How Can I Be A Better Mentor?

Question:

First, thank you for providing such an invaluable resource. One of the first things I had to learn was to share your sight with others, rather than keeping it to myself. Here is my question. I have about eleven years experience in my industry, with about eight years experience in my specialized field. In addition, my educational background supports the field that I am currently in.

I was hired to a company as one of five members of a specialized division. The division had some previous problems with one member leaving voluntarily, three members being terminated, and the remaining person was the one with the least experience of the group. This person, who had been with the company, was placed in the senior position. After about a year, I was promoted to the same level as the “senior person.” Then, nine months later a new position was created for me as a team leader. I became the technical guide for all five other team members, including the person that was in the senior position. Three of the other members were then promoted to the same level as the previous senior person.

I am the youngest of the group, with other members of the team much older and with more time in the industry (but not in our specialized area). I have been in this new role for about 6 months. During the most recent review, my manager explained that the other team members (or some of them) do not feel I am a good mentor. Honestly, I do not know if I am good or not. I help the other members whenever possible and share the resources that I have developed in the last eight years. I work with them on their assignments to achieve the best results, but I give them the credit for completing the assignment or achieving the results on it. I don’t know what I am missing. My old boss indicated that there appears to be some jealousy by the other members because of my age and their experience in the industry. My former boss felt some of the comments might have been said to make me look bad out of spite for creating the position for me. She went so far as saying she thought I had good mentoring and leadership skills, which is why the position was created.

I have two questions. How do I improve my mentoring skills to a level where my co-workers respect what I bring to the table? If the team members are just making statements out of jealousy, how do I curb the comments and show them that I worked hard for the promotions I have received.

Signed,

Mentoring


Answer:

Dear Mentoring:

I’m sure the suggestion that you may not be a good mentor has caused you restless moments. You have weighed these remarks, consulted with your former boss and have sought explanations for them. Being in a leadership role puts you betwixt and between–a boss on one side and those in your charge on the other side. The 360 appraisal represents that. How might you listen to what’s being said about you without reacting defensively? How might you be sensitive and yet have skin tough enough so that you can benefit from challenges to your leadership and yet not be overly anxious about every thing you do?

Leaders have two major functions: To provide structure and to show consideration. Providing structure depends on the nature of the task and technology. Some tasks have one way for them to be handled effectively; others can be accomplished in varied ways. Some are sequential and are linked to suppliers and to internal customers; others are solo assignments. It is up to you to plan short term and long term how work is available and assignments are made. Your work group can assist in this. Collaboratively, if invited they can be involved in planning, and if invited they can let you know how they want assignments to be made, instructions to be given, and time lines to be determined. Effective leaders are process minded. They sense when to consult, get approval, and whether to work by majority or consensus. More experienced groups require less instructions and monitoring than neophytes.

You might think of yourself as a sports coach, who, after each game, has a skull session helping the team review what went well and what they need to work on. How frequently you have such staff meetings will depend on what you and your team find effective–possibly at the beginning of each day or at the end of each week and with ad hoc called huddles as someone feels the need. Establishing rules of when to meet and how these sessions can be most effective probably has evolved from the way they are used to doing them and on what you initiate. You can help your group to become process conscious without being nitpicky. Two key words for a lead are: collaborative and shared-leadership.

With this general perspective, let me provide a thought or two about your question: How might you be a stronger mentor? Mentoring is a volunteer, personal activity. It is asking if anyone has taken an interest in them and their career path. It is learning what are the career hopes and dreams of each individual in your group. To learn and think with each individual means being present in his/her presence–really looking at, listening to and empathizing with. It means talking informally and formally about how things are going with each job-wise now, talking about skills needed, cross-training, and where each wants to be in the next month, year, and years ahead. Making connections with each one usually entails getting to know a person as a person and not just as an employee, but not being nosey. It also means not disclosing information learned. It is possible that mentoring can also be a collaborative matter–such as is group counseling? That too is possible. The on-going agenda for quarterly meetings might be: Is each of us doing now what will help us to get to where we want to be tomorrow? If not, how might we help each other along his/her way?

Your second question: How might you curb jealousy? Taking time out in a staff meeting or two to make explicit rules for communication can help. These rules are linked to the two key words: collaboration and shared leadership. Communication rules usually are unwritten and consequently groups fail to deal with some who are over talkative and others who are withdrawn or do not enjoy arguing about how something should be decided. And most importantly, does each person feel that he/she has a say in how the group is being managed?

Have you ever jotted down what you’d like to see happen in a staff meeting? What would make it efficient? How you would know if discussions and decisions were effective in quality and acceptable to those involved? The exercise of talking about talking can be a way to help all to feel that they have a say and what they say is respected and weighed. Have you ever jotted down rules about what you think would be wise for your group to talk about informally or how and when to criticize one another or you?

Once you have taken time out to think through your answers to these questions, it might be worth a session or two to learn what your team members think should be the communication rules. How few rules are needed to make your work group effective and happy? Should you have a rule about giving everyone a say in how things are going? If so, what should be that rule?

There are several rules in golf that make for better play, such as: USGA rules state: Unlike many sports, golf is played, for the most part, without the supervision of a referee or umpire. The game relies on the integrity of the individual to show consideration for other players and to abide by the Rules. All players should conduct themselves in a disciplined manner, demonstrating courtesy and sportsmanship at all times, irrespective of how competitive they may be. This is the spirit of the game of golf. Gary McCord. In Golf for Dummies®, 2nd Edition admonishes:

Don’t talk while someone is playing a stroke. Give your partners time and silence while they are analyzing the situation, making their practice swings, and actually making their swing for real. Don’t stand near them or move about, either, especially when you’re on the greens. Stay out of their peripheral vision while they are putting. Don’t stand near the hole or walk between your partner’s ball and the hole. Even be mindful of your shadow. The line of a putt,” the path it must follow to the hole,” is holy ground.

If good golf hinges on attention to rules, might not it be even more important to make explicit rules for communication in the workplace? Jealousy usually springs from not having a say in how things are going. If you can help your group to become process minded and communication considerate, I predict you will go a long way toward a spirit we call WEGO. I like to say working together with hands, heads, and hearts takes and makes big WEGOs. Will you let us know if these thoughts ring true and how your efforts progress to answer the questions you have posed? These suggestions are just that. They are meant as stimuli for your own and for gradually making your own way of doing things one that the group feels good about.

William Gorden