The Limits of Good Mentoring

I’ve been truly blessed throughout my life to have great mentors. I knew they were great mentors because every now and then they would say “I don’t know, you should probably ask someone else.” 

 

I’ve written several times on the importance of having a mentor. No matter your age, your current level of success, your title or your position within your organization, you will do better tomorrow if you have a mentor today. What’s more you’ll be even better off if you have multiple mentors. 

 

Here’s why. 

 

One of the things that make a great mentor is that they know what they don’t know and they didn’t pretend that they know it. 

 

You can have a mentor who is a brilliant business strategist but not so capable with their people skills. You can have a managerial genius as a mentor but that doesn’t mean they are great leadership coaches. 

 

Those “gaps” don’t mean they are a bad mentor. It’s when they attempt to fill those gaps with guesses, rumors, and plain old BS that they become a poor mentor. I suppose there are mentors who do have a vast amount of knowledge across a very wide spectrum of skill sets and situations…..I just haven’t found one.

 

I’d much rather have a mentor, and much much rather be a mentor, who occasionally has the confidence to say “I just don’t know,” and “I don’t want to steer you wrong so I can’t answer that.” 

 

This may sound a bit counterintuitive but if you have a mentor that has an answer for every question and advice for every single situation then it is very likely you don’t have the right mentor for you. 

 

Having more than one mentor helps overcome the limits that all truly good mentors have. When you have multiple mentors you are more likely to have a mentor with deeper experience in the area(s) where you need help. When you have mentors who look at the same situation but view it from different angles you’re provided with a deeper understanding of what you’re dealing with and that makes a successful outcome much more likely.

 

If you don’t have a mentor today then find one today. Find someone who you feel is successful, someone who cares enough about people to share their “library of experience,” and someone who is willing to invest a part of themselves in your success. 


When you find someone with those characteristics then you have found a mentor and when you’ve found a mentor you’re that much closer to finding an even greater level of success.


Why You Need a Mentor

I am darn near perfect. The only thing that keeps me from just outright declaring my perfection is that I am also very humble. If other people could see my perfection the world would indeed be a better place!

I remain perfect pretty much right up to the time someone who cares about me talks some sense into me… then I see a little different me.

You don’t see yourself the way others see you. You may not think you’re perfect but because you’re human you likely hold yourself to a somewhat different standard than you hold others. It is much easier to state your principles than it is to live them.

The person that talks some sense into me is called a mentor. (or my wife but that’s a different post) They are a truth teller. They see my world from the outside, without the fog of ego, defensiveness, shame, and the need to be liked.

They see me the way others see me and they paint me a picture so I can see it too. 

That helps me be a better me. If you want to be a better you then you need a mentor. If you don’t want to call them a mentor then call them a coach. You can call them whatever you like but they need to care enough about you to invest in your growth by being honest with you. Even when “honest” hurts. It’s okay to be friendly with them but they don’t necessarily have to be a friend, it might be better if they weren’t. 

You can hire a professional coach or select someone that you admire and that most people see as successful… however you define successful. Whether your coach/mentor is paid or not that best way to repay them is by following their advice. Listen, REALLY LISTEN, to what they have to say, linger on their words until they sink in. If you’ve picked the right mentor then they are telling you the truth. If they are telling you the truth then you NEED to listen. 

Regardless of your current level of success you will be better off with a mentor. Even if you’ve reached the pinnacle of your career you will be better off with a trusted sounding board. 

A coach or mentor will not tell you what your principles are, they just help you live them.

Mirror Mirror on the Wall

Once upon a time there lived a lovely princess named Snow White. Her vain and wicked stepmother, the Queen, feared that some day Snow White’s beauty would surpass her own. So she dressed the princess in rags and forced her to work as a maid. Each day the vain queen consulted her magic mirror, “Magic Mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?”… and as long as the mirror answered, “You are the fairest of them all,” Snow White was safe from the Queen’s cruel jealousy.

Wouldn’t we all like a mirror that would tell us each day just how great we are. The thing is, some people really do seem to have one. They look in the mirror and the image they see is far different than the image they project to other people.

When we see ourselves we are most often crystal clear on exactly what we meant to say. We make good, appropriate decisions and when we look in the mirror we see somebody worth far more than they are being paid and someone not fully appreciated for the greatness they bring into the world everyday. We know precisely how to leverage our strengths and how to eliminate our weaknesses.

Or perhaps you look into the mirror and the person who looks back adds no value to their world, they are misunderstood and are destined to just wander through life until their time on earth is done.

It’s very likely that neither of those “reflections” is accurate. They are not accurate because hardly anyone sees themselves in the same way others see them. Their mirrors are not providing a reflection that truly shows the reality of their life.

So as we near the end of 2014 here is the best advice I could ever give anyone for a better 2015: get yourself an accurate mirror.

That “mirror” I’m talking about is actually a mentor or coach. Your mentor should be someone who cares about you enough to be open and honest with you about your strengths and weaknesses.

Your mentor needs to be self-reflective because if you want someone to share their wisdom with you, they need to have wisdom to share. Some people simply don’t spend much time thinking about their own experience. You’ll want a mentor that can explain what worked in their life AND why it worked. Your mentor can’t pass along what they don’t know so self-reflection is a key.

If you want a mentor that trusts you then you must be able to trust your mentor. In a good mentor relationship, you need to be able to be honest about your own life and circumstances – and you need to be certain that what you share won’t go beyond your mentor. If they can’t be trusted to keep confidences, your relationship will be superficial at best – actually damaging at worst.

If you’re brave enough to ask your mentor for advice then your mentor needs to be brave enough to give you a straight answer. Don’t look for a mentor who will sugar-coat the truth. Take your advice straight-up, with no sweetness and no politically correct wishy-washy coaching added.
Look for a generous, giving mentor, a mentor who truly wants the best for you. A true mentor will never feel threatened by your success. A generous mentor will invest the time required to help you become your very best. Your success will actually be a priority for them.

Some individuals may choose to hire a coach or a mentor. The same requirements apply; the one big difference is a professional coach may work with you for a predetermined amount of time, on one area of your life in particular or to help you achieve one big goal. Hiring a professional coach is not an expense, it is one of the best investments you can make, it’s an investment in yourself.

Either way you should know this: you will be more successful with someone to help you smooth out life’s bumps then you will ever be by going it alone.

I’m not sure I was clear enough with that so let me repeat it: you WILL be more successful with a coach or a mentor in your life than you will be without one. No matter how successful you are today you WILL be more successful when you add a coach or mentor to your life.

Got it? Then get one!

Turn Criticism Into Coaching

Everyone needs a bit of coaching. The best athletes have a coach, so do the most successful people and so do the most effective leaders.

The trouble is, some coaches aren’t that great of a coach. They criticize, sometimes harshly, and call it coaching. Some people struggle to accept coaching; most of us struggle to accept criticism.

You really have no way to control another person’s thoughts or comments about you. There often is no way to tell if their criticism was meant in a helpful way or was meant to be hurtful. What you do have complete control over however is how you choose to accept it.

You can, yes YOU can, choose to accept all criticism as coaching meant to build you up. When you make that choice you have the power to turn even the most hurtful criticism into a learning experience.

First ask yourself if there is any truth to the criticism. Be honest with yourself, very honest. If you don’t see a hint of truth in the comment then put yourself in the other person’s shoes and ask yourself why they might think it’s true. If you still come up empty then politely and as unemotionally as possible, ask them why they think it’s true.

Remember, it doesn’t matter how they intend the criticism to be taken, you’re accepting it as sincere coaching so do not become defensive. You must be open to the possibility that their criticism is valid and if you determine it to be then you must use it to improve yourself. Never give valid criticism less consideration than it deserves.

Learn how to stop taking things personally. This is especially important if, when you feel criticized, you tend to feel depressed. I know this is easier said then done but you must realize that an unfounded critical comment may say more about the person saying it than it says about you. They may feel threatened, they may lack confidence or they may just be flapping their gums. If you know it’s pure garbage then use your own confidence to ignore it.

When someone says something critical, smile and shrug. Then continue doing/saying whatever you were doing/saying. If the person is trying to get under your skin, this will show them that they did not succeed. If you lose control of your emotions then you lose control of the situation. Never give unjust criticism more consideration than it deserves.

If the person is your friend or boss, ask for advice. When someone criticizes you, say “Alright. What should I do instead?” This asks the person to follow through with their criticism. If they say they can’t for whatever reason, you can say “OK then, it might be more helpful if you didn’t point out a problem that you can’t or won’t help me fix.”

Don’t always listen to what people say. Don’t always believe what people say, especially when it’s something bad, and there’s only one person or two making this remark, only one time. It’s sad to say but not everyone has your best interests in mind. Trust yourself, you almost certainly do have your best interests in mind.

Above all stay open to the very likely possibility that you still have some growing and learning to do. It shouldn’t matter so much how someone intends their criticism to be taken. What really matters is how you take it.

When you decide you can learn something from anyone and anything it’s suddenly all good.

People Need Feedback

We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve. – Bill Gates

According to 1,400 executives polled by The Ken Blanchard Companies, failing to provide feedback is the most common mistake that leaders make. When you don’t provide prompt feedback to your people, you’re depriving them of the opportunity to improve their performance.

Lots of people have lost their jobs for the simply reason that their boss was too big of a chicken to give them the feedback they needed to improve. Yes, just because you’re a boss doesn’t mean you can’t be a chicken too.

Have you ever been in a position where you had to let someone go? Were they shocked to discover that their performance wasn’t sufficient to keep their job? Then it’s most likely that you failed to provide them the feedback the needed to improve their performance. No one should ever be blindsided by their own firing, they should see it coming from miles and months away.

When Bill Gates said “We all need feedback” he truly meant “all.” No one sees themselves as other people see them. We have the ability to justify behavior in ourselves that we wouldn’t tolerate in other people. We use the “yea, but” defense to let ourselves off the hook way too easily.

Even your most seasoned people need feedback. They need another set of eyes, another set of values, and a different batch of experiences to provide them with other views that they can’t get from a mirror.

It’s not just your people who need feedback. You as a leader need feedback too. If your people see you as an Authentic Serving Leader they will likely provide you with at least some of the feedback you need. If they see you as a boss you’re in big trouble because you won’t be receiving any feedback from the people in the best position to provide it to you. They probably won’t trust you enough to be truthful with you.

If you’re in a leadership position then you owe it to your people to help them grow by giving them thoughtful, meaningful, relevant feedback. Consistently. Do not “store up” feedback for their annual review, provide them with useful information on their performance, both good and not so good, that they can use throughout the year.

When you provide the needed feedback you eliminate mistakes, minimize stress, both yours and your people’s, and potentially grow future leaders.

If you’re truly a leader you also owe it to yourself to allow your people to provide you with the feedback YOU need to grow. You simply must have people on your team who trust you enough to be honest with you. You can only build that trust by not “shooting the messenger” when they provide you with feedback. Feel free to disagree if you must but don’t do it defensively. And never never never retaliate for feedback meant to help you, whether it’s accurate feedback or not.

But….. and this is a BIG but; to do any of this you must get over your own fear of confrontation, of being thought of as a hard ass, or a jerk. If you’re truly an Authentic Serving Leader you will invest the time required to give your people feedback in a way that they can accept and use, to their benefit and yours.

If you’re frustrated with your people constantly making the same mistakes then STOP being frustrated and START providing the kind of feedback that leads to real behavioral change.

That’s what leaders do.

 

Be a Two-Timing Coach

The phrase “two-timer” certainly has a well deserved negative connotation to it. It is most often used to define a person who is cheating in a relationship with another person.

In coaching however being a “two-timer” can be a very good thing.

Too many coaches, managers and even leaders think of coaching solely in terms of correcting a mistake of some kind. You could call those coaches, managers, and leaders a “one-time” coach. The only time they think to coach is when they see something wrong.

But truly great coaches and leaders know that another effective time to coach is when things go well. Coaching at these times is positive re-enforcement that tends to cement the “right” behavior that is being coached.

A key responsibility of an effective leader is to build and help their people become successful. That requires consistent, thoughtful and meaningful coaching, when things go wrong AND when things go right.

Leaders who coach increase the performance of their people, increase the satisfaction of their people and increase the value of their people to the team. They also reduce what is known as the “reality gap.” This is the gap that exists between what the leader sees the team member doing and what the team member believes they are doing. In the healthiest organizations there is very little gap.

The best leaders coach when the gap is becoming larger or smaller.

To coach effectively you’ll need these skills and characteristics:

Set a good example. If your words don’t match your actions then you simply cannot coach. Your people will do what you do light years before they will do what you say. As a leader you are the “model” for successful behavior. Or not.

See the big picture. As a coach and a leader you need to see a bigger picture than your followers. While it’s acceptable for your followers to merely see the consequences of their actions you must be see the consequences of the consequences. That comes with experience; successful coaches and leaders share their experience with others.

Be a good listener. Great coaches and Authentic Servant Leaders use more than just their ears to listen. They use their heart, their eyes, their experience, and their intuition. They do not prejudge what is being said and they focus on the person speaking. They pay full attention to what is being said and they do not interrupt the speaker. Great listeners know this simple truth; if you’re talking you’re not listening. The fact is, if you’re thinking about what you’re going to say next you’re not listen then either.

Desire to see other people grow. Leadership, true leadership at least, is not about the leader. It is about the people they lead. If you do not have a genuine, sincere desire to see other people grow you will never risk the caring, compassionate confrontation that comes with good coaching. When you’re committed to seeing other people grow you will coach, it’s just about that simple.

There really is little difference in the skills required to close the reality gap through coaching whether the gap is getting bigger or smaller. The one major difference is that when the gap is getting larger and you’re likely coaching for corrective action, the coaching must be done in private. Public embarrassment is not coaching.

When the gap is getting smaller however the coaching can indeed be public. It can be used to highlight the “right” behavior being coached. Celebrating the good stuff in the presence of the entire team tends to make the “right” behavior a bit contagious.

If you’re a “one-time” kind of coach then your people may think of you as “the boss” but they probably don’t think of you as a leader.

Coach early, coach often. Coach in bad times AND good, one is certainly less stressful than the other but both are the purview of Authentic Servant Leadership.


Do Your People Know?

I’m sure your people know what they’re doing. The question is: do your people know that what they are doing matters? Do they know that they do important work? Do they know that they are valued? 

As a leader, you need to be certain that they do. Knowing that what they do matters will make a big difference in how well they do it. When they know their role impacts others they become better team players and will “out perform” their own expectations.

Never critique or criticize your people without also telling them why it matters that they perform at a higher level, how their efforts “fit” into the big picture. Don’t wear out your leadership by constantly pushing your people – let them know they and their job matters and they will push themselves a bit too.

Your people need many things to perform up to their potential and none of those “things” is more important than recognition. Consistent, intentional, meaningful, and sincere recognition. If you’re a leader and you can’t find a reason to regularly recognize your team members then you must have the wrong people in the wrong positions. 

By the way, “nice job” is a cliche, not recognition. Recognition is specific, it offers evidence to support why the recognition is being given. It requires sincere thoughtfulness to provide genuine recognition. Don’t just recognize, invest the time to recognize correctly. 

Telling yourself that your people don’t need recognition or don’t deserve recognition is the excuse of a lazy leader. If you’re not giving your people their due then YOU need to step it up and actually lead.

I know you’re up to it, you know you’re up to it. You know how important it is. You know it’s the right thing to do. 

The only question is…. will you do it?