Mentorship May Be More Complicated Than You Think

I believe in the power of mentorships. I also believe that people can vastly underestimate the complexity of what it takes to match a protege (or mentee) with a mentor, or they may have a fundamental misunderstanding of what a mentorship is. 

A mentorship is a special relationship. It requires the mentor to have gone through the same path (typically a career path) that the protege seeks to follow. From that foundation a partnership is built of respect, admiration, vulnerability, and a long list of other hard to come by qualities. It can also be useful if the mentor has comparable life experiences as the protege, as our professional lives do not exist in a vacuum.

Sometimes programs that are billed as mentorship programs are not really about mentorship, but rather an extension of or variation on an orientation program. They are a way to help new or less experienced people get better knowledge of the organization. The people who are given the title of mentor in these programs are only there to show someone else the ropes. Rather than having powerful and meaningful conversations about growth and development as a professional, the “mentors” give tips on how to navigate the idiosyncrasies of their firms. They might say things like, “Don’t send the requisition form to Paul despite what the routing tells you to do. If you need it fast, send it to Lana.” Or, “It’s best to park on the east side of the lot even though it’s a longer hike in. At least your car won’t be an oven by the end of the day.”

When done right, mentorship programs can help establish a culture of fellowship and collegiality.

While this kind of information might be useful, it’s not what mentorships are about. A mentor provides deeply meaningful advice based on their own experience or relays anecdotes about how they succeeded or failed in a given situation. This can help the protege make their own determinations about how they will proceed. 

Sometimes a mentor may just serve as a sounding board—not really providing any solutions or suggestions to a problem. Instead, just being there to empathize with a difficult situation. For a protege having someone who will listen and not judge can be priceless resource. 

It’s a good idea for mentors and proteges to talk about what the goals are for the relationship on a regular basis. Be sure to set parameters, too. You don’t want to slip into problems outside of scope. For example, a mentor who is helping a protege with their career, probably doesn’t want to start hearing about marital problems or how frustrating the dating scene is these days. 

Mentors should always keep learning. Think about how you can improve as a mentor and develop competencies that will help you be the best mentor you can be. Journaling can be a good tool for keeping on top of this.

If you do have a successful mentorship program in your organization, your coordinator of that program deserves high praise. 

I believe mentorships are best handled organically and over time. A protege in need often gravitates to a mentor they admire and respect. The relationship builds from there, sometimes without anyone ever having to use words like “mentor” or “protege.” 

For the reasons above, it is exceedingly difficult to manufacture mentorship relationships. Because of the complexity, there is a certain level of liability to consider here. People who are not trained to be mentors can say and do things that could be damaging or hurtful to a protege. 

That is not to say effective formalized mentorship programs are impossible. If you do have a successful mentorship program in your organization, your coordinator of that program deserves high praise. When done right, mentorship programs can help establish a culture of fellowship and collegiality. 

Alternatively, leadership might consider establishing a culture of mentorship by teaching people how to be effective mentors and proteges (without the match-making service). Keep someone on staff trained on how to advise mentors in difficult situations. Creating this culture will help foster mentorship relationship organically. After all, mentorships often happen with people who are not in the same organization, so creating this culture that encourages mentorships rather than manages them, allows these relationships to form with a broader, more diverse population. 

When it works, mentorships can be a great experience. That said, they’re not for everyone, or sometimes people just are not in a good place to be in a mentorship at a given point in their lives. Mandating them or trying to manufacture them can backfire, especially in an already dysfunctional environment. As you consider mentorships for yourself or your organization, carefully consider the power of them—good and bad.


Powerless: The Devastating Effects of Not Being Heard at Work

There are a lot of reasons that people get burned out at work. Mostly it boils down to a lack of agency. When people feel like they have no real control or ownership over their own jobs, it becomes debilitating. 

There is an issue closely related to this lack of agency problem, but different enough that it’s useful to call it out explicitly. It’s the problem of feeling powerless to affect change, despite having the vision and know-how to make a real difference. People who are passionate about what they do are especially susceptible to it. 

You’ve gained experience and paid your dues. You have innovative ideas that could have a groundbreaking impact. But there are no channels for you to get these ideas to leadership and decision-makers. On the contrary, the system is set up to ensure that you do not have access to those people in power. 

This can happen easily in large, sprawling organizations, but it also happens in smaller organization with imperious power differentials. Here leaders construct an echo chamber around themselves, and that insular group of people is aggressively protective of their inner circle. They may not be conscious of it, but any hint that someone outside the circle might have transformative ideas, devalues the circle. 

The only way big ideas get through to the circle is through a consultant—usually a very expensive consultant who may gather their ideas from those passionate high performers throughout the organization. Those ideas are then repackaged and presented to leadership as their own recommendations. 

If a product or service gap is perceived through the consultation process, it is not uncommon for the circle to create a whole new executive-level position and hire someone from outside to spearhead addressing that gap. Why don’t they call on their own experts? Taking this route, after all, is incredibly costly. 

They don’t look for solutions internally because they cannot see from the inner circle those people who are eager to innovate and have more insight to the matters at hand than anyone else possibly could. 

The real solution is in the hands of leaders.

The walls those in the inner circle have put up prevent them from seeing the talent they have internally. From their perspective, the people doing the work in the organization are a kind of vague blur. Moreover, by hiring from the outside, they can maintain the illusion of the all-knowing inner circle.

The effect this callous behavior has on other people is devastating. It crushes people’s spirit and demoralizes them. 

One might say that the solution is for those passionate people to leave that toxic organization. Become that important executive another organization is hiring. But it’s not that easy. What if the organization whose leadership is blind to your value really means something to you? Maybe you’re not crazy about the leaders, but what the organization does, what it produces, what it gives to the world is meaningful to you. You don’t want to leave because you believe in its mission.   Or you have invested your career there. Or your pension and insurance for your family is tied to that place. 

The real solution is in the hands of leaders. This isn’t easy either. It requires self-awareness and vulnerability on the part of leaders. Nonetheless, as a leader, it is what you must do. Be proactive about breaking down walls. Make yourself accessible. Open channels of communication. Reach out to people who are passionate about what they do. Yes, it can be intimidating. Yes, it will make you feel vulnerable. But that’s what real leaders do. True leaders do not close themselves off from the people they are leading. They open themselves up.


The Missing Role That Could Make a Big Difference in the Workplace

There is a big needs-gap in human resource services. In the workplace, there are typically specific roles for coaching, therapy, and mentorship, but there is one area that none of those roles technically covers. When there is a high performer who wants strengths-training, they get a coach. When someone wants guidance from a person with experience in their field or industry, they seek out a mentor. If someone is having mental health issues, they can get therapy. 

But what about those folks (and there are many) who are struggling with their performance on the job? What does one do, for instance, when their manager tells them they need to improve their time management skills or their communication style? How about those unfortunate souls who find themselves on a Performance Improvement Plan? For most leadership coaches, such corrective action or progressive discipline cases are out of scope. They simply do not take on clients who are referred to them due to poor performance. Instead people are left to either fend for themselves, or managers are forced to carve time out of their already busy schedules to help (whether they are qualified to provide that help or not).

Often lacking in many organizations is a Performance Advisor—someone who can work with people who are struggling and get them back up to speed. Performance advisors could collaborate with the client’s manager when appropriate to find where the client needs to focus their development, and check-in regularly to see if progress is being made. 

In some cases, people who are coaches may also be performance advisors, but the work they would do in those two roles would be different. The relationship with the client who needs performance advising would likely be more prescriptive than in coaching relationships, and the determination of progress would often be dependent on the client’s supervisor. 

An added benefit of this new role would be clear delineation of roles among other workplace advocates. Below is a chart that attempts to break out the differences among those roles. 

What are your thoughts? Does your institution or organization have performance advisor roles? Are you a coach who does performance advisor work? Would it help to make a distinction between those roles?

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Learning is Wellness

Continuous learning is the substratum on which everything and everyone can flourish in successful organizations today. Any organization that purports to support the wellbeing of their employees, must first provide the structure, culture, and resources for people to always be learning. 

The evidence on the effect learning has on wellness is clear. In the UK, a program for people with mild to moderate symptoms of depression and anxiety found that adult learning resulted in better wellbeing and less severe symptoms of depression and anxiety. People reported that they enjoyed engaging in regular group activities and the courses helped foster relationships, and self-management strategies. Other research has shown that adult learners have improved optimism and rate themselves higher on wellbeing. Yet more research by David Cutler and Adriana Lleras-Muney found that education affects longevity and is a predictor of health.

On a basic level, learning makes us aware of important information that can help us get healthy, stay healthy, or manage our wellbeing. It can also bring us together, fostering community and belonging. 

Organizational learning for working professionals goes even deeper. Learning and development teaches people how to be in tune to seeking out new information and processing that information in a meaning and impactful way. A formal, structured learning and development program cultivates learning instincts and agility, perhaps the most vital competencies in the modern workplace. Everything is changing and changing faster. The problems we face are more complex and the opportunities abstruse. As an organization, if you are not learning as you go, you are sunk.  

McKinsey & Company says, “It’s about how leaders can reskill and upskill the workforce to deliver new business models.” Deloitte reports that “Employees at all levels expect dynamic, self-directed, continuous learning opportunities from their employers.” Boston Consulting Group warns, “More than ever, organizations will rely on skills to differentiate themselves from the competition. They can no longer afford to separate learning from core business operations.”

When learning is an integrated part of an organization’s operation and integral part of the culture, it becomes ingrained in how the work gets done. It instills in people that learning is part of life, and what’s more it helps them find value in their contributions. Learning gets people thinking and thinking puts us on a path toward groundbreaking discovery. 

Any leader who truly has the best interest of their workforce at heart, must make learning part of the job for everyone and do so in a thoughtful way.

Some organizations have yet to truly grasp the gravity of what is at stake by not investing in their people. Instead, in those arcane and likely doomed holdovers, learning and development is seen as an abstraction buried somewhere in the corporate values, or a nuisance they wish would go away. They regard learning as a liability against production. It is time taken away from work getting done. This, of course, is a corruption of how learning actually works. Learning is the fuel for innovation and continuous improvement. 

That aside—and to return to the point at hand—learning is wellness. Any leader who truly has the best interest of their workforce at heart, must make learning part of the job for everyone and do so in a thoughtful way. Learning is not easy. It is challenging and at times stressful, so when we provide learning opportunities to working professionals, we need to be considerate of their circumstances. Providing learning as yet another thing for people to do on top of their already demanding jobs can backfire in some situations. Learning needs to be incorporated into the job and accessible to different levels of learners. Learning, in fact, needs to be a requirement of the job—built into the business.

To deny people continuous learning or to give only a glancing recognition to learning and development is to deny the wellbeing of the people in your organization. To stay well—to recover from being unwell— people must be open to new information and receptive in a way that gathers that information from sometimes unexpected places. We must all be vigilant about wellness on an individual and community level. The key to that vigilance is to ensure that we are always learning.


Focus on Teaching People to Think & Learn

As organizations and institutions all take a long hard look in the mirror and decide how we need to move forward during these on-going crises (racial, social justice, economic, health, etc.) the focus should not be on training people how to stay in line. The focus should be on teaching people how to learn and think. Yes, we can (and should) create training on the importance of wearing masks and following policies that prohibit racism and discrimination, but that is not enough. The aspiration should not be a workforce that only makes the right decisions because of rules and policies. The goal should be a workforce that deeply understands the spirit and intent of those rules and policies—people who wear masks because they care about the well-being of others; people who, through their language and actions, promote inclusion; and people who actively fight against racism because they fundamentally understand that it is good and right to do so. As we yet again confront our long history of systemic racism, how our organizations and workforce learn will be crucial.

Ensuring that a workforce is continuously learning was already important prior to our current state of crises, and now it’s more important than ever. As we all adapt to our new challenges and environments, it is critical that organizations have people at every structural level who can analyze situations, think critically, and make sound judgements. The way to make that happen is through aggressive learning and development. As Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston put it, “The point isn’t to know; the point is to remember to keep learning like crazy as we are taking action.”

And as Annie Peshkam and Gianpiero Petriglieri pointed out recently in the Harvard Business Review, “Like all major crises, and perhaps more than most, the COVID-19 pandemic is bound to leave behind lasting changes in the way work and business take place. Learning will be the foundation of our survival, then, for both organizations and the individuals who make them up.” 

Practically and ethically, creating a learning organization is the right thing to do.

A learning organization does more than provide training for its workforce. Training, while essential, is not enough. A true learning organization establishes a culture and structure for learning. In learning organizations, leaders and HR professionals do more than just encourage learning; they expect it of everyone—at every level. In doing so, it enables the organization to be adaptable and consistently make innovative, strategic changes. In his book The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge defines a learning organization as “an organization that is continually expanding its capacity to create its future.”

Practically and ethically, creating a learning organization is the right thing to do. Learning and development is how to cultivate a culture of anti-racism, instill self-awareness, promote social justice, and help people understand the concept of a social contract. The power of learning and development is evidenced in improved recruitment and retention, innovation and productivity, and enriching health and wellness.

Recruitment and Retention

Organizations that ignore or underestimate the importance of the human need to grow do so at their own peril. Leaders and HR professionals must make it clear to their workforce that learning and development is expected and then nurture that development. Doing so will attract high potentials and retain high performers. Proactive learners with growth mindsets are the people we all need most right now—people who can quickly develop new skills, actively look for gnarly problems they can solve, and when crises hit, they stand on the frontline alert and equipped for the challenge. To have that frontline, learning and development must be a priority.

You cannot have continuous improvement without continuous learning. 

The 2019 LinkedIn Learning Workplace Learning Report found that 94% of employees “would stay at a company longer if it invested in their career development,” and Payscale’s 2019 Compensation Practices Report found that 59% of organizations provide learning and development opportunities as a retention tactic. Providing high quality learning opportunities for a workforce works. The right people—the people who can make a lasting and positive impact—gravitate to that kind of community and generally speaking they stay there. 

Most critically, “The right people” means people from diverse backgrounds. Recruiting with diversity in mind is one thing, but if organizations are not consistently and vigorously developing their workforce to be able to analyze and evaluate their surroundings through a diversity, equity, and inclusion lens, we will never move forward meaningfully. That is the only way any organization will be able to foster inclusion and therefore retain a diverse workforce. Diversity, social justice, empathy, or emotional intelligence are not classes to be ticked off in someone’s personnel file. Those subjects, along with many more, are an unending education.

Innovation and Productivity

The call for innovation and continuous improvement is ubiquitous. Well before our current set of harrowing crises, it seemed companies everywhere were putting great effort into strategic initiatives that promote those ideals. It is common in many cultures to push workers to embody ingenuity and creative problem solving. The reality is that it is unreasonable to ask anyone to be innovative if you do not have a culture and structure that supports learning. You cannot have continuous improvement without continuous learning. 

Fundamental to creating any structure for success is teaching people how to learn. Exploration is critical here. Yes, acquiring knowledge is important, but it is at least equally important to discover what you don’t know. Implicit bias is a key contributor to structural and systemic racism. It is imperative that we encourage people to explore as they learn—question assumptions, learn from other disciplines, and listen to diverse perspectives. 

The goal for organizations should be more than ensuring that their people know how to do their jobs today; it should be to help them imagine how they will do their jobs tomorrow.

When a supervisor requires that a direct report justify how a learning opportunity is directly related to their job, an acceptable response might be, “I don’t know yet. That’s what I’m trying to find out.” One might argue that if the connection between a learning opportunity and someone’s current job is explicit before they participate, it’s simply training. Discovery, ingenuity, inspiration, that eureka moment—those things happen at a different level of learning. Let new ideas and perspectives into your organization. That’s how to make progress, do better, and move forward.

The goal for organizations should be more than ensuring that their people know how to do their jobs today; it should be to help them imagine how they will do their jobs tomorrow. A binary approach to learning that hopes to educate a workforce by explicating right from wrong will do nothing to build a workforce that can think critically about issues, nor does it have the health and well-being of that workforce in mind. 

Holistic Health and Wellness

For years, many organizations have been providing benefits packages that not only include good insurance, but robust preventative care as well. For savvy job seekers, counselors, mediators, and wellness professionals are table stakes. The next evolution in showcasing wellness is to include learning and development in the package.

…learning is a load-bearing pillar of wellness.

Continuous learning has been shown to reduce anxiety, depression, and dementia. Human beings need to learn. We crave it. When that desire is stymied, we begin to collapse mentally. People will quickly become disengaged and ambivalent about an environment that does not challenge them mentally. Any organization interested in retaining their best and brightest should be in a constant scramble to provide a continuous stream of learning opportunities for their workforce. HR departments who understand the importance of wellness, should also understand that learning is a load-bearing pillar of wellness.

Moving Forward

We are all currently responding to crises, but change does not only have to happen as a response or reaction. Change can also come about proactively. We do have it within our power to get ahead of problems—do the right thing before we are confronted with trauma, pain, and violence. We must be agile; not only adapting to change but initiating it. At every level of any workforce, people should be striving to be pioneers of change not victims of it. To do that you must have a workforce that consistently looks at everything around them critically, questioning why things are done the way they are, and discussing how they can do something better.

Ethics is nuanced and not something that can be conveyed through training. Any given situation has an infinite number of variables to navigate. Growing and doing better—progress—means constantly reassessing what those variables mean and how they apply to the world around us. That’s no simple task. That’s a heavy lift that calls for heavy-duty tools. Those cognitive tools are forged through learning and development.