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We must all be mentors now

This article appears in the issue November/December 2013, [Vol 22, Issue 10]

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It was only a decade ago when the warnings about the wave of retirements we're currently witnessing first sounded. Back then, most attempts to systematically pick a seasoned expert's brain were met with howls. "What? You want me to reveal the secrets I've spent all these years figuring out so you can give them to someone with half my salary and then show me the door? No way!"

What a difference a decade makes. Now when that same expert tries to set a retirement date, his or her boss is the one doing the howling. "What? You can't leave-no way! Nobody can do what you do!"

The day of reckoning has finally arrived as organizations scramble to take action they should have started years ago. Not surprisingly, a number of problems and challenges have surfaced. Here are a few that we've encountered and some tips for addressing them.

Problem #1: Time.

When you even mention the idea of setting up a formal mentoring program, the reaction is usually, "I just don't have time for this." When you ask why, the candidate mentor often says, "I'm way too busy. Everybody keeps coming to me for help. I'm being pulled in a dozen different directions." "And why is that?" you might ask in reply. "Could it be your telling everybody what to do but never explaining the reasoning behind it is what's keeping you in the go-to person prison?"

Solution: Break the cycle by presenting mentoring as an opportunity to move from a stressful situation to a more fulfilling role. Require that specific, dedicated times be established for mentoring, as opposed to making it "collateral duty" in some nonexistent band of so-called "spare time."

Problem #2: Too much "I'm great" and too little "we're great."

A good example of this is the traditional sales force. From 5-star vacations to fat bonuses awarded to top producers, this approach consistently delivers results ... that is, if revenue generation is all you're looking for. But those results come at a cost of cultivating a destructive winner-take-all mentality focusing on individual growth, as opposed to collaborative, organizational growth.

Solution: "I'm better than you" perpetuates the mystique associated with traditional mentoring. You need to break the pattern by saying repeatedly, "We're better when we work as a team." Then (and this is a must) get your leadership to totally redo your compensation system to bring it into alignment with a true knowledge-sharing culture.

Problem #3: Not addressing the root cause of at-risk knowledge.

Let's say the one person with all the critical knowledge about a particular facet of how you do business is planning to retire. But at least that person has been kind enough to give you plenty of advance notice.

Now suppose you've found a suitable mentee, knowledge transfer has occurred and the expert has retired as planned. Guess what? You're right back where you started, having all the critical knowledge about a particular facet of how you do business in one person's head.

Solution: Instead of thinking one on one, start treating mentoring sessions as once-in-a-lifetime opportunities worthy of being recorded. Capture those golden nuggets of wisdom by using whatever means you have available: webcams, audio recordings, mindmaps, flow diagrams, stories and case histories or plain old handwritten notes. Make those artifacts accessible, editable and expandable across the entire enterprise.

Problem #4: Not recognizing the difference between training, mentoring and coaching.

If good mentors are scarce, they should not be burdened with providing training and coaching in what should be basic skills (recall Problem #1).

Solution: Let mentors be mentors. Prerequisite skills should be addressed by others, such as professional coaches and trainers. However, make sure the mentor is involved in identifying skills gaps and training requirements.

With those tips in mind, here's a simple process to get your mentoring efforts headed in the right direction:

1. Identify the critical knowledge in your organization that has the greatest risk of being lost.

2. Identify the best sources and recipients for that knowledge (the more the better).

3. Mutually set learning objectives, lay out a reasonable timetable and make a firm commitment to set aside dedicated time for the mentoring effort.

4. Determine appropriate knowledge transfer modalities, especially considering: a) the type of knowledge being imparted (complexity, degree of soft skills involved, cognitive load and other factors); b) the teaching style of the mentor;  and c) the learning style of the mentee. Both mentor and mentee must be willing to adapt and adjust their styles, especially when spanning one or more generational gaps.

5. Conduct the knowledge transfer sessions, including some form of knowledge capture (audio, video, blog, etc.) where appropriate. Having mentees produce the artifacts keeps them engaged while building a high-value corporate knowledge library.

6. Periodically review progress and make adjustments.

As you march toward the goal of everyone being a mentor, be sure to create, nurture and grow a mentoring community of practice. Have your best mentors mentor your junior mentors in the art of mentoring.

In summary, traditional one-on-one mentoring approaches are not compatible with fast-learning enterprises. Get mentoring out of the shadows. Bring it front and center, not just as a succession planning tool, but also as a strategic resource for sustained organizational growth.

Finally, put systems and practices in place aimed at making everyone a mentor. In the enterprise of the future, everyone has something to contribute, and much to learn. 

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