Mentorship in the Moment

I was early in my career in corporate America when a leader pulled me aside one day to tell me an important observation: you don’t always have to be right.

In some ways it was a searing piece of advice. I didn’t understand at first that he was mentoring me. But his delivery made all the difference: he wasn’t criticizing me or putting me down. He was actually trying to raise me up to be a better teammate, a better leader.

It’s one of the many mentoring moments I’ve been given in my decades-long career that has helped me grow into a better colleague, leader and person.

We often think mentorship has to be rigid and structured, but good mentorship happens when it’s more fluid, more in the moment. Stilted, official programs can be ineffective because they’re too forced. Instead, great mentorship is real-time. It’s the little instances that arise when you’re looking out for your colleague, offering suggestions for a different approach to a tough conversation or advising on a better way to handle an important presentation. It’s part of the reason I’m not a huge fan of over-structured mentoring programs. Many of those are merely a scheduled hour each quarter providing a pre-determined to-do list of things to discuss. Instead, a continual flow of mentoring moments is a more real-life interaction that has the power to meaningfully change performance, and impact careers.

One of the biggest challenges with mentoring today is that those moments are harder to come by. We’ve become either so busy we don’t prioritize the time to give feedback in the moment, or too distant due to the challenges of remote environments. These are really just excuses, as mentorship can happen no matter the environment; the organization must merely show its commitment to it. Mentorship at its foundation must come from senior leadership in the organization, setting a culture of a caring and accountable environment.

Each quarter, I teach business and brand strategy classes at the University of Notre Dame’s business school and MBA program. My favorite class is on Personal Branding, and in it I share my personal brand is “mentorship.” It’s why I teach, coach and mentor in my industry, and why our family has fostered numerous children over the last 17 years. As a leader, I have found that it doesn’t matter if you are leading 2,500 people or 35, creating a culture of mentoring is critical to the success of any organization.

So how do we do achieve more culturally embedded mentorship? Here are seven key takeaways I think sum it up, observed in my decades-long career as a mentor, mentee and teacher of mentorship strategies.

1. It all starts with the intent

Mentoring has to be done for the right reason, to help the mentee be a better teammate and better at their job (and future jobs). It starts with them knowing you care about their success. As a leader you need to show the mentee they are part of our company’s future, and that your mentorship is meant to help advance their performance and their career. It’s the foundational “why” (I am doing the mentoring) that makes the “what” (things they need to work on) well-received and meaningful.

2. Transparent feedback is the key

Any leader can tell you what you are doing well. Great mentors do the hard work of providing transparent and sometimes uncomfortable feedback. These leaders get the mentee to understand that if they don’t tell you the things you’re not doing well and where you need to improve, you can’t work on those items and advance their performance, to help them get promoted. That tough love is a crucial part of a successful mentorship culture. In fact, feedback should be so transparent that it should never surprise an employee on an issue you want them to continue to address, just like it should never be a surprise to the employee when you have to let them go for not performing on their accountabilities.

3. The mentee has to be open and accountable

As a mentee, you need to be open to mentorship. When I choose to mentor, I look for people that want to take control of their career. Someone that asks to be mentored and is open to very transparent feedback is on the right track. If you get your feelings hurt by hearing candid feedback, mentors may shy away from giving you the type of black and white feedback you need to change your performance and the trajectory of your career. Studies show that people actually want to be held accountable, but only 20% of employees even know how the things they do in their position are connected to overall company goals—a huge leadership miss, but one that is actually easy to fix.

4. Soft performance reviews harm your team

If you create this atmosphere where you’re not truly mentoring, and performance reviews only focus on positives, then your performance will suffer,and your high performers will look for the door. Why? Because they see you are allowing a culture of poor performance, and they want to be part of a high accountability culture. You will have created an environment where your mediocre people will stay put, because it’s easier to hide in such an environment, especially in corporate America. One of the core benefits of mentorship is that it optimizes your team’s performance by recognizing high performers and at same time enabling other employees to improve their performance (if they choose to listen) to more positively impact the business.

5. Bad leaders are still valuable mentors

I hear many younger employees comment that their leader is terrible, mean, never there for them. What I share with these younger folks is that everyone is a mentor to you. Sometimes you have to be more proactive to ask for mentoring. But even that bad boss, teacher or coach is teaching you a valuable lesson on what not to do when you become a leader. And as a leader, people above and below you are watching you, how you act, how you lead and how your team follows or doesn’t follow you. The best leaders are those who mentor their team so well that many get promoted to bigger jobs in the company. If you are a leader where your team is stagnant, you may have bigger issues.

6. Money matters

As a mentor, I want to see my mentees become more successful and valuable to the organization, because creating value is an essential part of a positive career trajectory. And when team members become more valuable, they get more opportunities, they get promoted, and when they get promoted, they get paid more. And since a huge part of career satisfaction for many people depends on their ability to climb the ladder and make a better living, good mentorship becomes a core element in their success.

7. Remote work is making mentorship harder

Hybrid and remote work schedules have many pros, but they’re not without their challenges. For all employees, but especially those in the early stages of their career, capturing the off-hand mentorship that might spark up around the proverbial water cooler, during an impromptu lunch or after a meeting is nearly impossible to do by video conference. I think it’s part of the reason in-person work at least a few times a week is essential. But in a situation where team members are apart and working in their own spaces, you as a leader have to find a way to create those unofficial moments with your employees.

The final word

To succeed at being profit-driven, you first must be people-driven. Mentorship is critical to business success, not merely an HR initiative. It’s an investment in your people, and when done well, can enhance performance at all levels. It starts with building it within the organization’s culture, and then as a leader, define not only the business goals but each employee’s role and accountabilities in impacting and achieving those goals. People are your company’s most valuable asset. Start nurturing that through strong mentoring, and you’ll be amazed at the positive change in culture and business performance.

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