Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Are You Self-Motivated, Going-Through-the-Motions, or Tuned-Out? by Michelle Kunz

In an article on engagement (“Engage me or enrage me”, Management Issues, 26 Sep 2006), Max McKeown describes three possible types of students and the three possible types of employees they may become: self-motivated, going-through-the-motions or tuned-out. These types develop as a result of the education system failing to fully engage a student, followed by their employment experience failing to fully engage them. This post does not intend to address the issues of the education system nor describe the three types and how to diagnose them. The reason I bring this to your attention is that as a leader, you are going to have these types on your team. And you, yourself, are also most likely one of these types.

In a series of separate articles Management Issues addresses a host of topics related to employee engagement. Among them is the article “The keys to employee engagement” (February 2007) in which a UK poll of 100,000 employees suggests that managers who lead by example, listen to their employees and engage in life long learning are most likely to engage employees. Let me paint this a little more clearly for those of you who may be feeling lost. The self-motivated employees are your smallest problem. If you have any hope of engaging the going-through-the-motion and the tuned-out types, you are going to have to step up to the plate and engage yourself first.

Leading by example

If we are to lead by example, we must first take an honest, no-holds-barred look at ourselves and see where we stand. If it is possible that our employees fall into one of three categories (self-motivated, going-through-the-motions, or tuned-out), then we must assess ourselves and see where we fall as well. To lead others, we must be able to lead ourselves. We must be able to walk the talk. This is because there is no leadership without trust. Trust requires vulnerability. And vulnerability requires that we can readily and freely admit our strengths AND our weaknesses. What we know and what we don’t. Where we are confident and where we need help. How can we expect our team to do what we ourselves are unwilling to do?

Leadership is an ongoing study in self growth. There is no way you can lead from a going-through-the-motions or a tuned-out position. We must get to a place of self motivation. This is sometimes simply a matter of hard work and discipline. Just when you think you’ve conquered your last experience with boredom and apathy, a day comes when the work facing you for the next eight hours seems less aligned with your internal fire and vision than you had hoped. The true test of self motivation arrives at that moment in the shape of: What do you do under those circumstances?

There are thousands of books written to tell you how to keep positive thoughts going, how to write out your goals and keep them in front of you to inspire you, how to prioritize and organize your time and tasks. And there are some people for whom those systems work very, very well. But what about those for whom the systems occasionally or perhaps even often don’t work? Is this an indication that they are less self-motivated? By definition, I argue that this means that in fact, no, they are not less self-motivated. For the first group, it is the goal, the positive thoughts, the system which is keeping them going — and as long as that works, they should keep doing it! But what if you are struggling to get motivated by goals, positive thoughts and systems?

Tapping into your values and principles

Some people are strongly motivated by a set of deeply held inner values and core principles by which their entire worlds are organized. When a project or even a small chore or task aligns with those values, they experience a sense of urgency and excitement which carries them through the action required. It doesn’t feel like work at all, and the time flies. If a given project or task does not seem to align with those core values, it is extremely difficult to see the point in doing it. It feels like a waste of time, and the time drags by.

The truth is, all of us have these core values and principles. We simply are not always aware of what they are. We have never stopped to give it any thought. If I were to ask you to define and rank your top five values, you might have a very difficult time coming up with a list. You might easily come up with twenty values you think should have equal importance, or you might struggle to come up with three. Either experience is simply an indication that you have not had the opportunity to think in these terms before.

As a powerful leader, it is essential to know clearly and without hesitation what your defining values are. When you have clarified this for yourself, you will become aware of which activities align with your values and which do not. And several options will become available to you. You can delegate a certain task to someone else who might have better alignment with the task; you can re-frame the task; or you can simply say no and seek tasks which are in better alignment with your values.

Furthermore, once you have clarity around values and principles, any set of goals, positive thoughts and external systems will have more value for you because you will ensure that whatever you are working with, it aligns with some deeper meaning. This creates a powerful synergy within you that allows the outer stuff (the goals, ideas, etc.) to have much more purpose. You will experience greater buy-in to your own plans.

Listening deeply to those we lead

Whether it is our children, someone we serve as a volunteer, or our employees, learning to listen deeply is essential in mastering the art of engaging others. The key is to listen to clues as to what the other person’s values and core principles might be. As we have seen, it is here that the essential ingredients — the keys — lie to true motivation.

For example, if someone is struggling with a particular task, we can ask empowering questions. What about the task is challenging? If the answer is anything other than skill related, this is a sign that something is out of alignment for the other person. Resistance in any form is a sign of misalignment. Sometimes we need to dig a little deeper to uncover assumptions or limiting beliefs that are simply in the way of alignment occurring. This can be true if the person we are working with believes that the task isn’t important, that no one cares about their project, that perceptions exist about their role in the company and so on. Our job at that point is to remove the assumptions and limiting beliefs so the person can become realigned with their task.

If the person we are working with begins to talk about not feeling connected to the bigger project or company picture, this is an indication of a larger type of misalignment which may or may not be able to be adjusted. Helping the person articulate their inner values at this point can be very helpful. Questions such as: What are the most important things to you in your life? What do you value the most in life? asked in a safe, confidential context can help the individual and you come to a greater understanding of what kind of work really motivates them. If you can then find a way to connect the work required of them to their motivations, you can help realign them to the task at hand. If not, it is sometimes better for all people involved if the person moves on to something else they are better suited for.

Life long learning

There are many types of learning, and it is easiest to focus on the external acquisition of additional skills. As leaders, who we are is often more important than what we know. To fully maximize our potential in being we need to become skilled in the area of self awareness. Self awareness is a life long process. It is not a course you take on a weekend where you receive a certificate and then you’re done. Of all the learning we can do to become more powerful leaders, self awareness is among the most important. When we seek to lead by example, how else can we truly accomplish that without a deep understanding of what it is we do and why? This applies everywhere — how we listen, how we talk, how we organize our tasks, how we approach problems, how we interact with others — and why. Self awareness does not require years of therapy (in the absence of psychological distress), but it does require an ongoing willingness to look inward and ask questions.

Many of us would prefer to not look within. We are afraid of what we will see and the implications. We’ll have to change everything, and we know that is impossible, so we feel like failures before we ever begin. That approach is filled with assumptions and limiting beliefs. A more curious and gentle approach might serve us better. We aren’t looking to deconstruct every relationship we ever had. We’re looking to get to know ourselves better. What am I really like? What makes my creative and energetic juices flow? What do I like and don’t like? If there were no other people or institutions in the world (i.e., no pressure), what would I choose for this or that? Why am I not choosing that now? If I could have any resource I needed within 24 hours, what would I choose to do within the next 48?

The answers to these questions shed a great deal of light on who we are now and who we might become. Powerful leaders look for potential within as well as without and they know that like the old song “let peace begin with me”, motivation, engagement, excitement, inspiration, all that is good in leadership begins with one person: me.

Are you self-motivated, going-through-the-motions or tuned-out? Regardless of were you are now, you have the ability to make a big shift into the type you choose to be. Choose powerful leadership. Choose leading by example, deep listening and life long learning.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Death by Waiting by Michelle Kunz

In the October 9, 2007 print edition of the "Wall Street Journal" Jared Sandberg's "Cubicle Culture" column addressed an issue we can all relate to: the fatal effects of waiting on creativity, motivation, morale and productivity. Sandberg observes that no matter how many technological advances we develop to eliminate waiting, there are always built in enforcers of the status quo. Email, for example, can send our messages immediately, but we have no control over whether the person receiving will actually respond.

Managing up is a hot topic right now. Everyone would like to get their supervisor, or better yet, the C Suite, on the same page as they are. There is the perception that if upper management would change, everything would improve. There are many assumptions buried in those perceptions, and whether they are accurate or not is not the topic for this particular post. Waiting for management to change, however, is. That falls under the topic of trying to control the outcome of someone else's behavior, overtly or covertly, and we can just let that go and move on to areas where we have more direct control.

As leaders we do have a great deal of control over how smoothly things flow within our direct spheres of influence. Most of this control lies in setting good examples, laying down clear operating guidelines, communicating expectations and following up with direct feedback which delivers specific information to the recipient on how they can adjust their actions to better serve the team. Let's look at each of these areas in greater detail as they relate to waiting.

Good examples

Time management is one of those terms often used and seldom understood. It might be helpful to review the Pareto Principle which states that 80% of effects comes from 20% of causes. Think about that. What that is saying is that 80% of your causes (or efforts) are practically wasted (producing only 20% of your effects, or outcomes). The purpose of a time management system ideally is to maximize your efforts so that you are in peak performance more often than 20% of the time. Before you can implement a calendar or task list, however, you first need to identify which activities actually produce your greatest results (the 80% of effects) and devise a strategy for maximizing your time spent in those activities. This may require delegating, saying no to or redefining other activities so you can maximize your efforts.

If you can't get your arms around this as a leader, it will be difficult to make the case for your team to do it. Here are some common areas where leaders lay down weak examples for teams to follow, wasting time and causing undue delays in the process:

  • Failing to stick to action-producing agendas for meetings
  • Attempting to get consensus on a topic when a clear decision is called for
  • Resisting setting up clear accountability guidelines so action is well supported
  • Allowing deadlines to slip without asking for accountability in ways that produce action
  • Overlooking the importance of clarity in all aspects of communication, inviting misunderstandings, mistakes and delays
  • Miscalculating the importance of accurate and timely cascading communication systems

Clear operating guidelines

Some of the bullet points above fall under this heading. One of the best ways a leader can help a team avoid playing the waiting game is to lay down clear operating procedures from the very beginning. This requires a clear construct of all aspects of the team's activities and responsibilities, both internally and interdepartmentally. The best way to get this picture will be to ask for input from your team. They know better than you what they do, how they do it and how long it takes. You probably know the why better than they do. And you can push back on the how and how long, perhaps even the what if something seems out of place. With this kind of dialogue and open debate, a very clear picture of overall team activity and responsibilities will begin to take shape. Everyone on the team needs to have this clear picture -- each member should clearly understand what everyone else does and why and have a good sense of the how and how long. This understanding eliminates unreasonable requests from one member to another, and sets reasonable expectations between team members.

Once you have the picture, continuing the dialogue to include what core procedures must be in place to keep the team at peak performance will elicit ideas you may not think of if you do this exercise alone. You'll have an organizational view, which is essential, but they will have priorities and preferences which will be no less vital to keeping the team motivated and happy. Working through these issues early on will ensure that everyone is on the same page and has buy-in. Clearly laying this out for your team will ensure that later on no time is wasted waiting for someone else to decide what should be happening at this point in the project.

Clear expectations

"Expectations" is not about levels of perfection. It's about goals and objectives and deadlines and accountability. What do you expect people to do, by when, and how will they let you know it has been accomplished? How should they let you know it is NOT going to be accomplished or that a problem has developed -- and by when? How much do you want to be kept in the loop along the way? Who is accountable to whom else on the team? How will that happen? How do they handle an accountability issue between teammates? If you have not laid out a very clear set of expectations around objectives, deadlines and accountability, you are asking your team to wait while you figure it out along the way. Furthermore, you are asking for a lot of wasted time while people deal with misunderstandings and ambiguity around the essential questions of Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. Do not ever be afraid to be too clear when answering those questions. And always ask people to tell you what they heard you say just in case you weren't as clear as you thought you were.

Direct feedback

So many people struggle with feedback. They take it personally. They fear the other person will take it personally. If the other person does take it personally, they take that personally. No wonder supervisors frequently dread the annual review process. Wouldn't we all rather just give out gold stars and call it a day?

Feedback in its simplest form is information about where you are in relation to where you said you wanted to be. You set an objective: A, and you set a deadline: B. On date B you look to see if you've accomplished A. If you have, great! You can talk about what happened, how you felt about it, what you learned, what happened that you expected, and what happened that you didn't. That's all part of extended feedback -- how you felt and what you learned. What gets difficult for most of us is when date B comes along and we didn't accomplish A.

So here are two cases: Case 1: we are close to getting A, but we're just not there yet. In this case, we assess the original goal and see if our date was unrealistic. Or perhaps something else happened -- Time management issues? Extenuating circumstances? It's all feedback. Case 2: We didn't accomplish A, but we did accomplish C. In this case, we can really get out of the box and ask some interesting questions. Was A necessary after all? Is C more useful in some way than A? Were we just goofing off and C is a complete waste of time? What kept us from doing A and what drew us to doing C? All of this is also feedback. And, of course, there are many other questions that the exact situation will ignite that will shed additional light on the subject.

The point is, without feedback, there will be no forward movement. The goal can be large or small, no matter. Along the way, we all need feedback so we can adjust course. That might mean carry on, or it might mean abandon ship. Either course is valid and important, but we won't know until we get feedback.

Waiting is a part of life. We will wait in traffic. We will be put on hold while making a doctor's appointment. And we will probably wait for a request from another department or from the powers that be above us. But within our own teams waiting can be minimized or at least be made meaningful by adopting principles and creating systems which support movement -- creating the freedom to move, supporting the ability to move, enforcing accountability for movement and always, always making sure we have solicited input from the beginning so we have clarity, understanding and most importantly -- ownership.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Am I in a Dysfunctional Job? by Michelle Kunz

Most likely you and everyone you know can think of someone who has worked or is currently working at a job they would be much happier leaving. They don't get along with their supervisor or they dislike the work itself. They end their day exhausted and irritable. It is fairly easy to understand why someone would choose to leave such a situation but the truth is many choose to stay. Why would someone continue working under such stressful conditions?

One of the September manifestos on the excellent website Change This is entitled "The Turnover Dilemma: A Question to Keep Employees." Author Matthew Kelly reviews the current belief set around why people leave their jobs and then offers a new idea:

If you asked most consultants in the field why employees voluntarily leave a job they would give you some or all of the following answers…
  • The employee’s relationship with his/her manager is dysfunctional.
  • The employee does not feel appreciated and valued.
  • The employee does not feel that his/her talents are being utilized. i.e. they feel like they have more to offer.
  • The employee has no way to measure his/her success or progress.
What most consultants will not tell you is that while these are all valid reasons, they are secondary to what is at the core of the turnover issue. The #1 reason people leave a job is not because they have a dysfunctional relationship with their manager or because they don’t feel appreciated. They leave because they cannot see the connection between the work they are doing today and the future they imagine for themselves.

If we take Kelly's position that it is a lack of connection to our dreams which causes us to leave, we can also reason that some people will choose to remain in a miserable situation because they believe that doing so will help them achieve a goal or dream. The other possibility is that we remain in dysfunctional situations because we are afraid of what we might lose if we leave. Let's look at these two possibilities and how a leader might handle each.

I cannot afford to lose

When we are caught in the energy of "I must avoid _________" we fight a losing battle. This battle is in our minds, and this is why we cannot win. No matter how much we stockpile against the possibility of encountering that which we seek to avoid, we will never have quite enough. We can suddenly lose it all. Examples of things people frequently believe they cannot afford to lose:
  • Dignity
  • Self respect
  • Credibility
  • Popularity
  • Prestige
  • Status
  • Wealth
  • Authority

The reality is some of these are qualities that live within us and which cannot be lost without our permission and cooperation (dignity, self respect). Some are dependent on factors that may very well be out of our control (popularity, prestige, authority). Still others are combinations of external factors and internal qualities. Any time there are external factors, we do not have full control of the outcome. Any attempt to gain full control is wasted energy.

Grasping for control produces the opposite of the desired outcome. The more we strive to maintain our dignity on the outside, the greater the chance that we are losing it in the very act of striving. Dignity is a state of being, not a state of striving. Likewise, striving to control our level of popularity, an externally controlled factor, likely will decreased our actual popularity level because popularity is defined by others, not by how hard we try to be popular.

A powerful leader asks tough questions of him/herself and answers honestly. Am I striving or grasping for things I really have no control over? Am I tolerating a dysfunctional situation because I believe I have something to lose if I leave? More powerfully, do I believe I will lose something by honestly and constructively confronting the dysfunctions and doing my best to create a better environment for myself and others?

What would it be like to ask those same questions of your team members? What would you do with the answers? How can you help team members caught up in "I can't afford to lose" energy understand that this is an internal battle which can be reframed to help improve their situation?

I have a dream

Kelly asserts that having a dream engages us more strongly than any other single factor, including money or position. Consider the immigrant who works a back-breaking job for long hours every day because they dream of uniting their far-away family in their adopted country some day. Strategy, important as it is, is not nearly as engaging as dreaming.

What is your dream? If you choose to remain in a dysfunctional job because you are working to achieve your dream, the more powerfully and specifically you define that dream, the more engaged you will become with your work, in spite of the dysfunctions. As a result of this higher level of engagement, you will feel empowered to choose to address the reasons for the dysfunctions and work to resolve them. You will feel empowered to make more and better choices for yourself and for your team.

A powerful leader defines his/her dreams and keeps them easily accessible at all times. When faced with dysfunction on the job, the dream gives them the confidence and drive to address the issues at hand and find a healthier resolution. Moreover, a truly great leader inspires all those within their sphere of influence to nurture their own dreams, empowering them with the same confidence and drive to address issues and work toward resolution.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Integrity vs. Convenience by Michelle Kunz

Carmine Coyote's blog entry for September 21 asks a very important question: Can you display integrity only when it suits you? Inspired by Peter Vajda's article "Integrity at work – how do you stack up?" Carmine argues that striving for absolute integrity adds undue stress and guilt to already overwhelmed individuals who may find that under certain circumstances it makes sense to simply compromise their integrity in favor of simplifying a tense or demanding situation.

Peter Vajda states that integrity is "a lot like being pregnant. Either you're pregnant, or you aren't. There's no middle ground." Either we act with integrity or we don't. This is a tough position to take, and his quiz asks some very hard questions. I cannot pass with 100% perfection. The perfection word has tripped us up again. That and a lack of clarity around what is integrity.

What is integrity?

Integrity, according to Encarta, is "the quality of possessing and steadfastly adhering to high moral principles or professional standards." The second and third definitions are also helpful in extending our understanding: "the state of being complete or undivided" and "the state of being sound or undamaged." Taken together, one who acts with integrity not only possesses and steadfastly adheres to high moral principles or standards, but is also complete, undivided and undamaged. This state of being complete, undivided and undamaged is due to the fact that such an individual does not act in a way that divides them against themselves. They hold themselves in a state of deep respect and honor.

Whose standards?

The problems we experience with integrity begin when we fail to stop and ask ourselves whose standards we possess and expect ourselves to adhere to. It makes sense that whenever those standards are externally imposed we will at some point find ourselves in conflict with them and probably choose to ignore them. There may or may not be an external consequence for that choice, but most people will experience some sense of guilt or shame for going against principles they claim to honor but fail to actually follow in their real life actions.

A better choice is to take the time to define our own values and standards. When we narrow down our most important values to no more than five (it is almost impossible to focus on any more than about five) what we have left is a set of core defining principles around which all of our actions and attitudes can be compared. When we align our actions, attitudes and beliefs with these core principles, we are living in integrity. Because they are prinicples we defined, we see the direct correlation between living these values and an improvement in some area of our life, depending on what values we defined. Making choices becomes easier, saying no becomes easier, and guilt is manageable because when we say no to something external, we say yes to something internal.


A mid-level manager is working 60 hour weeks. His wife complains frequently that he is missing his son's soccer games and isn't home to engage with her. She questions his values around family. He experiences a great deal of shame and guilt because he thinks he ought to be a better husband and father, but he doesn't know how to balance the demands of his job with the demands of his family.

During a coaching session, we define his core values as Family, Financial Freedom, Authenticity, Integrity and Honesty. As we explore what these values mean to him, we uncover that he has deep concerns regarding paying his mortgage and a strong desire to earn a promotion which may be available to him in the next year so he can provide some additional discretionary income to his family. He has a strong commitment to providing for his family's financial future, and a desire to fulfill his wife's desire for nice things in their home.

On closer inspection, it turns out that his working long hours serves two of his five core values: Family and Financial Freedom. By working long and hard he has a better chance at getting that promotion, and therefore providing for his family's financial future and filling their immediate desires. He has not seen it in these terms before because on the surface it looks like his values have been in conflict. But the long hours are less about his career and more about his family. Where he is out of alignment most is in Authenticity and Honesty. He needs to have a discussion with his wife to express with authenticity and honesty how his working long hours serves those other two core values. This will put him into better integrity over all. With her feedback he can make adjustments if necessary as he gains a better understanding of his family's financial needs and desires.

At first glance, it may have looked as if the answer was "work fewer hours and spend more time with your family". Perhaps after receiving feedback from his wife the answer will be more along the lines of "work 55 hours and spend one hour per weekday playing with your son". The point here is that until you define your core values, you don't really know what the answer is. What appears to be the answer might be a lousy compromise that will make you feel guilty about something else. You end up trading guilt for guilt.

Relationships - Integrity = Lack of Trust

When people choose convenience based integrity, which means they adhere to high principles only when it is convenient, no one knows what to expect. Who defines when it is convenient? When is that definition made public? Typically that decision is made on the spur of the moment and under duress. Or in rebellion. Or in any number of other situations which are purely self serving. How can anyone count on you when your integrity changes without warning? Trust simply cannot exist under such conditions, and this is a requirement for powerful, engaging, dynamic leadership.

Trust requires reliability -- people have to know what to expect from you. Your commitment to your self-defined set of values makes you reliable. Your actions align themselves in a way that makes sense because they are defined by your values. Even if people do not agree with your values, they at least know what to expect, and this increases their ability to trust you.

What many people dislike about absolute integrity is that it requires absolute responsibility for our actions. When we find ourselves out of alignment, we cannot affix blame to outside circumstances or other people. We have only ourselves to look to for accountability. And this is a key difference.

Blame vs. Accountability

When you practice convenience integrity, you get an easy way out any time you need an excuse as to why you choose an action which does not align itself with your values. You simply blame it on the extenuating circumstances. "The boss required it." "I needed a break." The assumption is that you've done something wrong and you need to provide a reason why. When you practice absolute integrity, there is a better choice: accountability.

Accountability and responsibility are interchangeable. Blame, however, is not. Blame is always negative. Accountability and responsibility are neutral. This difference is crucial. When we look within to examine our behavior in a situation where our actions did not align with our values, we can give ourselves permission to be neutral. We can simply be in discovery mode. What were the circumstances? What were we thinking and feeling? What other values came into play? What other choices might we have made instead which would have better served our core values? What kept us from making those choices? What can we do differently next time?

This mode of discovery allows growth to occur. Convenience integrity does not allow for growth because of the convenience factor. It's like eating fast food: no work, little nutrition. The blame game encourages excuses rather than discovery, and we go nowhere. But we still feel guilt, even while we feel relief. Because we know that we have divided ourselves and we are now unreliable.
Powerful leaders know it requires courage and inner strength to live with integrity. They do not fool themselves into thinking it requires perfection. They realize the values they define are there as a guide for their actions, and they seek to choose those actions mindfully. When they make a mistake, they freely admit it, learn from their experience and adapt. This adaptive ability strengthens their alignment with their core values. As a result, they become more reliable and trustworthy, which encourages others to have greater confidence in their ability to lead.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Better Than Any Assigned Mentor by Michelle Kunz

Never take the advice of someone who has not had your kind of trouble.
-- Sidney J. Harris

Nothing is less sincere than our mode of asking and giving advice. He who asks seems to have a deference for the opinion of his friend, while he only aims to get approval of his own and make his friend responsible for his action. And he who gives advice repays the confidence supposed to be placed in him by a seemingly disinterested zeal, while he seldom means anything by his advice but his own interest or reputation.
-- Francois De La Rochefoucauld (1613 - 1680)

Mentoring For Success

Many success experts suggest finding a mentor as one way to assure success. Mentoring, as described by Jack Canfield, for example, in The Success Principles, is a fundamental aspect of "seeking out the clues of success." He dedicates an entire chapter to "Find a Wing to Climb Under." This chapter begins with instructions to find someone who has already accomplished what you wish to accomplish and seek their advice.

In the August 28 print edition of The Wall Street Journal Elizabeth Holmes wrote a column addressing the limitations of assigned mentor programs. In her article she cited examples of mismatched relationships, poorly run programs, ill defined objectives and lack of mentor commitment among the reasons why such programs might fail.

The trouble with many internal mentoring programs is they fail to make the essential match of determining what it is the mentee wishes to accomplish and who has already done it. In addition to other issues of personality matches and levels of desire for participation, this first test must be met in order for a mentoring relationship to exist. Many organizations simply match mentors and mentees at random. Other managers of internal programs believe they have met this objective based on shared experience and assumptions such as:
  • You must have the same goals as the person supervising you
  • Assigned mentor used to have your current position
  • Transitioned from same company
  • Transitioned from same discipline
  • Shared alma mater

Shared experiences might give you something to talk about, but they may have nothing to do with your professional objectives. Furthermore, if the company were to ask you to identify your objectives in the hope of better matching you to a potential mentor, it is highly unlikely you would feel free to share such information if it included plans to transition to another division or be promoted to CEO.

Companies offer mentoring programs with good intentions. Mentoring can be a path to success, as we have seen. In addition, new hires and new promotions often need additional help, and it would seem that a mentor relationship would make most sense for offering that help. This reflects a misunderstanding of the nature of a mentoring relationship, however, which is to show someone else how you accomplished what they would like to accomplish and guide them through the process. If we are looking simply to help a new hire or a new promotion, there are several non-mentor helping relationships which might be more useful. These include:
  • Buddy: show me where everything is and how it works and introduce me to key people
  • Supervisor: establish key position goals and objectives and walk me through the organizational structure
  • Guru: clue me in on organizational culture and other off-the-record information I can't find anywhere else

Any of these individuals might also make a great mentor. The key to finding a great mentor is first to understand what you want from them -- define your professional objective. A mentor is going to help you see what is possible within the organization and help set expectations of what you can achieve and how. They are going to take an interest in your professional development. In order for that to happen, this individual needs to be far enough ahead of you in the organization that they have perspective and experience.

A buddy can be a peer, and a guru can be anyone who has been there long enough to be in the know. Neither of these are necessarily someone far enough ahead to grant the necessary perspective to make a great mentor. Meanwhile a supervisor may find themselves with conflicting priorities or interests. What is in your best interest long term may be in direct conflict with what they need you to do right now.

Who's Who?

It takes time to identify someone who makes good mentor material. A quick read of who's who in the office line-up will not always reflect quality so much as altitude. How they got there is just as important as that they did. In addition, leadership styles matter. Someone who leads with "might makes right" or charisma will not be as good a mentor as someone who leads with a developmental leadership style. If you are new to the organization, ask around about leadership styles. People will likely have a lot of opinions they are happy to share.

Once you've identified a good candidate, the only thing left to do is make an appointment and ask. Most people are afraid to ask for what they want. The specific fears are too many to list, but they really are variations of the fear of rejection. We are afraid someone will say "no." That fear keeps us from asking someone out for a date, asking for that promotion, proposing a great idea, and finding a mentor who can show us the way to the very highest peaks of success. The truth is that if we do get a "no" we are no worse off than we were before except for our pride. If we can learn to manage our egos, we can learn to ask for anything and get much more than we currently have, just because we asked.

Successful people like to share what they have learned. And they want to be asked in a way that makes it seem appealing. Planning how to ask is an important part of the process which leads to a potential "yes." Developing a plan for the relationship in advance and showing how you plan to do the necessary work to make it a successful venture will certainly make a request much more attractive to a potential mentor.

Once you have found someone who will mentor you, the best way to keep that relationship vital is to follow through with what your mentor suggests. Wasting someone's time is never a good policy, and with mentors this is particularly true. Since you are ostensibly learning from what they have done, why would you not take their advice? Be very clear on this when you make the decision to enter into the relationship. If you are not prepared to act, do not bother making a proposal.

Alternatives to Assigned Mentoring

After reviewing how a successful mentoring relationship works, it is easy to see why many internal mentoring programs fail. In addition to the fatal flaw of the mismatch of desired to achieved success, without a personal request and commitment on the part of both parties, there is no buy-in. While the mentee may be desperate for help, the objectives may be unclear and help might be better sought through other sources.

If your organization offers assigned mentoring, there are alternatives, such as training and coaching, which provide different benefits but which might be more appropriate solutions for you and your team. Training brings a specific program of skills to the individual or group and, if applied throughout the organization, can offer a certain level of consistency. For new hires, this can be a great choice if getting them up and running is the challenge. You can even develop an internal training program which uniquely addresses your needs.

Coaching can also provide a foundation for consistency if it is designed to do so. In addition, coaching provides a confidential arena for the coachee to explore areas of concern and challenge combined with objective feedback and observation. In the coaching relationship a coachee can try out new skills without concern, explore possibilities, and develop action plans which are tailored to their needs and the needs of the organization. Unlike training, coaching is flexible and provides ongoing support and feedback in a real time environment. Unlike mentoring, coaching does not provide advice, but rather supports the coachee in discovering unique solutions to challenges.

Organizations often opt for internal assigned mentoring programs because there is a perception that training and coaching are more costly. However, when employees are left feeling lost and have no where to turn in spite of having an assigned mentor, what is the cost to the organization and to the employee? Worse, when an organization has offered a benefit which has no actual benefit, but instead lays hidden costs on both the mentor, who feels obligated to spend precious time with someone they have little professional interest in, and the mentee, for whom the relationship can be a burden in a situation where burdens are the precise reason for the relationship, what are the costs?

Ms. Holmes concludes her article with an anecdote from one employee whose best advice came from someone else's assigned "buddy." This was someone she felt comfortable going to for help and with whom she shared projects for feedback before presenting them to management. Is this not the essence of a mentor relationship: identify, choose and ask? Powerful leaders know the value of these actions in a mentoring relationship and they provide opportunities for their team members to engage in them as often as needed for their individual and mutual success.