You might picture two people sitting at a table in a restaurant, the older person, his or her head topped with waves of shimmering, gray hair, waxing eloquent while the younger listener is furiously scribbling notes on a legal pad. Although this scene may warm our hearts, it seems just a bit out of sync with the real world.
I would like to offer an alternative image of mentoring: Picture two people sitting across from each other in an office. Obviously, an important project is under discussion. The interaction is animated, intense, and often humorous. These people obviously know each other well. Speech is direct and honest. Mutual respect is readily apparent. Some coaching is occurring, but the protégé is not restrained in sharing some insights on the performance of the mentor as well. This relationship is built on trust.
With this picture in mind, we like to define mentoring as a long-term, mutually supportive and enhancing relationship rather than as a relationship in which a highly advanced human being tutors another who stands a step or two below him or her on the developmental ladder.
A successful mentoring experience does require a significant prerequisite: a quality person to mentor. A leader who hopes to succeed in mentoring must first hire great people. Too often, executives devote too little time to the hiring process. No wonder that down the road the mentoring of a poorly qualified employee resembles corrective discipline more than a shared growth experience.
Assuming the right persons are in the right jobs, a leader must then do everything possible to help those people feel appreciated, supported, empowered, and fully equipped to complete their tasks. In addition, a leader needs to help the other person understand that success is not just “making the numbers” (competency) but includes developing character as well.
A good mentoring experience also requires longevity. The leader and the protégé need to stay at it long enough for the relationship to bear mature fruit.
In the late nineties I was talking to the CEO with whom I had been working for about four years. As we were chatting comfortably at the end of a session, he said to me, “Ron, all of the work you do for us around team building, leadership development, and culture improvement is worth every penny you charge us. But your real value for me as a CEO is when we have these little chats, one on one, in these relaxing, comfortable, and trusting moments.”
At that moment I began to realize that the aspect of the business I found most enjoyable—talking openly and honestly with the leaders I worked with—was also the aspect they experienced as most valuable. Since that time a sizable percentage of my consulting business comes from personally coaching and mentoring business leaders.
During these moments of honest interaction, leaders are able to talk with me about personal doubts, concerns over the performance of another individual, and innovative ways to tackle new situations. We can do trial run-throughs of an upcoming presentation, a conference call, or a one-on-one meeting with a boss or colleague. Almost anything that is critical to their performance is open to discussion in this relaxed environment. Even personal situations and career decisions are fair game. The mentoring or coaching role is mainly about creating a safe environment to discuss any topic.
One of the hallmarks of a long-term mentoring relationship is the intentional communication that will encourage and assist others and advance the cause of the organization.