A Whale of a Shark Tale

George has never been a person of moderation.

When he was in college, he joined a group of fellow wayward students to take a forbidden midnight swim in the pool at the girls’ gym on the other side of a tall, locked chain-link fence.

George was the one who decided everyone should make it a skinny-dipping adventure, and the fact that he was the only one who stripped did not bother him. It was not surprising that years later, after reading the best-selling book “Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive,” George went to a pet store and boldly bought a live shark for his Miami apartment. Though less than a foot long, it was a real shark — with a distinctive white dorsal fin rising from its gun-metal-gray body. George named the little fish Harvey after the book’s author, Harvey Mackay.

Sometime later, George’s life took an unexpected turn. He was promoted to regional sales manager of his company and transferred to Houston. Knowing he was going to be on the road a lot, George worried about who would take care of little Harvey, so he gave the shark to SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla. Harvey moved from a two-gallon fish bowl to an aquarium the size of a three-story house.

Several years went by. When George got married, the inextinguishable kid in George picked Walt Disney World as the perfect honeymoon site. While he and his wife were in Orlando, they decided to go by SeaWorld and check on little Harvey. They were stunned. Harvey now was almost 10 feet long and weighed nearly 500 pounds.

When George told people about Harvey, they thought it was another of his tall tales. But George was convincing. Apparently certain animals — like sharks or humans — grow commensurately with their surroundings if they have a safe and unrestricted environment.

To grow is fundamentally the act of expanding, an unfolding into greatness. And so expansiveness is the most important attribute of a great mentoring relationship. Mentoring effectiveness is all about clearing an emotional path to make the learning journey as free of boundaries as possible. Change is a door opened from the inside. But it is the mentoring relationship that delivers the key to that door.

The real aim of mentoring is not mastery. Mastery implies closure, an ending, arrival at a destination. In today’s ever-changing world, the goal is “mastering,” a never-ending, ever-expansive journey of perpetual growth. It suggests the relationship is more important than the goal, that the process is more valued than the outcome.

To set up an expansive, boundary-free learning environment, mentors should give unswerving attention to four essential components: focus, feeling, family and freedom.

There are several ways adult learning, or andragogy, is different from child learning, or pedagogy. You can tell children, “This history you are learning in the classroom may not be useful on the playground at recess, but someday it will be helpful to you” and retain their interest. Adults are not so gullible. Most adults are motivated to learn if the effort will have a clear payoff in the present or — at most — in the very near future.

The mentoring partnership must be conducted so the protege knows the purpose of learning. There needs to be an “as a result of this learning, you will be able to …” component woven through your partnership. In the organizational context, it helps to anchor the learning to the unit or organizational vision or mission, to unit objectives and to the protege’s personal or professional goals and aspirations. The tie must be subtle and at the same time obvious. It should be an initial focus and a perpetual one.

Anchoring learning to objectives is one way to create useful guideposts to measure success. Think of focus as not only the basis for your interaction but as the very language you speak.