Tag Archives: mentoring

The Mentoring Conversation

“So, what does the mentoring session sound like?” Brendon wanted to know. “If it is different from the direct manager coaching session, what does the manager-once-removed talk about with the team member?”

“First, this is NOT a coaching session, so the mentoring session does not happen as often, perhaps once every three months,” I replied. “This is a longer timespan discussion, so more reflective than action oriented. They talk about the role, the role’s contribution to company, where that fits. They talk about the decisions the team member makes, the problems the team member solves and their capacity to do so. The purpose of this conversation is to create a clearer picture of the team member’s current contribution and their potential contribution. When the team member has a clearer picture of their potential contribution, their current contribution improves.

“In this conversation, the MOR also asks about the aspirations of the team member. Some team members have no idea of their own aspirations, never thought about it. The MOR is looking for intersection between the team member’s aspirations and the company’s aspirations.

“Most of all, this is not a psychotherapy session. The focus is on the work, challenge in the work, learning opportunities, advancement opportunities, to create a vivid picture of where the team member stands and steps forward.

“People feel fulfilled when they can see their future and opportunities to pursue it, and, they feel frustrated when they do not.”

Best Position for Mentoring

“I am still having difficulty with this,” Brendon pushed back. “It’s all up-front, the manager knows the MOR is having career-ladder discussions with individual team members, but why is the manager-once-removed (MOR) the best person to have these discussions?”

“I know you still think the manager, being closest to the team member, would be the most likely person to have these discussions,” I replied, “but the manager is largely focused on productivity, workplace safety and output. It is the manager-once-removed who has accountability for creating and maintaining an effective talent pool.

“It is the manager-once-removed whose scope covers more than the immediate team, who sees opportunity in other areas of the organization. Simultaneously, the MOR has an accurate judgement from the immediate manager on each team member’s current capability and potential capability gleaned from 1-1 meetings with the team’s immediate manager.

“It is the MOR who is the perfect position to conduct these mentoring conversations.”

In the Open

“But won’t James feel uncomfortable, maybe distressed if he knows I am talking directly with his team members,” Brendon shifted in his chair.

“You and James are part of a team. As the manager-once-removed to James’ team, you expect James to talk to you about each team member and their career progress. James will notice things about his team that you won’t see. By the same token, James and the team have work to get done, so James, by design will focus on shorter term issues, while you focus on longer term issues. And, just as James is the coach for his team in their current roles, you are James’ coach for his current role. No one is talking behind anybody’s back. It’s all out in the open.”

“Shouldn’t HR do this instead?”

“Some companies think that,” I replied. “The problem is that HR is not in the accountability loop. As James is accountable for the output of his team, you, as James’ manager are accountable for James’ output. This chain of accountability puts you in the best position to have individual mentoring discussions with James’ team, and individual coaching discussions with James.”

Fulfillment or Frustration

“But, if I have discussions about career path with James’ team members, wouldn’t that undercut James’ authority with his team. Won’t it appear that I am going around his back?” Brendon was concerned.

“You might think that,” I replied. “On the other hand, if you set the context properly for the conversation, it is a reasonable explanation, that you are curious, and interested in them, as a person. While there is a well defined working relationship between the team member and James, there is an appropriate conversation, an appropriate relationship between the team member and you, as the manager-once-removed. It is not your purpose to coach them on productivity in their current role, but you want to talk about the future, their aspirations, their interests, their curiosities, their future role in the company. It’s a perfectly legitimate discussion that demonstrates the care of the company in the career paths of their team members. People feel fulfilled when they can see their future and opportunities to pursue it, and, they feel frustrated when they do not.”

Who Has the Larger Picture?

“I think we may have a problem with James,” Brendon started. “Turnover in his department.”

“And?” I asked.

“And, he says team members are quitting the company because of pay. We’ve had a competitive pay program that has worked for several years, with reasonable increases, but some of the numbers James is claiming don’t seem reasonable for the people he is losing.”

“So, you think the problem is with James?”

“It’s his department,” Brendon shrugged.

“Does James have the authority to offer pay increases beyond the thresholds in your comp program?”

“Well, no. But, whenever I hear it’s about the money, money is only part of it. I think it’s that some of our project managers just don’t see the longer term picture here that they are promised somewhere else. Pay may be part of it, but it’s their longer term career path.”

“And, you think James should be talking to his team about their longer term career path?” I prodded.

“Look, I know James has a lot on his plate. He’s in charge of all of our projects, they’re complicated with lots of moving parts, but he also has to pay attention to his team,” Brendon shook his head.

“So, James is in charge of complicated projects, coaching his team for faster throughput, maintaining quality standards, AND you want him to be a mentor?” I smiled. “What if you went to James’ team members, occasionally, and you talked to them about their career, challenge in the work, and what their professional life might look like in the future? With James’ full knowledge about that conversation?”

“Isn’t that James’ job?” Brendon questioned.

“Sounds like James has plenty on his plate dealing with what’s going on today, this week and this month. Besides you have a better perspective on the larger picture of the company, the larger picture of role opportunities, where lateral moves make sense, where promotion makes sense. On these longer timespan issues, I think you are in a better position to have that discussion. In a very real sense, as James’ manager, for James’ team, you are the manager-once-removed.”

The Difference Between Coaching and Mentoring

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I was in your workshop last week and suddenly realized why I feel frustrated in my position. In the course of a project, I solve problems and make decisions, submit them to my manager for review, and then, he sits on them. People who depend on those decisions, one way or the other, ask me, “what gives?” The decision sits on my manager’s desk in a black hole while the project gets delayed. In the end, my decision survives, but the project is late, time and again.

Is it possible my manager is in over his head? He gets credit for my decisions, even though the project is late. I am worried that I will be stuck here under my manager for the rest of my career.

Response:
There is always more to the story and I cannot speculate on the capability of your manager. I do know that your manager’s goals and objectives set the context for your work. Keep your head down. Keep making decisions and solving problems on your assigned projects. Continue to give your manager “best advice.” That’s your role.

Your biggest fear is that your career may be in a dead-end under your current manager. It likely appears that your manager is, indeed, not focused on your professional development. Not his job.

Look to your manager’s manager, your manager-once-removed. Your manager is specifically focused on a shorter term set of goals and objectives. Your manager-once-removed is focused on a longer term set of goals and objectives. Some of that longer term focus is the professional development of team members two levels of work below.

Manager-once-removed
———————————-
Manager
———————————-
Team member

The working relationship with your manager is different than the working relationship with your manager-once-removed. The relationship with your manager is an accountability relationship filled with task assignments, checkpoints and coaching. The relationship with your manager-once-removed is a mentoring relationship filled with discussions about professional development, career path, working environment, challenge in your role.

It is likely that your company does not recognize the importance of the manager-once-removed relationship. It is possible your manager-once-removed has no awareness of this necessary managerial relationship. You do. You are now aware.

What to do
Pick two or three professional development programs that you find interesting and that could help you bring more value to the company in your role. Don’t pick something that pulls you away from your current role or something with an unreasonable budget. It could be something as simple as three different books you would like to read that will bump up your skill level.

Ask your manager-once-removed to schedule a short fifteen minute conference to ask advice. Don’t ask for advice, ask for a short fifteen minute conference. This is not a casual conversation in the hallway. You want undivided attention across a desk or a table.

This fifteen minute conversation is your first of several meetings with your manager-once-removed to talk about longer time span issues related to your professional development. This is not a time to talk about the accountabilities in your current role, those discussions should be with your manager. This is the time to talk about your long term development and contribution to the company over time.

Take baby steps and build from there. A reasonable routine to meet with your manager-once-removed would be for 30-45-60 minutes every three months. Keep in touch. -Tom