Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Career planning 6: learning from the experience of others 3

Posted in career development, job search, job search and career development by Timothy Platt on June 11, 2017

This is my sixth installment to a series in which I seek to break open what can become a hidden workings, self-imposed black box construct of career strategy and planning, where it can be easy to drift into what comes next rather than execute to realize what could be best for us (see Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 3, postings 459 and following for Parts 1-5.)

I began discussing mentoring in this series from the recipient, mentee side of the table (see Part 5.) And I focused there on finding the right people to seek out and connect with as sources of information and insight, and on best practices for doing so.

• Mentoring can serve as a powerful tool for helping cultivate the skills, strengths and potential of those who could do better at their jobs, and further in their longer-term careers too.
• But this can only work if it is approached and carried out in ways that are respectful of the needs of all concerned, and of their time and effort commitments.

I delved into this from the mentee perspective as a key element to my Part 5 discussion. And I turn here to consider these best practices considerations from the mentor side of the table.

I acknowledged in Part 5 that I have made a consistent practice of seeking out others who I can learn from, and in all directions in the organizations that I have worked with, and certainly when working with new clients as a consultant and striving to get up to speed on their issues and challenges, and in learning my way through their systems of resources and their corporate cultures in place. At the same time I have always actively sought out opportunity to help others in this way too, and both through networking and as a mentor (see Consultant and Mentor – bridging the contradiction for a posting related to mentoring in a specifically consulting-oriented context.) Focusing on that side to this set of opportunities, I see mentoring as a means of helping people with unrealized potential to do better in the jobs that they already hold so they can more fully succeed there. And I see mentoring as a valuable resource in helping prepare people with real potential for their next career steps too, and in better understanding what their best-for-them career goals might even be.

I wrote in Part 5 of how mentees can find great mentors and great sources of knowledge and insight from essentially any direction in an organization. But to simplify this posting, I will write it in terms of top-down mentoring as is more commonly considered. And I simply note here that most all of what I would offer here, applies in other mentor/mentee relationships too, and particularly when a more collegial relationship develops there, and not a more strictly superior/subordinate one, which tends to limit candor and mentoring effectiveness anyway.

Where does mentoring per se fit into the picture for a manager in a business? How does this fit into their here-and-now job and into their own career advancement? That depends on the corporate culture in place as much as it does on anything else, with more collaborative cultures valuing mentoring more positively than a more strictly competitive one would. But assuming at least some business process and business culture support for collaborative, positive support – which in essence can be seen as supporting enlightened self-interest as much as anything else, I would propose the following as holding the greatest value for a manager as they seek to rise through the ranks and up the table of organization:

• Specific hands-on technical skills offer the greatest value for hands-on workers but hold progressively less such value as you reach higher levels of management authority. And as part of that shift in priorities, the higher up a chain of command you go, the higher the percentage of people who you will find yourself supervising and managing, directly and indirectly through others, who have and use specific skills that you do not have too. Flipping that around to emphasize this point, the higher up you go in a management system, the more people will find themselves working under you there who will have expertise and experience that you do not share and that you never will have, and that you might understand for results achieved, but that you will not know the details as to how those results were achieved.
• Interpersonal and communications skills become progressively more and more important as you organize and coordinate larger and more skills-sets varied tasks and projects and as you find yourself responsible for larger and more varies ranges of them.
• And helping the perhaps many people under you in your area of the table of organization to perform better, and to live up to their fuller potential while doing so, can become a defining point of consideration when you yourself are up for performance review, and when you are up for possible further career advancement yourself. This is where support of more general employee training and related staff enrichment opportunities enter this narrative, and this is where mentoring can too, and particularly when it is offered to employees and more junior managers who genuinely show promise and without any ulterior bias added into that selection process.
• A concern on the part of potential mentors, of a perception of possible bias in who they actively mentor and who they do not, probably deters more people who could help others in this way than any other possible confounding issues faced here. But it is possible to build this type of support into a business and in its business practices and in its corporate culture too and it is possible to build a mentoring culture into a business, and as a source of its defining positive value as a place to work.

I assume in what follows that mentoring per se is seen as at least something of a positive, and that this includes it’s not having been turned into a “favoritism minefield.” How can a prospective mentor find the right people to help train and guide in this way? Two possible avenues come immediately to mind here, that I will explore for their complexities:

• Performance review findings, where that includes both pertinent technical skills and work performance findings, and communications and interpersonal skills evaluations.
• And this selection process of necessity, and certainly in this context, should also consider enthusiasm for the business and for what can be done there, and at least something of a consideration of interpersonal fit, between potential mentor and mentee. If everything else is there, but a potential mentor and mentee cannot seem to find common ground for working together, this is not going to work out.
• And self-selection, and on the part of mentees in particular. An employee who asks really good questions and who actively seeks out the information and insight that they need to go beyond their current day-to-day routine and do more: that is a good sign. And employees at whatever level on the table of organization who seek out special projects and opportunities to stretch and expand their skills and the range over which they apply them, and who actively seek out opportunity to help address genuine otherwise-unmet needs, are good candidates here too.

Managers and senior managers in a mentoring business culture can become eligible, or at least more visibly so for advancement through mentoring and particularly when the people they so help, benefit from this and prove that from their own work performance and their own professional growth. And mentoring and supervising at that level can serve as a gateway into management for non-managerial employees who seek to career advance into management too. Mentoring, after all, is in large part a matter of communications and interpersonal skills – some of the very skills that become so important in management per se, along with capabilities in delegating both tasks and responsibilities, and authority to match the level of responsibility so conferred, and capacity to see and understand work done and goals worked towards from a bigger picture perspective than would be called for in immediately here-and-now hands-on work.

Let me conclude this posting with a crucially important, if basic and even elementary observation: An effective mentor learns at least as much as anyone they would help train and advise and for several reasons. First, mentoring, and I add teaching in general force you to look at and reconsider the knowledge and skills that you would share, with new fresh eyes. This can in effect force you to reorganize and consolidate what you know, thinking through gaps and possible inconsistencies in that. It can force you to really see and examine your own automatic assumptions and preconceptions. It can leave you more solidly grounded where your might have been thinking and operating more in terms of special case rules – but where you could generalize to more widely applicable general understandings. And mentoring builds bridges, and for networking and for simply working with those around you with greater awareness and understanding of your human context.

• I write this posting in particular, for those who have never mentored but who have something to offer – and something to gain from doing so. Never feel threatened by the people around you who seek to excel and who seek out the knowledge and insight and tools they would need to do so. Cultivate the best in others and strive to help them reach their own best potentials, and strive to become the best that you can achieve too, and regardless of your title or level of organizational authority. And I offer this as a career point that goes way beyond the issues of mentoring and of seeking out or serving as a mentor.

I have been developing this series according to an outline that I first offered in its Part 1. And I will continue following that same basic pattern in my next installment, where I will address that posting’s Point 5, as offered in its principle to-address list:

• Career planning as an ongoing process of analysis and synthesis, and thinking and planning beyond the scope of this list’s Point 2 (e.g. thinking in terms of where you are now, and in terms of next possible steps that you might take now to specifically reach where you seek to be next, as discussed in Part 3.)

And I will proceed from there to discuss the rest of the more general, foundational issues of career planning and execution as noted in that first series installment. Then, in anticipation of further discussion to come, I will go beyond the scope outlined in Part 1, to consider the impact of change, and of automation in particular as that will come to redefine what employment and employability are in this 21st century. And the issues that this transformation raise, are among the most important that we as humanity will face in the years and decades to come. But before delving into that, I will continue building a foundation for its discussion here, as first outlined in Part 1.

Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 3 and at the first directory page and second, continuation page to this Guide.

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