July 2006 Insight Newsletter


Mentoring Questions

Why is mentoring rare? Perhaps because it’s seen as having fewer immediate payoffs than the focused coaching that we expect every manager to do.

Last month’s newsletter about leader development drew interesting comments. We noted that today’s employees respond less well to orders from command-and-control leaders. They need to be “engaged” at work, not “bossed.” Yet many companies still seek for and promote charismatic, command-and-control style managers. They continue to look for “magic bullet” or “white knight” managers who in theory solve every problem single-handedly.

The puzzle is that to develop leaders effectively we need to build on strengths, but only about one in five who are promoted seem to have strengths in areas that produce effective, development-style leadership. Most are great individual contributors, but have difficulty developing people or dealing with conflict or challenges from them. Of developmental challenges, mentoring is perhaps the most misunderstood and distant, yet it is relatively straight forward in essence.

Mentoring Seen As Much Needed

Of the top ten influences leaders cite as most helpful in their own development, coaching, mentoring and frank discussions rate very highly. A number of readers specifically mentioned the need for mentors. Since so few existing managers are naturally good at these skills, what can we do? The key is to make the skills easy for individual contributors to become good at. If we can make it clear what they need to actually DO, many will do it.

The skills turn out to be fairly straight forward. Every leader, as much as possible, needs to be encouraged to mentor and coach others. Coaching is becoming better understood and is the easier task. Just five key questions make one effective at it: What is it you want to achieve? What would have to happen for that to occur? What would need to be different from current circumstances? What could you start with to make that happen? And when can we get back together to see if that worked?

Effective coaching simply means asking the person you are coaching these questions at each meeting. It can be handled quite informally as long as you follow this flow of inquiry. You can brainstorm with them if they seem stuck, but essentially we need to encourage employees regularly to solve their own issues. After all, isn’t that what we hired them to do? If we thought they could not achieve goals without specific instruction from us, we definitely hired the wrong people.

Every leader can practice asking these questions when managing people instead of issuing orders. If they have done the up-front job required in most companies – that is: helping their people develop mutually understood objectives and goals at the outset, then there should not be a direct need to issue orders.

If the employee knows what the goals are they should be able to answer these questions. For a manager, putting the questions forth in a supportive, earnestly helpful manner should “engage” employees to the maximum in their work. Of course, many command-and-control managers ask only rhetorically, using the question as a pretext to begin telling the employee what to do. That defeats the purpose. But if a manager truly practices these questions in every reasonably possible situation they will become adept at coaching.

Mentoring Is A Bigger Challenge

What we call mentoring is a bigger challenge. It usually means that a manager other than one’s immediate boss takes an interest in a less defined form of coaching. This can range from using the same coaching questions above to simply trading ideas. It includes giving the employee a wider perspective, a context in which to see their present work as part of a larger career path and a wider company goal than simply today’s tasks.

It is a purely voluntary discussion, unlike direct boss-employee, which must happen to get work done. Therefore good will and openness is needed on both sides to make mentoring work. That occurs more rarely in most companies because the underlying culture of guiding others is often missing.

Effective mentors can come from within or outside one’s present employer. They keep confidential the discussions that occur. They seek to broaden an employee’s outlook, to show other career paths, to suggest committees, assignments, alternative courses of action and different views of situations than the employee or even their boss might take. Their primary effect is to give employees confidence that someone believes they have potential bigger than their present job and suggest how that potential could be put to use sooner rather than later.

Nothing stops a boss from mentoring their own people, but that can be confusing for both. When an employee’s potential could take them away from their present duties, that can be difficult for a boss to genuinely recommend, whereas an outside manager would have fewer qualms about suggesting it. Direct bosses are usually best to stick to coaching on more immediate goals except for occasional career discussions, but the overall effects are similar. Both methods encourage employees to try new approaches, to build confidence and to think longer term and more broadly than they otherwise might.

Both mentoring and coaching flourish better in environments where they are explicitly supported by strategy and intentions of senior management… in short by the “culture” of the company. The two sets of skills are similar, except that a mentor has less of a stake in getting the immediate work done and so can spend more time asking the employee to think broadly about what they might contribute over the longer term rather than immediately.

Getting managers into coaching mode sets up a much greater likelihood that they will also mentor staff beyond their own reports when they notice potential. Once a manager learns to coach, they tend to apply those skills in many situations because they are so much more effective in the long run than command-and-control. As they develop confidence in coaching, they naturally tend toward mentoring as well.

At the same time people comfortable with coaching tend to look to others for input for themselves as well. They are more likely to be seen by their own senior managers as more “coach-able” or “mentor-able.” That makes it more worthwhile for those senior managers to invest the time and effort to coach and mentor, so the overall environment grows more friendly toward these processes over time.

Building A Culture Over Time

Positive cultures can actually develop fairly quickly if there is a concerted effort to engage more managers in applying coaching. The steps for this are clear, and their use is relatively easy to measure by asking in employee surveys. We can also see where managers fall short in this area by identifying where attitude problems, absenteeism and poor productivity occur.

Strategies encouraging coaching and mentoring along with positive examples from senior managers go a long way to installing the right culture sooner rather than later. We know from much research that these are the most powerful influences we can put in place to improve company results. They take no more, in fact almost certainly less, time than command-and-control leadership with its error-prone results. This is why the most successful larger companies today would not think of targeting any other style. Once under way the effects are self-reinforcing and will spread widely barring the hiring of new senior management with destructive command-and-control attitudes. All it takes is some basic training and the right strategies, backed by people who consistently apply and support them.

More In Depth Resources

Mentoring is a widely discussed topic. Not all of the information is useful, as usual. For a sense of the breadth, this site lists some good articles, mostly available online: http://www.mentors.ca/mentorpapers.html. As always I find that keeping the basics such as the above in mind makes it easier to assess, interpret and apply such readings.

©Dave Crisp 2006