Mentoring The Mentors

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Mentoring The Mentors

Recent research by geneticists in the University of Chicago has thrown up the surprising finding that the human brain was evolving as recently as 5,800 years ago. This was well after the rise of the modern man 200,000 years ago. More importantly, the finding points out that our brains may still be evolving.

A lot of it is linked to the way our lives have changed fundamentally in the intervening millennia. When art, music and tool-making were emerging 37,000 years ago, our brains responded significantly to this change. The development of written language, the spread of agriculture and development of cities kicked in another important change-and another phase of evolution of the human brain.

With changes in patterns of everyday existence, our brains too evolved to accommodate these complexities. The evolution of our brains has also transformed the way humans deal with one another and develop a new set of leadership skills in each era of history.
In the case of the brain, luckily for us, the change occurs on its own. But for leaders, the onus of change is thrust on them. So, in a fast-changing corporate world, a manager must change and evolve his leadership style moves up in the hierarchy.

Mentoring, at its core, is about helping your people with advice on leading and managing in a new role. If they were not mentored at the time they moved to this role, they need it even more. They might have inadvertently picked up habits that could be holding them back from being more effective.

Have you moved to a new role recently? First, my congratulations! Now, to help you judge how well your style has evolved, here are two questions you can ask yourself:-

How many new habits have I adopted in response to the requirements of this role?

How many habits and activities have I discarded as not being relevant anymore?

Mentoring involves, first, helping leaders answer these two questions and, second, helping them through the much longer process of learning new habits and un-learning old ones.

Because management is a practice, it cannot really be taught in the classroom. At best the classroom can help us know the “What” and the “Why”. But what really matters is “How”. How to learn new habits, while also un-learning?

Also, the “How” would differ in each case-the differences being defined by the mentor and the mentee, their respective styles and temperament, the organisational culture, and the needs of the organisation.

The extremely outgoing leader will naturally have a way of mentoring that is different from another who prefers a more toned down style. Similarly, the way this leader with an outgoing personality is mentored will differ from the one who prefers a less flamboyant approach.
Cultural factors too play an important role. This was recently driven home to me quite forcefully while working with an executive team comprising members from Western Europe, South-East Asia and India. Their styles were influenced quite strongly by their respective cultural backgrounds. But more importantly, there were many common areas too. We used these commonalities in our mentoring programme to develop the foundation for achieving higher team performance.

An Acquired Skill

Though mentoring is an acquired skill (learnt only by doing), what is usually not mentioned is the fact that it involves a fairly steep learning curve. Rather than learn while naturally making mistakes, we prefer to a it as managers and leaders. But the more we make mistakes, the better we become.

Also, to clarify, mentoring is not the same as offering suggestions. At best, suggestions-for example, “always do this while talking to a vendor”, or, “never do this in a client meeting”-qualify as suggestions.

It takes time, persistent and conscious effort to become an effective mentor. But it becomes far easier to learn, while making fewer mistakes, by watching others do it first. By having role models.

“GE’s training works because of a thousand different things, most of which have nothing to do with training”, declares GE’s Chief Learning Officer Rober Corcoran. He adds that 20 per cent of leadership development is a result of mentoring, coaching and role models.
[To know more about the other 80%, see The Leadership Factory (Part I) and The Leadership Factory (Part II) ]

Leadership, and by extension, mentoring, are learnt best by a process of apprenticeship, where we first observe someone doing it, before attempting it ourselves. Carl Bass, COO of Autodesk the US $1.5 billion software company, is candid. “As an executive, you’re always being watched by employees,” he says, “and everything you say gets magnified-so you teach a lot by how you conduct yourself.”

Mentoring, often, is “taught” to the leaders in the middle-rung of the organisations first. But what gets in the way of their becoming effective mentors is the fact that they don’t have any role models to observe and learn from. A few try and muddle through. The majority simply follow the path of least resistance, and leave the learning behind in the classroom or their notepads.

On the other hand, if these skills are first learnt at the top, the senior executives then act as the role models. They then disseminate these skills to the next level of leaders. In effect, mentoring skills flow down the organisation chart. Mentoring, like leadership development, exhibits a trickle-down effect-what gets to the bottom depends on the quantity poured at the top.

It goes without saying that not all that trickles down will ever reach the base. So, the more I pour, the more reaches the last level. In any mentoring programme, mentoring the mentors is the important activity. Everything else follows naturally. And leadership styles throughout the organisation evolve much easily, like our brain does.