Fostering Productive Mentoring

Excerpt from “Execution IS the Strategy” by Laura Stack, MBA, CSP (Berrett-Koehler, March 2014).

However you define the right people for a particular task, you’ll likely find a need for further seasoning before they can handle all the input force you’ll bring to bear. One way to accomplish this is through mentoring.

According to legend, when Odysseus left Ithaca to fight in the Trojan War, he left his son, Telemachus, in the capable hands of a teacher named Mentor. In the millennia since Homer wrote The Odyssey, the concept of the mentor has become deeply ingrained in Western society.

We generally perceive a mentor as an older individual who takes someone younger under his or her wing, passing down knowledge in a nurturing relationship that benefits them both. Today, an age difference isn’t considered as important as it once was; what does matter is the experience transmitted, along with the relevant patterns of thought.

In the business environment, mentoring is often a hit-or-miss prospect. Opinions on the topic tend to fall into two categories—either mentoring would be nice to do if we had the time, or it’s a complete waste of time. But effective mentoring is never a waste. In fact, it can boost the productivity of both the mentee and the mentor significantly. When it does, mentoring contributes to the success of the entire organization.

Mentoring becomes a productivity accelerator only when an organization takes it seriously—that is, when it becomes more than an educational tool indulged in “as time permits.” Productive mentoring drives performance and challenges mentees to grow into their roles in profitable ways. If you undertake it in a half-hearted way, at best, you’ll get half-hearted results.

You also should approach mentoring as an exchange, rather than a situation where the mentor simply dispenses knowledge to the mentee. The teaching method should be largely Socratic—that is, asking rather than telling. To encourage initiative, present challenging, even provocative questions. For example, questions to ask in a mentoring situation might include:

  • What do you think we should do to accomplish this goal?
  • Can our current workflow process handle this situation?
  • If you were in charge, what would you cut or add?
  • What would you recommend to solve this problem?
  • If you were a competitor, what would you hope we would do wrong?
  • What would you hope we wouldn’t do?
  • What can we learn from our competitors in this situation?
  • How would you respond to this situation if you lost a key person?
  • Could you recover easily if you lost that person?
  • What is your plan if you’re hospitalized for several weeks?

And so on. The often surprising results are always worth exploring—not only because they stretch the mentee’s abilities and get him or her to think independently, but also because they help instill the concept of personal accountability.

Certainly, mentors should lay the groundwork with basics such as organizational rules, structure, and expectations of the mentee’s role within the company. They also should impart lessons learned and provide unique perspectives on the business environment, politics, and culture. But otherwise, rather than simply provide answers, mentors should challenge mentees to succeed by teaching them how to think, not what to think.

Mentors also must have the authority and flexibility to allow their mentees to try and fail. Will some mentees fail to rise to the challenge? Of course, but even then the results can be productive if they illustrate shortcomings in the mentee’s training and abilities. In fact, that’s another function of mentoring: identifying the mentee’s strengths and weaknesses. Because leaders expect certain minimal levels of performance in any position, they can teach employees what to improve on and how to do it through constructive mentoring.

Good mentoring also builds connections among the various levels of an organization, helping mentored individuals expand into their roles and providing opportunities for further growth. This contributes to a valuable esprit de corps that improves morale. Part of this strategy involves the mentor exploring the mentee’s frustrations and worries, and then suggesting ways to overcome them without directly fixing them. Maximizing the employee’s potential and productivity is the goal.

Not surprisingly, all of this requires collaborative communication. The mentor should make it clear that candid feedback is not only encouraged but required. In particular, the mentee must be willing to ask questions (especially when something is confusing) and become self-aware, receptive, resilient, and willing to grow.

As a leader, when you make mentoring a priority in a productive, challenging way, it can provide significant value to everyone involved.

Excerpt from “Execution IS the Strategy” by Laura Stack, MBA, CSP (Berrett-Koehler, March 2014).

Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, is an expert in productivity. For more than 20 years, Stack has worked with business leaders to execute more efficiently, boost performance, and accelerate results in the workplace. Her company, The Productivity Pro, Inc., provides productivity workshops around the globe to help attendees achieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time. Stack is the bestselling author of six books, with more than 20 foreign editions, published by Random House, Wiley, and Berrett-Koehler, including her newest work, “Execution IS the Strategy” (March 2014). An expert in the field of performance and workplace issues, Stack has been featured on the CBS Early Show, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. Connect via her website, Facebook, or Twitter.