Mentoring – A Powerful Business Tool

This week’s post is about something we at MSI do on a daily basis.  The subject is mentoring.  Technically, we coach and mentor, but mentoring in particular is a powerful business tool in many ways.  Mentoring is something a successful person will leverage as both a mentor and as a protégé or mentee.  First, let’s define the term mentor.  According to Webster, a mentor is defined as “a trusted counselor or guide.”

The mentor can be a trusted counselor or guide at many levels and in many ways.  Mentors can be life coaches, technical advisors, career counselors, financial advisors, and so much more.  Existing survey data on the benefits of mentoring indicate it is well worth the expense and effort with a minimum of $2.00 returned for every dollar invested.  Additionally, most experienced professionals will agree that finding a mentor that will guide you and take you along a path of success is vital to a successful career.  Further, mentoring those less experienced is vital to both your success and the future of your organization or industry.  For the sake of this article, I will break business related mentoring into two categories: (1) career mentoring and (2) technical mentoring.  We will ignore personal, academic and other such mentoring as this is a business article.  Not to say those types of mentors are not vitally important, they are.  In many cases, the personal life mentor may be the same person as the business mentor.  However, most people reading this article will have a personal life and a business life and I am catering to the latter.  In all cases, there is one axiom that applies “learn from those that came before you.”  Learn from their mistakes and learn from their successes.  I would say one of the most important things that got me through my teens and twenties was my desire to learn from the mistakes of others and not make those mistakes myself.

Career mentoring is, from an individual perspective, the most important of the two.  Bad career advice leads to bad career decisions, which leads to a professional, financial, and personal death spiral.  Ego and ignorance are the enemies of good career mentoring.  I know many a humble person of average intelligence that followed sound career advice from a successful mentor that is now successful themselves. Unfortunately, I also know many more highly intelligent professionals living a dissatisfying career, knowing they are not maximizing their potential.  In most cases, it is ego and/or ignorance of the importance of having good mentors that constrains these people.  Things like title, degree, and personality get in the way of one allowing himself to be mentored.  The best leaders I know open themselves to mentoring from even those who work under them.  They know that the best advice can come from the most unlikely of sources.

To choose a good career mentor or mentors, the first step is to develop a realistic vision of your future.  Self-awareness of one’s capabilities, limitations, and tendencies is critically important.  Once you have developed that vision, identify people who are truly successful and living that vision.  I have found that people living a successful vision are fully aware of the importance of mentoring and are very happy to mentor those behind them on the same path.  Seek these people out, ask them questions about what they do and find out if their reality matches your vision.  If so, start asking them if they think you are capable of achieving what they have achieved.  Ask them to be honest and be prepared for a harsh slap from reality.  Note, a good mentor will not directly answer such questions.  Rather, they will ask you questions in a way that allows you to answer that question yourself.  If you come to the decision that your vision is sound and the path is righteous, these are the people you want to consider for your long term career mentor.  Keep your mentor informed, communicate via phone, email, and text, instant message, Facebook, and any other means that works for you.  To be successful, mentoring needs to be ubiquitously integrated into your routine, not just some formal meeting you have once per month.  Formal mentoring sessions are good, but only as punctuation in the series of ongoing mentoring interactions.

Technical mentoring is in many ways a different thing altogether.  Technical mentoring is often associated with a single technical subject one is learning, such as Lean Six Sigma or Project Management.  It will have a finite life-span.  It is more easily quantified and measured, and outcomes are clear.  Technical mentoring does not usually require the up-front personal discovery associated with career mentoring.  The mentee or protégé enters the arrangement knowing what they want to achieve and hope to find a mentor that can get the job done.

Matching the technical mentor to the mentee is again very important.  Personalities must gel and the pace of learning must be in synch.  Further, technical mentors are often needed for hard requirements the mentee has to meet, requiring a mentor that is available when needed and to the degree needed.  A risk with technical mentoring is the mentor doing too much or too little work for the mentee.  Further, the mentor has a more active role in the sense of keeping a mentor on track and on schedule with technical skill development.  The mentor may also be required to report mentee progress to management and may be mentoring numerous people on the same subject.  When choosing your technical mentor, be selfish.  Work to get the best you can in terms of the mentor’s ability to mentor you and the mentor’s time and availability to work with you one-on-one.  Ask others that have been mentored on the same technical skill how they liked their mentor.  Ask them to describe how they interacted and if they think the mentor would be a good one for you.  If you have your mentor assigned by higher management and don’t like the one assigned, speak up.  Management is making an investment in your skills and has an interest in making sure you get the best mentoring.  Lastly, when working with a technical mentor, ask “why” and ask it often.  Many technical mentors are not as experienced as they should be.  Challenge them and make sure they are giving you practical and proven advice.

Ideally, technical mentoring will be a shared responsibility that is part of the culture of paying it forward that exists in an organization.  I recently attended the annual awards dinner for the Maryland World Class Consortium.  The Key Note Speaker was Mr. Richard Sheridan, CEO of Menlo Innovations.  He described their agile, human centric software development approach.  A key component of that approach is the pairing of developers on each task and the rotation of pairs each week.  A great approach to peer review and quality control/assurance, but with the proper assignments and a little measurement, this is also the ideal way to mentor.  Mentoring of this nature would be truly integrated at the task level of business operations and would create a continuously learning and highly aware organization.

Lastly, technical mentoring should be quantified using a consistent set of criteria and reported on numerically to track the progress of all mentees.  A snapshot of corporate skill levels should be developed from mentoring tracking data.  At MSI, we have employ a structured mentoring approach based on Experiential Learning that quantifies individual ability on several dimensions and informs managers of both the progress of employees and the quality of mentoring.  We encourage our clients to manage toward an even distribution of personnel on the learning curve such that the organization always has a flow of people learning and moving on to the next thing as identified below.

Mentoring Pipeline Images

Far too often we see unhealthy personnel capability pipelines where there are gaps in the progression of personnel and somehow trainees mysteriously jump from being a trainee to an expert.  Organizations with an unhealthy capability pipeline typically have no mentoring program or a loosely managed mentoring program at best.  Such organizations benefit greatly from taking internal mentoring and the management of corporate skills more seriously.

Whether or not you work for an organization that takes mentoring seriously, you are wise to do so for yourself.  Even in a corporate mentoring vacuum, you can seek out a capable mentor.  You may have to go outside your organization, but it is critically important to find a good mentor.  Do not let ego or laziness get in your way.  Ironically, many a person that does not seek out a good mentor or resists mentoring ends up frustrated and/or failing.  It is only after they reach post failure catharsis that they are humble enough to seek out the mentoring that could have gotten them on the track to success and kept them there.  It is never too late to start, but why wait until after a series of failures.  Mentoring is a simple and effective practice that will make a huge difference in your career and can transform your organization.

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