Monday, December 31, 2012

Dealing With Change: What if it's better?

It's a common refrain: change is stressful. At best I think most of us look at change with a quick, nervous glance. At best.

Change, no matter the kind nor the source, no matter whether willful or thrust upon us, is an experience that brings about doubt, trepidation and pressure. I think many of us tend to ponder on all of the possible negative outcomes of a particular change and that's understandable because change invites the unknown to our front door. And Fear of the Unknown seems to be something we're all born with.

Happily in the course of my life I'm both lucky and grateful to have had someone teach me to look in a different direction (so to speak) with respect to change. That person is actually not any of my past formal mentors but rather my best friend. On numerous occasions early in the 25 years we've known each other I brought up various life events in our conversations to share my fears about all the dark roads that will supposedly appear after a particular change I was experiencing. But each and every time he simply asked me:

"What if things turn out better than before?"

That simple question would shock me out of my fear-based thinking. At that time it would not often occur to me that some of the roads past change would lead to something better.

And over time I've found that 9 times out of 10 I was actually on a far better path than before the feared transition. After several years and many changes and many times having him ask me that question I learned to become quite "change-friendly". For more than a decade instead of change triggering a nervous response it would do the opposite and trigger an excited, energized, positive response. My first instinct is to think how will this change likely improve my life and not spend an inordinate amount of time or energy dwelling in the possibility of darkness that has not yet even occurred. This is an important lesson I aim to impart to my mentees as well as they deal with changes they hadn't expected. It is now the simple question I ask them.

Some may ask, "well, what if the change is 'truly' bad?". Taking the topic of health out of scope (health is a area outside of this career mentoring blog) I'd like to answer with a quote attributed to Marilyn Monroe:
Sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together. - Marilyn Monroe
Ultimately the result of the change is heavily influenced by your response to it. Even losing a job given the right context can turn out to be a positive thing. One example can be taken from the many stories out there of folks who lost their jobs and were forced to take a step down to find new work. However with less of a rat race pressuring them they've discovered they now have more time to spend with family and that ends up being more important to them. Other folks use an opportunity like a layoff to change their career path and pursue a dream. Your positive response doesn't necessarily lessen the difficulty of dealing with change but does increase the probability of getting a positive result.
You don’t drown by falling in the water. You drown by staying there. - Edwin Louis Cole
As we close out another year and journey into a new one with some of us promising to change and others about to be in receipt of change I wish you all a healthy, happy and peaceful year with nothing but 365 positive results.

Happy new year!
Photo credit: marsmet546

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Art of the Question

On numerous occasions on this blog I've discussed how critically important questions  are in mentoring, in communication, in building a career and in life. I recently ran across a superb article giving tips on how to (and more importantly, how not to) ask questions. 

Whether using questions to learn new information, deal with confrontation or simply to educate you will significantly increase the chances of reaching your goal if you follow all the advice in the article "The One Conversational Tool That Will Make You Better At Absolutely Everything". The article could easily be retitled "The Art of the Question" but it's current title is quite apt.

If you read nothing else today I strongly suggest clicking over and taking a comprehensive look at asking great questions.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Are you an effective mentor?

Image from:

How does one know that he/she is being an effective mentor? 

I've been asked this question in several different forms. Mentoring is a significant time commitment and so one wants to be reassured that the time spent is not being "wasted". It's not like there's a checklist or report card out there to measure oneself by.

If our mentee/protégé is heeding our words or making significant changes based on our mentoring conversations we can tell there is an effect. But it's not always so clear. There are a few common frustrations mentors experience out there and some questions mentors ask themselves from time to time such as:

  1. Is my mentee listening to me?
  2. Is my mentee ever taking any of my advice?
  3. My mentee is about to make a big mistake - should I intervene?
  4. My mentee brings up the same subject over and over and over again. We've covered this. Why can't we move on?
These questions lead oneself to wonder how effective their mentoring might be.

I have a simple, straightforward way to figure it out: just ask the mentee!

The tough thing about mentoring is that the stories we share and the advice we give may take years to get fully digested and acted upon by the mentee. In fact we may never see the full measure of our positive influence on their lives. I know that when I've gone back to my own mentors to thank them for a conversation we had years earlier that led me to make a great decision often they don't recall even giving me that advice! We as mentors just have to know that being there for the mentee and actively listening could be the most powerful act we could do to help. And that help may never manifest itself into anything visible other than gratitude.

When those times of doubt about our usefulness cross our minds we can simply ask them "Are these conversations helping?"

I almost always end all of my mentoring conversations with that very question: "Was this talk today useful to you?". Happily the answer is usually "yes" but sometimes the answer is "somewhat" or "no" and that's completely fine. In some ways that's a better answer because it gives me an opportunity to delve into why. I learn a lot more about the mentee and sometimes I learn more about myself. I love figuring out how our conversations could be more helpful in the future.

No matter what if at the end of the day the mentee says a heartfelt "Thank you" then that's really the most important measure of effectiveness for me.

Progress doesn't always happen by leaps and bounds but usually by small, almost imperceptible micro-steps. That's still progress!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Open, Patient & Sharing

Image from: "Leadership Lessons from a Sufi Master" (link below)

From time to time I run into an article, video, blog posting, etc. that so effectively communicates ideas I've shared or considered important that I want to bring it to your attention. I recently came across just such a posting entitled "Leadership Lessons from a Sufi Master" by Don Peppers. It is extremely well written and teaches us 3 lessons through a story of a Sufi master. I'm a huge fan of storytelling as a powerful educational tool and found this article to be well worth reading and sharing with you.

The lessons presented are around being open minded, patient and the importance of sharing. We've discussed the first two qualities on these blog pages before but not so much the sharing aspect.

So today I will keep this posting short and invite you to spend your "blog time" with Don Peppers (click for link to article).


Friday, November 9, 2012

What have you done today to make you feel proud?

"What have you done today to make you feel proud? It's never too late to try."
- Heather Small
A few weeks ago I was surfing the web which I often do to unwind. I really enjoy discovering new music and new music videos. As I was clicking around I stumbled on a song that caught my ear. It was the "official" London 2012 Olympics song entitled "Proud". The chorus of that song repeats "What have you done today to make you feel proud?". It's a song that's been around for more than a decade but I hadn't heard it before. And in the weeks since my discovery it has become a mantra of mine.

What does it mean to do something every day to make you feel proud?

For me one of the proudest daily moments possible is if I've helped somebody. And this could be your proudest daily moment too! We each have unique gifts and have been granted a daily opportunity to put those gifts in the service of others. It doesn't have to be something grand or something very public either. For example, given my passion for mentoring, if I've helped someone move even one small step closer to fulfillment in their career I feel like I can be proud of my day.

The next line is a powerful idea too: It's never to late to try. That may sound self-evident but how many times have we all hesitated doing 'something right' because we didn't think it was worth it anymore? In mentoring discussions I've encountered people who thought it was too late in their careers to develop a new skill or switch into a different industry or become more technical. My response to that is a saying that my multi-lingual mother would repeat to me throughout childhood: "Il n'est jamais trop tard pour bien faire" which translates to "It's never too late to do a good thing".

Many times I've espoused the tremendous benefits of daily gratitude. I've also discussed how "your greatness is not what you have but what you give". Now I'm adding the notion of a daily action - doing something to make you feel proud. What are your gifts? What can you contribute?

If you'd like to hear the song "Proud" by Heather Small that inspired this post you can view it by clicking here.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

How to decline a mentoring request

Being that this is a blog seeking to inspire people to become Mentors it is highly unusual for me to be posting about how to decline such a request. But of course in life we have many responsibilities and we may perhaps have many mentees already on our schedule. This may sometimes force us to have to politely defer taking on someone new. Speaking for myself as the author of this blog I can share that I've been honored with many requests from readers to become their mentors. Unfortunately it is impossible for me to take on anyone additional at this time. But it made me think about how to defer in a productive way - a way in which ensures to the greatest extent possible that the mentoring request was satisfied in some way.

Here's my approach which is similar to another, more general post from this blog entitled "7 Steps on how to say "no" and have people still like you". There are two parts to it:

  1. I like to first understand if this person has tried to find a mentor before asking me. If I am the very first person they've asked I discuss what steps they can take to continue to find a mentor on their own. I get them started on building a list of possible candidates and guide them on various approaches to take.
  2. I ask this person questions about why they want to be mentored, what they hope to get out of mentoring and what type of person they'd feel comfortable with so that I can refer them to folks that I know. Introducing people to each other (whether it ultimately works out from a mentoring perspective or not) is one of the best and most powerful things you can do for someone because at the very least it increases their network. And if you've been reading my blog you know how important networking is to finding a new mentor or even finding a new opportunity.
The idea behind the above approach is that even if you have to decline a mentoring request it's critical to find a way to help that person stay on the road to mentoring.

One thing I know for sure after being forced to decline several requests is that the world needs more mentors! If you are reading this and aren't actively mentoring now please consider becoming a mentor and/or encouraging your company, community center, place of worship, etc. to start a mentoring program.

“The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” - Plutarch

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Have a plan

Image from:

"A real decision is measured by the fact that you've taken a new action. If there's no action, you haven't truly decided." - Tony Robbins

If you mentor then you've most certainly been asked by a mentee/protégé at one time or another "What should I do?".

This can be a pretty tough question depending on how heavy or sensitive the context. I try not to answer this question directly. Whether the topic is about an important career decision, how to confront a coworker, how to ask for a raise or anything else that comes up I think the ultimate goal for a mentor is to help their protégé discover the answer for themselves. Very often people already know the answer to their question but are blocked by emotion or ego or something else that can be worked through. It just takes a little bit of time.

But sometimes we mentors simply do not have that 'luxury'.

The protégé may be truly out of ideas or simply cannot break through whatever barrier and they desperately need an answer now.

I was recently asked this question by a mentee trying to figure out if he had a career path at his current employer. For a myriad of reasons which I won't delve into here the answer remained ambiguous. There was somewhat of a time sensitivity too as my mentee was already frustrated about his career situation and we were both concerned that it would impact his work relationships and performance.

In all these types of "what should I do?" conversations I do ultimately give this piece of advice: HAVE A PLAN!

What does 'having a plan' mean? It means 5 core things:

  1. Developing a set of specific, measurable questions relevant to the situation that will help guide the mentee towards resolution.
  2. Deciding on a course of action to get those questions answered within a certain time frame.
  3. Deciding on courses of action, resolutions or possibly additional questions based on the answers received to the initial set of questions. (If additional questions, return to step #2).
  4. Committing to a timeline.
  5. Tracking to that timeline.
There is a 6th step actually, which is to adjust the plan along the way as more data and experience is gained.

In the case of my mentee mentioned above we decided he would have 2 conversations with his boss about 2-3 months apart about his career path. He'd discuss certain questions about the future of the company and request taking on additional scope and responsibilities including a leadership role. We also created a short list of criteria he'd monitor about his company and immediate environment to help him judge his chances of success at moving up the ladder. I also made sure he committed to a 6 month timeline. Within that timeline certain answers/results would trigger a job search sooner. This way he didn't lose 6 months simply waiting and have 'nothing to show for it' so to speak.

Having a plan does a couple of important things for your mentee:
  1. If your mentee doesn't know what to do then building and acting on a plan will, by definition, move them forward. It will at least scope the problem down in their minds and make it 'real'. With steps and a timeline this plan will be a flexible tool useful in developing an answer within an acceptable time frame.
  2. If your mentee thinks they have an answer or they've made a decision then developing a plan towards implementation of this decision will confirm it. Many a time someone told me they made a decision but really they didn't. They were simply trying to convince themselves that they did despite revisiting the question repeatedly. Challenging a mentee to create and act on a plan forces them to imagine their future in a concrete way. That imagining process gives many people pause. It's designed to do just that. As Tony Robbins says there is no real decision until there is action. And a plan sets their feet on that course.
I'll end with my most favorite quote about planning:
"Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” - Dwight David Eisenhower

Monday, August 27, 2012

Celebrate the small things

“Celebrate what you want to see more of.” - Tom Peters

Several years ago I received a nice piece of feedback from a very good friend of mine. He said that I knew how to "treat myself well". At first I thought 'what on earth does that mean??'. Was he just joking around and making fun of something I said or did? But no, he actually meant it. He quickly followed up with an explanation. He said that I was someone who would celebrate the small things in life. I started thinking about that and realized I did have that habit.

At some point in my youth I noticed how most people I knew saved their celebrations only for major milestones like graduations, birthdays, anniversaries, etc. which are most certainly celebration-worthy. But they would skip over many smaller yet really important events. I'm the kind of person that will reward himself for simple things like giving a really good presentation, getting through an annual physical or sometimes just getting through the work week. All those are celebration-worthy in my book.

I'm a big believer in "success breeds more success". By taking the time to recognize small achievements or milestones you start to build a powerful feedback loop of happiness and confidence. A lot of my work with protégés involves shifting our conversations from the "problems" they bring up to focusing on the small successes enveloped within.

For example, I had a mentee describe to me in excruciating detail how a presentation she gave went horribly awry. After discussing several areas of improvement I shifted her focus to what she learned in the process of preparing the presentation. She not only became a minor expert in the fairly complex topic presented but she also networked with several people along the way! Could things have gone better for her? Sure. But did she achieve some successes? Most definitely! And those are worth dwelling on too.
“Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”  - Maya Angelou
I believe how you perceive the small things in your life adds up to a general sense of well-being or discontent.  By transitioning your internal conversations from focusing only on problems to focusing on achievements as well you've started to re-program your brain. It is like an invisible force arcing you to happiness or despair. We all have challenges and we all have achievements. Converting that focus will make all the difference!

And how does one celebrate the small things beyond just recognizing them and feeling good? Here are some suggestions: One can have an ice cream cone, or a glass of wine, or allow oneself to plop down and watch some TV or anything along those lines. Someone might think "but I do those things anyway". That's great! Keep doing those things but link them to events you want to celebrate. By infusing everyday activities with meaning and celebration you'll bring an additional, fulfilling layer to your life. If you want to go fancier then go for that too! Whatever you decide treat yourself well.

Another related aspect of "celebrating the small things" is a something I've brought up several times on this blog and that is gratitude. By being grateful and focusing on the good you already have rather than what you lack you have a powerful companion to the spirit of this post. Gratitude itself is its own celebration.

“The more you praise and celebrate your life, the more there is in life to celebrate.” - Oprah Winfrey.

What do you do to recognize and celebrate the small things in your life? 

Monday, July 30, 2012

Communication - 5 Questions and 1 Key Concept

Image from:

The most critical topic I can discuss with any mentee is communication. It touches nearly every other topic we could possibly cover. Whether a mentee is wondering how to deal with a difficult person, ask for a raise or promotion, increase their sphere of influence, improve a relationship or connect with others it's all about communication. In the end one's mastery of this skill will likely determine the difference between success or failure. Billions of humans can talk but a far fewer number can communicate and do so effectively.

This topic usually arises in my conversations in the form of a complaint or a problem the protégé brings to my attention. That problem sounds something like "he/she doesn't understand me" or "no one listens to me". At that point I share with them this simple yet somehow often overlooked critical concept: Successful communication is the burden of the speaker and not the audience. To put it even more bluntly (and when I am blunt I am so purposefully): if "they" don't understand what you're saying it's likely your fault.

The ultimate goal of any communicator is to deliver a message and have it received and understood. To do that one must "package" this message from the point of view of the audience. The "audience" I'm talking about could be anything from an auditorium full of people or just one other person (like your boss or co-worker).

Some questions to ask yourself to better construct your message "packaging" include:
  1. Will the audience be receptive or hostile to my message?
  2. What are the fears/concerns of the audience to my message and what can I do to address those fears?
  3. Does the audience have a vested interested in listening to my message or are they here because they have to be?
  4. Does the audience need additional tools (for example, visuals, data, other people to corroborate) to receive and understand my message?
  5. Are there better times than others for the audience to hear this message? For example you may not want to talk to someone about a really big initiative the day before they go on vacation.
This simple analogy should bring home the point: If you compose a letter or an email and don't address it correctly your intended recipient doesn't receive it. Your message inside may have been extremely important and perfectly composed but if it's not addressed or packaged correctly it won't get delivered. Period.

"If there is any great secret of success in life, it lies in the ability to put yourself in the other person’s place and to see things from his point of view-as well as your own."
- Henry Ford

The secret to communication is to follow Henry Ford's advice and design your message delivery accordingly. When communicating you need to spend just as much time creating your envelope/"packaging" as you do composing your message.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Speed Kills

Image from:

There's a well known saying (at least in the U.S.) with respect to safe driving behavior. It states simply: "Speed kills". That intuitive statement suggests that the faster you drive the greater the chance of getting into an accident that will kill you. When driving at high speeds you have less time to react to driving conditions that can cause an accident for example a car cutting you off or some object on the road you need to avoid.

I believe this phrase applies in different contexts too. I use this phrase occasionally when having to plan out an extremely accelerated project delivery. The faster a team is forced to go the less likely it will be successful as it has less time to react to unexpected events whether it be change in scope, technology challenges or personnel issues such as someone being out sick. As any experienced project manager will tell you something will always pop up and attempt to "cut you off".

I also use the phrase "speed kills" when speaking with a mentee about patience and perseverance. Invariably I have many, many discussions with protégés about career-building and have to help several deal with the fact that they are not at the stage they expected to be at the time we're having our conversation. I don't view careers as races or even marathons. Instead I see a career as something you craft over time in a strategic, patient and careful way. Think of an artist creating a masterpiece.There are also several factors affecting one's career trajectory that are not in our control not the least of which is the economy. The key to dealing with those types of factors is acceptance, patience and continued perseverance of factors we do control. An occasional re-examination of career goals and an extra helping of creative thinking about how to achieve those goals are useful too.

This article is not to say that ambition is all bad or that shortened projects are not achievable. But in building a career we all know of stories where too much speed/ambition led to poor choices and undesirable results.

I'll leave you with an Italian saying my multi-lingual mother would repeat to me growing up as I longed to grow up faster:

"Chi va piano, va sano e va lontano." which translates to "Those who go softly (slowly / patiently), go sanely and go far".

Drive safely!

Friday, June 15, 2012

It's in the doing!

Image from:

Here's a trick question for you I've seen posted several times around the web: 

Five frogs are sitting on a log. Four decide to jump off.

How many are left?

The Answer: FIVE.

Why is that the answer? Because deciding and doing are two completely different things. 
"A real decision is measured by the fact that you've taken a new action. If there's no action, you haven't truly decided." - Tony Robbins 
There are literally thousands of blog postings, books, seminars, etc. that describe how to make decisions and why you should make them. I just felt that a blog about mentoring would not be complete without mentioning the topic and addressing an underlying reason why people (i.e. mentees) hesitate to make a decision and take action. That underlying reason is a fear of course - the fear of being wrong and making a mistake.

Here's how I help my mentees/protégés overcome hesitancy and leap into action: it's a matter of recognizing that each mistake has the gift of learning enveloped inside. It is often said that you learn more from your mistakes than from your successes. That potential is certainly there and can be unlocked by those open to it. 
“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” – Albert Einstein
So if you approach your decisions as something that will either lead you to success or will lead to learning then making decisions will be far easier. Because those are both desirable outcomes.

The true enemy is inaction because that course will lead you neither to success nor to knowledge. Often the path to success is only through failure. Think of the legendary story about Thomas Edison having tried to invent the light bulb 999 times before finally succeeding. Edison didn't see those 999 times as failures but as an education. As his famous quote goes: "I have not failed. I have just found 999 ways that won't work."

Keep deciding. Keep doing. Keep learning!

"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

Friday, June 8, 2012

Bad Mentoring Experiences

Image from:

I'm often asked if I have any mentoring "horror stories". Here in this blog I'm repeatedly espousing the incredible benefits of mentoring yet surely some experiences are negative? Luckily I really don't have very many stories like that.

Most candidate Mentor/Mentee (or Protégé) relationships that are doomed to fail do so very early in the process. Mentor or Mentee or both realize quickly that there isn't a fit. It could be, for example, due to personality conflict or inability to make sufficient time commitments or differing goals for the process. And that's ok. Each person then moves on to their next candidate Mentor or Mentee.

I've also heard of unfortunate cases where someone's manager acting as their mentor inappropriately uses information shared during their prior mentoring conversations. By inappropriate I mean that the information confidentially shared showed up in the mentee's/employee's annual review. Usually that wasn't favorable to the person getting reviewed! That is a betrayal of trust and one of the reasons why one should avoid a manager as a mentor.

In any case the only personal negative experience I can share is the following one:

I once had a terrific mentor who decided to leave our company to pursue a CIO opportunity. He told me that given his upcoming expanded responsibilities and his new location he didn't think he would have the time to continue our mentoring relationship with the level of commitment we had expected of each other. I was quite sad but of course happy for him and glad he was open and honest about the situation. We promised to keep in touch and have done so sporadically over the years.

Just before he left as I was about to find myself without a Mentor I asked him if he knew anyone across the company I could approach to be my new Mentor. He suggested a recently minted VP-level executive who would likely make a good fit. I approached her and we hit it off immediately. She agreed to be my new Mentor and I was overjoyed at having been able to find someone so quickly and easily. Over the course of the following year we met every two weeks for an hour and had a fantastic, two-way, trusting mentoring relationship.

Then suddenly my company decided to do a significant reduction in force (layoff) in my division and geography and I was on that list. One of my final acts was to contact my mentor to alert her of the news. I hoped we could stay in touch if not as Mentor/Mentee then at least as former friendly co-workers. She agreed and we exchanged personal email and phone numbers.

A week or so later I gave her a call just to update her on what I was up to and see how things were going back at the company. No one picked up so I left a message. I never got a response. I called again a few days later but the same thing happened. No response. So I took to email to reach out. No response. I waited another month in case she was busy and emailed again. But still no response.

Did I say something wrong? She sounded enthusiastic about staying in touch when we last spoke. Was there some stigma attached to having been laid off that she could not or did not want to deal with? Perhaps although she didn't seem to be the type of person to be bothered by that especially given the number of people involved and that era of mass layoffs. Still it's quite jarring to have trusted someone so much (and have them trust you so much in return) and then to suddenly be cut off.

To this day I have no idea what happened. And it doesn't really matter. That experience hasn't soured me one bit about mentoring. I learned so much from her during our relationship it more than made up for its unusual ending.

In any great endeavor there are risks one undertakes. In the end I have found that mentoring is always worth those risks. May all your mentoring experiences be 100% positive ones!

Monday, May 21, 2012

4 Questions To Ask A Mentor

“A good coach will make his players see what they can become rather than what they are.”
  – Ara Parseghian

[UPDATE: To see a companion video response to this blog post click here!]

A couple of posts ago we talked about 5 questions a Mentor can ask a new Mentee / Protégé. This time I'd like to suggest some general mentoring-type questions a new Mentee or Protégé can ask their Mentor early on as part of the getting-to-know-each-other phase. This does not by any means replace the work the Mentee has to do to prepare for mentoring conversations. It's still always up to the Mentee to proactively bring up topics to discuss with the Mentor.

But here are four simple questions that you as the Mentee can use to help break the ice, accelerate your knowledge of each other and, perhaps most importantly, help the both of you quickly figure out if this will be a good mentoring match for the long term:

  1. Have you mentored before? - I think it's useful to find out if you are working with a first time mentor. If this is an experienced mentor I'd ask additional questions around what worked well and what didn't with past mentees this person has had. If it is a first time mentor I'd first thank them for the honor of being their first mentee! Then I'd probably spend a little more time going over the "ground rules" covered many times on this blog.
  2. Have you ever had a mentor? - This is a great thing to find out. If this person has had mentors of their own that's a really positive sign. It demonstrates that they care about self-improvement for themselves which likely means they'll understand and care that you want that for yourself. Also as in question #1 above you can immediately dive into what worked for them as well as what didn't work in those previous relationships.
  3. What are some topics that interest you? - Of course the topics to be discussed are almost always brought up by the mentee. Wouldn't it be interesting though to find out early on that both mentee and mentor share some common interests? If I were asked this question my answer would be (from a mentoring perspective): 1. communication; 2. confidence; 3. influencing.
  4. How can I help you? - This question strongly reinforces the notion that a mentoring relationship is ultimately a two-way street. It also demonstrates that the mentee recognizes he/she should offer something of value back to the mentor. That keeps the goodwill going so to speak. The mentor may not have an answer immediately but when they do the mentee should be sure to honor that request!
There you have it - 4 straightforward, general questions to get you started. I hope you use this as a jumping off point to delve deeper into whatever subjects will be of value to you.

“Better than a thousand days of diligent study is one day with a great teacher.” – Japanese Proverb

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Power Of Mentoring Presentation

About a week ago I was honored to be asked to speak at an event in Los Angeles about Mentoring. I've spoken about mentoring many times before but this time I was lucky enough to have someone in the audience, Nick Winters, record it and post it up on youtube. Many, many thanks to Nick.

The talk lasts for a little over 30 minutes and focuses on the basics:
  1. what is mentoring? 
  2. who are the participants?
  3. what are the benefits of mentoring to the mentee/protege? to the mentor? and to the company that supports formal or informal mentoring programs?
  4. steps on how to find a mentor
  5. qualities of good mentors and good mentees
  6. short q&a session

Most these areas have already been covered in a bit more detail throughout this blog. But if you're looking for a video presentation that puts it all in one concise place I hope you'll find the link below useful!

My talk starts at the 2:30 min mark after a very nice introduction from the host of the event:

(As a side note, if you or your organization are interested in my coming to speak about any aspect of mentoring, mentoring in general or how to set up a mentoring program please contact me by clicking here or at the "Ask OnMentoring A Question" link on the right side. My passion is to spread a culture of mentoring and would welcome opportunities to do that.)

Sunday, April 29, 2012

5 Questions To Ask New Mentees

One of the most popular reasons this blog is sought out by Mentors is to find out what types of questions are typically asked during the first set of conversations with a new mentee. I've discussed this broadly in an earlier post on how to start with a new mentee/protege. In that post I listed some questions to ask but it was focused more on starting the overall relationship. Below are some of those questions again that I and other Mentors I know typically ask in the "getting to know you" phase of a new mentoring relationship. This time I've included some explicit reasoning behind each of these questions:

  1. Why are you looking for mentoring/what do you expect to get out of mentoring? And what do you expect to give? - As with anything in life it's key to set expectations at the beginning. We want to make sure that Mentor and Mentee/Protege have similar goals in mind. If there isn't agreement early on then you know this particular pairing is unlikely to succeed. Both individuals should move on. The reason to ask the second question about what the Mentee expects to give is to establish at the start that mentoring is a two way street. Typically people think of mentoring as being an older, wiser person "teaching" a younger novice. Mentoring is much more than that. It's an activity that ultimately benefits both parties when both are in it to give something to the other.
  2. Where do you see yourself in five years? - The number of years in this question (1 year? 3 years? 5 years?) isn't as important as finding out whether or not your new mentee has a vision or a plan for themselves. Some do have a plan and seek out your help to get them there and others don't which is why they are looking for mentoring. I like to know whether this person will need my help designing an exciting future for themselves or figuring out if the vision they currently hold is one that they really, really, really want. 
  3. Have you had a mentor before and if so what worked/didn't work? - I ask, as any good Doctor would, if the person I'm speaking with has had any bad experiences (with mentoring) in the past. Mentoring is an activity that demands both parties be vulnerable at some point in order to achieve the maximum benefit. Too often allowing oneself to be vulnerable does not offer the results we'd like. As I'm big on learning from mistakes and want to ensure we avoid those moving forward I get these experiences out in the open early. If the person is new to mentoring all together I take extra time setting the ground rules and expectations as discussed in my earlier post.
  4. What propels you?/What is holding you back? - It's important to find out if your new Mentee/Protege is self-aware or not. When I have someone who can't easily answer this question I take the time to get them to be a bit more introspective. If someone provides me with clear, self-reflective answers then we're ahead of the game.
  5. Are you happy? - This is the grand daddy of them all! The 'ultimate' question. The mother of all questions. Most individuals initially seek out mentors because they are unhappy with something about themselves or their career. This question is key and the answers I get at the beginning are ones that I keep checking back into over the course of a relationship. Sometimes I simply help the Mentee achieve what they've decided will make them happy. Other times I guide the Mentee in changing (read: re-framing) their definition of what makes them happy. The latter is almost always a more powerful, awe-inspiring experience because many of us don't recognize the core of what makes us happy. We rarely realize the number of paths that core allows us to take that would make us truly content. Watching someone come to new realizations is one of the things I enjoy most about mentoring.
Of course there are thousands of things to ask and talk about over the course of a mentoring relationship but the above 5 should be good to get you started on a productive, mutually beneficial journey. Feel free to post some of your favorite questions to ask a new mentee in the comments below!

Friday, April 20, 2012

You will make mistakes!

Photo: Alan Saporta

"A man's errors are his portals of discovery" - James Joyce.

"If you aren't failing, you aren't trying anything."
 - Woody Allen

I could have created this posting out of nothing but great quotations about mistakes and experience. Don’t just gloss over those two quotes above. Go back, read those again and spend some time internalizing them. Go ahead and really do that! I promise to wait for you.


This posting grew out of a mentoring conversation I was having with a soon-to-be new manager but it really applies to everyone. This mentee was appropriately conscious of how damaging a bad boss can be to a team's morale and success. He was apprehensive about making mistakes in his new role given the impact it could have. I told him that it's not all about avoiding missteps - it's also about learning from those errors. The key to success is neither to dwell on your mistakes nor easily brush them aside. The key is to be sufficiently reflective and then proactive.

This idea around the benefits of making mistakes is not a new concept by any stretch. But if you are a Type A personality like me a gentle reminder every once in a while of the gifts that mistakes hold for you is necessary and welcome. To excel, to be vibrant, to be a leader you can’t always play it safe.

For example, there is no way a new manager is not going to make some misjudgments at the beginning. The path someone takes from being an individual contributor to a manager is an arduous one. That step actually requires a transformation of oneself and it is fraught with possible missteps . (Another day's post will cover that transformation.)

Most of us are not comfortable with making mistakes. We worry about the impact to our work or friends or family. We worry that we will look foolish. All those things may still yet happen. What one can count on though is that at the very least every mistake is a learning opportunity. I like to remind mentees that as painful or embarrassing as a blunder they made may feel this very blunder is likely saving them from even worse ones later on.

As the leader of organizations myself I want to be clear that I'm not thrilled when someone on the team makes a mistake but I'm not someone that thinks it's the end of the world either. I believe mistakes are a kind of investment an enlightened company (or leader) makes in an employee. Mind you this is not meant to encourage brain surgeons or policemen or firemen to make mistakes. I’m talking about the mistakes that occur outside the realm of saving or protecting lives. (This posting may apply to those areas as well but I do not feel at all qualified to discuss these issues from that perspective).

But there is one kind of mistake that as a leader I find unacceptable - and that is a repeated mistake:

“Success does not consist in never making mistakes but in never making the same one a second time.” 
― George Bernard Shaw

If a mistake is repeated it is no longer an investment - it becomes an investigation. Something or someone is off so it's time to go to the next level of problem solving.

If you haven't had this perspective on mistakes I hope you'll take these ideas into consideration. If you already share this perspective hopefully this serves as a welcome reminder that I too find useful!

“You must never feel badly about making mistakes ... as long as you take the trouble to learn from them. For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons.” 
― Norton Juster

Sunday, March 25, 2012


Image by Alan Saporta

As a parent I can't imagine anything more heartbreaking or excruciating than seeing your own child injured or suffering ill health (apart from, heaven forbid, the child passing away). Unfortunately at this time and for the past half year I know a couple, dear friends of mine, whose young child has been gripped with a rare, debilitating disease. While the long-term prognosis is actually good it has been and will continue to be a burdensome, tortuous road to recovery.

In the meantime I have been a near helpless witness to their tireless tending to their sick child. Sure we folks around them have been visiting, providing food, comfort and a patient ear. But all anyone ultimately wants is for this child to get better. If there's anything positive I can wrench from this dismal situation it's the following 2 things:

Perspective - Being human I have my daily wishes, complaints and aches. It's tempting for all of us to focus on what we lack whether it be money, time or something about our current place in the world. But seeing these friends and thinking of others with similar struggles quickly melts away any of these "problems". It immediately brings any issues I'm currently dealing with into perspective. As they say "when you (and your loved ones) have your health you have everything". This is a concept I aim to impart to my mentees. Even something as traumatic and disheartening as a job loss can be overcome when you have your health.

Inspiration - The sheer force of nature these friends have demonstrated in caring for their sick child is breathtaking. One might say this is not surprising given it's their child. It is nevertheless inspiring to me to see any human muster this kind of energy, focus and determination under extreme stress and fatigue. It is a living example for me of how much we are all actually capable of doing especially while in the midst of a difficult situation. Then can you imagine what we each could do when we are faced with far less challenging situations? Can you visualize the achievements that await us when we are well rested and not under such negative stress?

I've written what turned out to be a very popular post about reframing before on this blog. A key to successfully reframing problems is to change your perspective which then sparks and inspires several paths to a solution. When working with my mentees I give them a number of tools to pivot their perspective. By sharing this story I'm sharing with you a tool that I use to:

  1. push me forward when I'm tired
  2. remind myself that I can accomplish more than I think
  3. inspire me to discover the many paths towards a solution
  4. feel unbelievably grateful for my health and the health of my loved ones.

I'll end with one of my favorite quotes on perspective:

“What we see depends mainly on what we look for.”John Lubbock

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Your Greatness

image from:

Your greatness is not what you have. It's what you give.
- Anon.

I discovered this quote recently. It was printed on the label dangling from my tea bag and it struck me on many levels. The simple reading implies that charity is a higher value than acquisition. OK - that sounds good.

But what does "your greatness" mean? Is it your legacy? Your popularity? Your abilities? Your wealth? Your sphere of influence?

Does it mean different things to different people? I'm not really sure.

Many of us strive to be 'great'. You probably wouldn't be reading a blog about mentoring if you weren't looking to improve yourself or others. When most of us think about working towards being 'great' we tend to think of improving a skill or an area of knowledge. We seek to obtain a new skill or a achieve a higher level of a current skill. Or our goal may be to produce something that others would deem 'great' which would result in us getting nice compliments or perhaps a monetary reward. Rarely does one think of giving as a means to becoming 'great'. I certainly never thought of it that way until my encounter with that quote printed on my tea. I'd argue that it's counter intuitive to give - to part with something - to achieve greatness.

Then I thought that you can only give from what you have. You cannot give something, whether it's material (money) or ethereal (wisdom), without having some measure of it first. Perhaps 'giving' is the ultimate proof of 'having'. I like that idea.

Then my mind turns to mentoring and how perfectly the quote describes this activity. But it's even better because like the flame of a candle that can ignite another candle's wick without diminishing itself whatsoever so to is mentoring. With mentoring you can give and NOT part with anything and still achieve 'greatness'. The potential of greatness you as a Mentor ignite in another in no way diminishes your greatness. In fact it's the opposite. The more light you cause to spread by the giving of your time, your wisdom and your conversations the more greatness will be attributed to you and be recognized by others.

In the end if you, by giving your time as a Mentor, impact even one single life with one single conversation then you would have already achieved a greatness many others spend a lifetime seeking.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

An OnMentoring Conversation With: Mike Moran

In this second installment of my “An OnMentoring Conversation With…”  feature I feel honored and deeply grateful to introduce you to the person who was my very first mentor. Mike is a unique individual I was blessed with meeting and having as a boss early on in my career when I was certain that my path was going to be computer programming for the rest of my life. I was focused, passionate and content on this path. However several months after I joined his group a crisis arose. Mike was pulled away with greater responsibilities and could no longer manage our team directly. We suddenly had a critical need for a new manager and for some reason beyond my comprehension at the time Mike thought I’d be the best person to take on that challenge.

To say I was hesitant is an understatement. I wanted nothing more than to sit in my office, rock out with my headphones and code software all day. As a great mentor will do Mike saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. He saw a certain potential, took me under his wing and introduced me to a whole new world – that of leadership. In this world I could multiply my good work a thousand fold by eliminating the bottleneck of building things myself and instead build great things through the power of others.

I’ve said many times on this blog that your manager will rarely make your best mentor but this is one of the exceptions. Over the course of the next 6 months Mike showed me the power of mentoring. He helped me transform from a technical, task-oriented lead into someone folks would naturally and eagerly follow. And it is directly a result of him and the effect that he had on me that drives me to illustrate the positive impact of mentoring through my own mentoring of others, this blog, speaking engagements, etc.

Mike has way too many talents to list here. He is an outstanding listener, engaging and inspiring public speaker and sincere in every sense of the word. By way of a bio I offer you this edited ‘official’ version which tells us what Mike is currently up to:

“Author of the acclaimed book on Internet marketing, Do It Wrong Quickly, on the heels of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc., Mike Moran led many initiatives on IBM's Web site for eight years, including IBM's original search marketing strategy. Mike frequently keynotes conferences on Internet marketing for marketers, public relations specialists, market researchers, and technologists, and serves as Chief Strategist for Converseon, a leading digital media marketing agency. Prior to joining Converseon, Mike worked for IBM for 30 years, rising to the level of Distinguished Engineer.”

In addition to being a world-class author, blogger, speaker, mentor, and Chief Strategist Mike is a formal coach as well.

Recently I asked Mike if he’d be kind enough to sit down and share with me his insights into mentoring. Happily he agreed so I can now present an OnMentoring conversation with…Mike Moran!

OnMentoring: Hi Mike. I’m really excited to chat with you today about mentoring especially as you were my first mentor. Thanks so much for making the time.  I wanted to start ‘at the beginning’ of your coaching/mentoring experience and find out if you were ever mentored?

When I was in high school my Dad started talking to me about what was going on with his job. He worked at IBM and was a manger with a large team. He wanted my advice because he thought I was a smart guy. Funny thing is I learned a lot from those conversations.

I ended up working at IBM as a 2nd and 3rd shift machine operator. During that time I started meeting the folks he would talk to me about and then I started asking him for advice. Simply put, he helped me become an adult. It’s weird but he ended up becoming my first business mentor. He would talk about how to carry oneself, relationships and behaviors at the workplace – things like that.

A problem I had when I started my career out was that I didn’t think people took me seriously because I was so young. So I would act “confidently” but it made me look 
more like a kid. He gave me great advice to not do that and that helped me out tremendously. I really had to learn that.

OM: What was the biggest impact a mentor has had on you?

At a certain point, mid-career I’d say, I was wondering why despite tons of hard work and plenty of accolades I was unable to achieve something I had wanted. So I went to one of my mentors with precisely that question. She was able to make me aware of certain political realities in play and suggested to me an alternate path to getting there. And it worked! That was tremendously beneficial and impactful to me.

OM: Great mentors do enlighten us to equally good, sometimes better, alternate paths. 
So when and how did you get into mentoring?

I think I’ve been doing it my whole life. In school I was always the “go to” guy. I would always want to help people. People can just tell I like to help people because I really enjoy it and they seem to get a lot out of it. Once people start asking me stuff and discover that I give them useful info they just keep coming back.

OM: Is there one question you make sure to ask your mentees?

Usually when someone is talking to me it’s because they are unhappy or disappointed about where there career is at that point. They are usually very good at identifying when that point arrives. But they are not very good about identifying what aspects they like and don’t like about their current job. They usually say things like I want more money or advancement or something along those lines. They think very narrowly.

I try to get them to focus on how they feel during their various work activities. What are they doing when they feel they are getting energized and what are they doing when they feel depleted? Unfortunately in the business world we’re not taught to be introspective. Everybody thinks there is “a path”.

OM: Not to interrupt but by “a path” you mean: first I’m a worker bee then I’m supposed to get promoted to manage the team then after a few more years I have to become a Vice President, etc?

Yes, exactly but in reality that’s not the case at all! Everybody is on autopilot and I try to get them OUT of autopilot. Especially today when you can more easily roll your own job. I want to get people to focus on what makes them happy and find ways to do those activities in their career. And almost always when you are happy at what you’re doing the advancement and the money comes anyway.

OM: How has social media affected your mentoring?

Given my current work in internet marketing it’s like asking a fish “how’s the water?”

Skype extends my reach. People also find me much more easily because of social media. I teach classes on social media and students in those approach me. Don’t know if that counts.

Fundamentally I don’t think it has really changed anything.

OM: What advice would you give to a prospective or current mentor?

It goes back to the question I ask everybody: “how do feel when you’re doing it [mentoring]? What is the allure?” If it excites them, if it’s the highlight of their day then I say you should go for it. I really like it and spend lots of time doing it. I just had a call from someone out of work. That’s a difficult conversation given these economic times but she seemed to think I helped her a lot and it made it a great day no matter what else was going on. That’s what I love about it.

OM: What advice would you give to a prospective or current mentee?

I don’t know too many people who couldn’t be helped by a mentor. There’s a set of people who aren’t being mentored who fall into 2 categories: 1. those that aren’t self aware; 2. and those that lack the confidence in themselves to ask for help or to admit that they don’t have all the answers.

Then there’s another more general class of people who just aren’t comfortable asking anyone for help for any reason. I’m in that camp actually. So I try to find a way to help the person I’m about to approach first. Even if you can’t actually help the person you’re about to approach the fact that you’re trying to and making the effort to do so is quite meaningful. That would be my advice to those out there trying to figure out a way to ask someone to be their mentor.

OM: That is fantastic advice.

Thanks. It’s funny while I’d be happy to help anyone that would approach me I actually don’t feel like or expect others to feel the same way. I’d go out and do my homework on the folks I’d like to approach and see if I could help them. So I started by helping others and it turned out these folks ended up talking to me!

If you are committed to improving yourself you limit yourself if you only depend on yourself. At some point you need to reach out to others who can grow you. Whatever the discomfort that’s holding you back as a prospective mentee you have to find a way around it because you’ll limit yourself otherwise.

OM: Anything else you wish I would have asked you about?

I think we’ve talked about a lot today. One of the things I tell people up front: the people who go out of their way who help me get a lot more of my attention than people who don’t. There are a bunch of people who only reach out to me when they’re looking for a new job and I’ll help them but not as much as folks who go out of their way to help me and stay in touch consistently. I don’t mind saying that there’s this exchange. At some point there just isn’t enough time to satisfy every request.

OM: Your answer reminds me of my first OnMentoring interview where one of the insights shared was mentoring is a two way street and both sides have to offer something for the relationship to work. I wholeheartedly agree.

Thanks so much Mike for this great conversation! I’m really honored to have you share your thoughts and insights on mentoring with me and our readers.

My pleasure, Alan. Anytime.

Monday, February 20, 2012

EPILOGUE: The Difference an "If" Makes

Image from (AP Photo)

Several months ago I published a post entitled "The Different an 'If' Makes". Its genesis came from a misquote on the new Martin Luther King memorial in Washington D.C. In this post I talked about how critical and at the same time how difficult precise communication can be for all of us. The MLK Memorial team had a decade to plan and still a mistake in transcribing Martin Luther King's words made it to the unveiling.

Last month, just before a day commemorating Martin Luther King, I was very pleased to read the news that this quote would be fixed:

This is a great (albeit unfortunate) example of how better communication up front could have saved many people lots of pain, energy and money.

As an aside, there is a well-known expression in English about something being "etched in stone". In other words once something is "etched in stone" it cannot change. But here again is a great story that even when something is "etched in stone" it can still change!

And that idea, above all, makes me very, very happy.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

New Year's Resolutions?

Image Credit: NASA/JPL

On my way out of the office last Friday, the day before New Year's Eve, someone asked me if I had any New Year's resolutions. I replied trying to sound clever, "I don't make New Year's resolutions. I aim to improve myself every day!". While at that moment I was being flippant I started thinking about that comment and resolutions in general.

I am not a believer in New Year's resolutions and really have never made any. I know that January 1st can act as a powerful symbol and trigger for many folks out there. That's great. But we all know a high percentage of New Year's resolutions don't stick. Why is that?

Via Dan Pink's blog I came across this short interview witKelly McGonigal dealing with making personal changes, resolutions and willpower:
Most people make a fundamental mistake when thinking about their future choices. We wrongly but persistently expect to make different decisions tomorrow than we do today.
I’ll skip the gym today, but I’m sure I’ll go tomorrow. I’ll put this on my credit card today, but no more shopping for a month. I don’t want to get started on the project now, but I’ll tackle it first thing in the morning. The more people have faith in their futures selves, the more likely they are to indulge today. In fact, just knowing you’ll have the chance to choose again tomorrow increases the chance you’ll choose habit or vice today.
When mentees discuss with me things they'd like to change about themselves I guide them towards making that desired change into a new habit. Many planned big changes are successfully actualized over many small incremental changes and then hitting a 'tipping point'. Each of those incremental steps is its own resolution, its own decision, its own mini-goal. Let's break up our big goals into smaller, achievable goals that occur over many days and not just all of a sudden on one day - New Year's.

Kelly's point in part is to imagine your current bad habit as never ending and picturing your current behavior as propagating itself into eternity for you. If your choices today (go to the gym or stay home, eat too many cookies or an apple instead, etc.) lock you in forever it leaves you less "cheating wiggle room". I've not tried this form of behavior changing technique but it sounds very interesting to me.

Back to the initial comment. Individuals who seek out mentors are doing so to improve themselves at some level. My belief is that each day we all get the opportunity to choose to do better than we did the previous day. Each day we all get to choose conversation over confrontation, partnership over prejudice, exercise over immobility, etc.

For those of us wanting to change every single day is New Year's Day! Each day we're alive is worthy of a resolution!

PS: I do make one exception to this "no resolutions" post: if you have resolved to become a mentor or seek out a mentor this year then GO FOR IT! :)