Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Mentoring and managing – finding an effective balance

Posted in strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on January 25, 2011

I had an interesting conversation this morning with an entrepreneur who has been working for himself for some twelve years now. He owns and runs an online store that markets and sells jewelry, with a mix of standard inventory (e.g. wedding rings and other items that sell as a relatively consistent rate long term, with some trendy items added in.) I am going to post tomorrow on the issue of balancing an inventory, adding that as a 19th installment in a series on online stores (see Startups and Early Stage Businesses, postings 20 through 33, 35, 37, 40 and 41). That is one set of issues we discussed. Today, I am going to discuss mentoring, and I want to start with one of the commonest objections raised to doing that at all.

• “If I have to tell my employees how to do their jobs, why hire them at all?”

There is a definite element of truth to this and certainly where an employee needs to be micromanaged to function and where they do not seem to learn, or even try to learn. We hire hands but we also hire brains, and those brains need to learn and to be able to function independently – and know when and where they can take the initiative and when they have to ask what approach would be preferred by management.

And with that I also point out why mentoring is needed too. Yes, employees should think and they should be able to do their jobs with minimal supervision. But there are always going to be situations where advice and guidance are needed, and even if that is rare in and of itself there are also times when policy has to be set and policy decisions made. And there is, of course the simple fact that long term, a better trained employee offers greater value to an organization than do less trained employees.

• What are the core skills and experiences that an effective employee should bring to the job, and that they can perform their jobs with, and without further guidance?
• What areas of their job should they already know policy and procedure for, and simply follow them?
• What are the guidelines for indentifying exceptions and unusual circumstances where a management decision would be needed, and what are the procedures in place for seeking out this type of help?

New employees should be expected to need advice a lot more often than more seasoned employees, and that includes guidance on when they should ask their manager for guidance and what they should simply take care of on their own. But even seasoned, long term employees who are very experienced at a business can find themselves facing situations where more senior policy and procedure decisions are called for.

What should an employee bring to their manager in preparation, when seeking out advice or guidance? I would offer a basic checklist here as a starting point in answering that.

• First of all, know exactly what you need and why. If you go asking for advice and guidance but are not clear on what for, you are just wasting your own time and that of your manager.
• Go to them with ideas and alternatives – think things through, and with specific, focused questions.
• Do the parts you can do, before bring the parts you need help with to your manager?
• Learn from all of this so the next time you can simply take care of this on your own. Or if this involves an issue where your manager always needs to make the final decision or sign off with official approval, learn so you can bring this to them next time, all ready for them to act upon. Learn to do, and learn to streamline and make efficient.

I have repeatedly said in my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development that a manager hires people to their team so those new hires can take over specific sets of tasks and responsibilities and take them off that manager’s desk. Keep this basic precept in mind and both when you decide what you need advice and mentoring on, and in how you bring problems to your manager’s attention for advice and mentoring.

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