Making Great Strides by “Walking Alongside”
The mentoring role is reserved for managing a person whose performance is standard or average. While the catchwords for coaching are “inspire” and “motivate,” the catchword for mentoring is “instruct.” When you mentor, it’s your job to teach new skills. Typically, that’s the only way average performers can grow and begin experiencing improved performance.
Think of a mentor as a person who walks alongside someone else. In the mentoring role, you “come alongside” the supervisees on your team. You work with them side by side, giving instruction — and not just verbal instruction. It’s “hands-on” instruction. It’s doing the task together. You lead by example.
Why? One reason is that every team follows what its coach “models.” If supervisors tell team members to come to work on time but come to work late themselves, what will team members do? Show up late, of course. Whatever the coach does, to a greater or lesser degree, team members will emulate. Like it or not, you are the example.
Besides instructing and supervising by example, your other task as a mentor is to develop new abilities in the supervisees you work with. You’ll help supervisees develop new skills ... help them do things they never knew they could do. You’ll teach each person how to be more competent in more areas.
A Process with Productive Purpose
The mentoring process demands a plan. It’s a process of development ... not a practice of shooting from the hip. No leader arrives at work Monday morning and announces, “Guess what, today I’m going to mentor you.” Instead, each mentor builds a plan — and for any plan to be successful, it must be built on three components:
• Mutual trust and commitment
• Patient leadership
• Emotional maturity
1. Mutual trust and commitment
Mutual trust and commitment between supervisees come from spending time together. The more time you spend teaching someone, the more commitment you have to that person and she will have to you.
This should tell you something about the mentoring process in general. It is slow. Hard words to hear, perhaps, but nonetheless true. Some supervisors make the mistake of believing that their intentions to mentor are 90 percent of the battle, and that the other 10 percent involves the actual work.
Two dangers exist in harboring this illusion:
• When the truth hits home that the formula is actually reversed — 10 percent intention, 90 percent hands on, day-to-day effort — some supervisors become so discouraged they never really get started. Which leads to the second danger
• The team member may perceive that she is not worth special attention and grows to distrust not only your motives, but eventually her own value and ability.
What’s the point? Simply this: Mentoring is hard work and it takes time — but thousands of supervisors just like you have done it and are doing it with terrific results. Ask any of them if their commitment is a necessary element and if team-member trust is the result. What do you think they will answer? If you guessed “Absolutely,” you’re absolutely right.
2. Patient leadership
Patience is extremely important in the mentoring process. Once you’ve established the commitment and trust discussed above, you maintain it through patience. You will have plenty of opportunity to exercise patience. That’s because people are well ... people. The need for patience will present itself in three basic areas:
• Employee attentiveness
The things you think are important about certain concepts and procedures may not seem all that important to your “mentoree.”
Coach: The key to this phase of the job, Rob, is watching this set of figures here. They will tell you instantly if this product is safe to send on ahead. Do you understand that?
Rob: Sure. Where does that door lead?
Coach: What door? Oh — well, it leads to the equipment lockers. But about these figures I was discussing —you’re sure you have a clear grasp of…
Impatience would tempt anyone to say something like, “Earth to Rob: Wake up ... this process is lots more important than where a dumb door goes!” But remember, your mentoree’s perceived response to information may have no bearing whatsoever on how well she processes it. And, more importantly, it may be totally unlike your own. No one will ever mirror your values or priorities perfectly. Don’t expect it.
Naturally, if inattentiveness becomes a real problem, you will have to deal with it — but be ready to exercise patience by giving your mentoree the benefit of the doubt.
• Employee aptitude.
Some supervisees learn faster than others. As obvious as that may sound, it is hard to remember it in a mentoring situation. Your mentoree may be way ahead of your most “difficult” explanations ... finishing sentences for you evidencing an advanced grasp of concepts it took you much longer to “own.” More likely, however, she may require very precise, step-by-step explanations from you in order to effectively apply information in an actual work situation. Your two key jobs as a mentor in this area are to:
(1) Evaluate the team member’s understanding with questions like, “Is there anything I’ve said that could be a little clearer?” or “If you were explaining this to someone else, how would you do it?”
(2) Encourage your mentoree to feel perfectly comfortable asking questions by telling him or her to feel that way ... and by responding maturely when the questions come.
Fast learner or not-so-fast learner, your mentoree can learn from your patient approach to her training needs.
• Pressure to attend to “business as usual”
Let’s face it. Finding time in your already overcrowded schedule to mentor one or more team members will take some doing. But it can be done. Thousands of successful coaches are making it happen. One way many do it is represented by the simple but effective “15-5-10” Formula:
15: Rank your daily duties in order of importance and break out the bottom 15 percent.
5: Delegate that 15 percent to selected team members, using 5 percent of the time you saved to continue directing them and reviewing their work.
10: Use the remaining 10 percent for mentoring activities.
And where does patience come into play in this area? The inclination to resent or begrudge the time you spend away from “normal” job activities will grow as you progress in your mentoring projects. It’s a natural tendency. You will be tempted to postpone or skip mentoring opportunities in the interest of “more important things.” When that happens, remember:
(1) You aren’t “losing” time while you mentor —you’re using free time made available because you delegated duties.
(2) Your mentoree will know in a minute if you view your time with her as a time-wasting inconvenience.
So have patience with the mentoring process. It will pay off!
3. Emotional maturity
Additionally, an effective mentor (or any other leader, for that matter) is able to control her emotions for the sake of effective leadership. Even when you’re sick of hearing the same questions over and over again, you must remain (or appear to remain) calm and eager to help.
How do you do that? Volumes have been written dealing with the issue of emotional control. There are nearly as many methods as there are supervisors — but here are three that continue to deliver results for supervisors in a wide variety of organizational environments:
• See the mentoree as your child.
Everyone is someone’s child. So when the questions seem especially irrelevant ... when your tendency to explode or give up seems impossible to push down think how the mentoree’s parents would want you to react. Think how you would want a supervisor to respond if the mentoree was your child, or your brother or sister, etc. Silly? Try it anyway. You will be surprised at the effect the exercise has on your attitudes and responses.
• Schedule mentoring sessions to end with “rewards.”
Having something to look forward to can minimize emotional intensity. Anger is less likely to grip a person who is about to do something pleasurable. So schedule your mentoring sessions to end with lunch or quitting time, etc. Not because your mentoring sessions will be dreary, painful experiences — they won’t be. But they can be demanding and a bit draining, as any good teacher will tell you. So anticipate the possibility of frayed nerves and prepare for them. Then you can tell your emotions that “recess” is coming soon.
• Speak with a smile
Emotional upheaval is usually accompanied by raised voices and “strained” facial features (frowns, etc.). Anger, fear, and indignation are virtually impossible to express (for long) with a smiling face and soft, conversational tones. Moral: When emotions threaten to distort your normally mature responses, take a deep breath ... consciously speak more softly ... and smile! It does more than hide inner turmoil. It actually defuses it!
In Uganda, farmers pair the young beginner ox with an older ox. The two oxen are tied together with a special harness. The device is called a training yoke —and it is configured to make sure the older ox pulls most of the burden. The older ox has the control. If the farmers don’t do that, the younger ox tends to go too fast or too slow. The older ox has the control, so it’ll go at the right pace. The younger one must work at the same pace. The young ox learns from the experience of “walking alongside.” Can you see the wisdom in that from a mentoring standpoint? If you’ve never mentored before, keep this illustration in mind in the days and years ahead. It will begin to have special relevance as you interact with mentorees.
- Hendricks, William (ed.), Coaching, Mentoring and Managing, National Press Publications: New Jersey, 1996
Reflection Exercise #4
The preceding section contained information
about the mentoring role, and supervising by example. Write three
case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in
As a mentor, what are your two key jobs regarding your supervisee aptitude?
Record the letter of the correct answer the