiter" seeking candidates for open positions and I'm finding that my network was far more able to recommend job opportunities for me than recommend people for me to hire. This is not intuitive for me. In fact I expected the opposite. As a job seeker I have a particular set of skills that will only match a small set of openings at any given time especially in today's economy where employers are (unfortunately and incorrectly in my opinion) waiting months to find literally the 'perfect' candidate.

On the other hand I find myself hiring for a myriad of positions with a variety of required skills and experience levels and I've received very few recommendations of anyone to hire. Even if someone is happily employed wouldn't they even entertain a conversation about a possibly better opportunity?

Note: Let me clarify at this point that I'm speaking about using one's own personal network for this purpose and not recruiters. Recruiters have a monetary incentive to make these types of connections and out of scope for this discussion.

So why the imbalance?

Here's my theory: while it's easy to pass on a link to a job description it's far harder to stake your reputation and recommend someone for a job to someone else. When you point a job seeker to a job posting  you are a hero with relatively minimal effort. If it's not a match you are still positively remembered as making an effort. But should you recommend someone for a position and they end up not being a match or worse, they get hired and don't work out, your reputation suffers tremendously. There is a greater downside to recommending people than recommending jobs I think.

I was speaking to my friends and colleagues about this topic and one friend, Ross, pointed out the imbalance in perceived "urgency" in these types of requests. When someone needs a job there is a higher sense of urgency shared with the job seeker than shared with someone who is looking for people to hire. Someone who is looking for a job has a lot more at stake than someone who is employed and is hiring. This "urgency imbalance" depending on the request makes sense as a cause for the asymmetry as well.

What are you thoughts? Does networking work the same in both directions or are there understandable differences in the job seeking/recruiting process? I'd really appreciate responses as I'd like to know if I simply haven't used my network effectively enough during the recruitment process. Leave your comments below or shoot me an email using the link on the right for "questions"!

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Usefulness of Pink Elephants

Back in university my very first course in Computer Science was, as is common, a weed out course meant to discourage only the most fervent of students from pursuing that degree. To my unhappy surprise we did not touch a computer during the entire semester. Not even once. A computer science class that didn't involve computers?? What was that all about? Well, this course wasn't about computers specifically - it was about something else. And as it turns out it gave me skills I use every day to this day.

On the surface the course covered discrete math - concepts such as proof by induction and recursion among others. Early on in the semester one of the professor's lectures started with him posing a difficult math problem for all of us to solve. He described the problem and challenged the class to start offering approaches and solutions. The problem was far harder than anything our tender freshman minds had encountered before. He paced back and forth waiting for a worthy suggestion. He appeared to get frustrated as time ticked by in silence.

Finally he turned to us and asked us "what would you need in order to solve this problem?". After a few humorous suggestions were shouted out (like, "the ANSWER") someone in the back said that it would be easier to solve if we had more information. The professor's face lit up. "What information would you like to have?" he asked as he engaged the student. "Well we could solve it if we knew what 'X' was in the formula". "Exactly!", the Professor continued.  "Let's all pretend we knew what 'X' was. Let's finish solving the problem and go back to figure out what can we do to this equation that will allow us to figure out 'X'!" The dialog proceeded and together the class solved the problem. This problem-solving technique is called wishful thinking and it is a powerful tool.

From "The Power of Wishful Thinking and Other Problem-Solving Strategies":
What is wishful thinking? Besides being a fun pastime, it can be a useful tool in problem solving. The idea is simple: you have a problem that you don’t know how to solve. What can you do? Well, you may be able to change the problem to one you can solve. If you are clever (or lucky) about choosing what you wish for, you may get an idea about how to solve the harder problem you started with. 

Our professor enthusiastically summed up the approach this way: If you are trying to solve a problem, figure out what you wish you had and alter the problem as if you were granted your wish. If you are solving a math problem and need "X" then wish for "X". If you are solving a transportation problem and need a car then wish for a car. If you are solving whatever problem and need PINK ELEPHANTS then wish for PINK ELEPHANTS!

We all sat bewildered. Pink elephants? Pink elephants? Is he kidding? But it dawned on me over the course of the semester that this technique was very effective because it forced our minds to do two things simultaneously:

  1. break the problem down into smaller, solvable chunks.
  2. invite our minds to think out of the box and not be constrained by the problem as it first appears. If we can alter or simplify the problem and solve that we may have found ourselves on the path to solving the original problem.
Just thinking about pink elephants fired up deep, creative parts of my brain that became useful as I figured things out.

Rarely a time goes by that I'm meeting with one of my mentees when they aren't dealing with some challenging problems whether it be in their work or career path or with interpersonal relationships. Our primary goal as mentors/coaches is not to solve the problem for them even if we are capable of that. It's to give them the tools to arrive at a solution for themselves. I've found the wishful thinking approach to be one of the best tools I've shared with my mentees and clients.

Here's a very simple example of this in practice: a mentee of mine complained that he was not getting promoted. Getting a promotion is generally a hard thing to do in any organization. I challenged him to start acting as if he'd already gotten the promotion. As he started to visualize himself already attaining this first wish we talked about the new challenges he would face in this new role. He found that he was nervous about certain aspects all which revolved around public speaking. I then asked him to wish he was already an accomplished public speaker.

What happened next? To make that wish a reality this mentee signed up for public speaking courses and volunteering for presenting at all hands meetings. The result? While he did not get promoted at his original company he found a higher position at another company about 1 year after our wishful conversation. In that year he obtained the final piece and the confidence to get a promotional opportunity. Wishing for the promotion led to wishing he had a critical skill which led to him obtaining that skill and ultimately satisfying his desire to get to the next level.

That weed out course I wrote about earlier became informally known as the 'pink elephant' course. That whole first semester was about problem solving - a key skill not just for computer programming but for life! I keep my useful pink elephants around all the time. :)

[Author's note: After completing this article I did a Google search on this topic and my professor's name and found that he wrote a white paper on why this approach to teaching [math] was successful. If you are in education you might find it a very informative read. The link is here.]