Mentoring in Precarious Situations

There are many learning alliances that are potentially arduous because of the context in which the relationship is cast. We will examine two: mentoring in a super-fast-paced setting and mentoring when the protégé is in a different location.

Mentoring on the Run

Speed is both the genie and the ogre for today’s supervisors. Some thrive on it; some long for the old days. Like it or not, warp speed is a trademark of today’s
work environments.

The nature of this world challenges the supervisor’s mentoring responsibilities. There are too many “I’ll have to get back to you” responses to “Help me figure out how to” requests. The pressure to do wins out over the requirement to teach. So, how do you keep up?

Take time for learner readiness. Under pressure, many mentors tend to give short shrift to ascertaining whether the protégé is ready to learn. Lines like, “Let me get right to the punch line” risk neglecting the protégé’s learning needs.

Beware of saying “let me just show you how.” Good mentors don’t rescue; they support. The temptation of most leaders is to resort to demonstration. This approach may boost short-term performance, but long-term proficiency suffers.

Should the mentor never demonstrate a procedure? No, but before you demonstrate, ask: Am I rescuing myself or supporting the protégé? And will my demonstration increase or decrease independence?

Build strong parts rather than weak wholes. You’re about to rush out the door for a meeting. One of your employees walks in: “I’m stuck on this new process you asked me to learn. Can you spare a few minutes?”

Many mentors would give a 10-minute condensation of the 40-minute lesson and hope the employee muddles through. The result of this approach is likely complete confusion.

A better approach is to identify the 10-minute part of your 40-minute lesson most crucial to getting started and cover that part thoroughly. Solid learning on a key part will create confident momentum for the protégé to learn the rest.

Mentoring Long Distance

Widening spans of control, downsizing and rising numbers of employees without direct supervision have compelled leaders to supervise more at arm’s length. Weak bosses feel relieved, their subordinates freed.

Create a buddy system. When you’re not there, you’re not there. Still, it’s important to shore up other avenues for growth. An overlooked resource is the wisdom of peers.

A true buddy system carefully matches protégés’ learning needs with the best colleague wisdom. The buddy system must be based not just on availability but also on purposeful matching of personality, skill and priority.

Buddy systems work when we spend the effort to make them work. They require resources, especially time. Telling Jane to mentor John is great, but not if you don’t cut Jane enough slack in her other duties.

Provide learning care packages. Part of mentoring long distance is letting the protégé experience your concern and caring in tangible ways. An article, a blog or book can send a powerful message that the person is remembered.

Find surrogate mentors. When you can’t be there in person, send an agent on your behalf. Learning agents are allies of growth; they can fill a gap, shore up a weakness or simply lend confidence. Find an agent who has not just expertise but status. Providing the help of a person with both special resources and status can say “I value you; I want to help you grow.”

Create a self-directed learning plan. The gift of self-directed learning to the protégé can pose a threat to the mentor for whom letting go means feeling left out or unneeded. It takes great courage and caring to let the bluebird teach itself to fly.

Meet with your far-away protégé and establish a learning plan. Check the protégé’s progress at longer and longer intervals. Wean yourself out of the process, not just the protégé.

 Make sure the strategies for learning use resources available to the protégé. Protégés who take responsibility for their own learning will show greater motivation.