Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Lessons Learned – Mentorship without a Mentor

We asked others to write about the power of mentoring during National Mentoring Month.  This blog is  from Nick Jaworski, owner of Circle Social Inc, a digital marketing agency that helps recovery centers and other behavioral health organizations connect with patients and their communities to grow their census. He is also passionate about entrepreneurship and community leadership. Nick shares experiences that have helped him learn that mentoring is as much art as science. 

Most people have a mentor in life, a teacher, a coach, a parent, or a manager that they can point to and say, “this person showed me the way.”

I’ve never really had that. I’ve definitely been fortunate to know and work with some great people. But I never really had one person take me under their wing to show me the way. Maybe part of the reason is because I’m stubborn, like to move fast, and tend to seek out answers before they’re given J.

I often set my own goals and then figure out how to get there, but there are many times in my life where I would certainly have enjoyed some guidance. Maybe that’s why I love mentoring others.
My mentoring journey really started in college when I began working with at-risk youth at our local domestic abuse shelter in the children’s group. Since then, I’ve had many mentorship opportunities.
I facilitated the promotion of over 15 of my direct reports to leadership or management positions while working as a Director for Disney in China and most recently mentored 100 startups alongside billionaire investor Tim Draper at Startup Istanbul.

But it doesn’t really matter what I’ve done as much as what I’ve learned. Not really having models to go off of, I’ve certainly made a lot of mistakes along the way and it’s my mistakes I’d like to share, because every mistake is an opportunity to learn and do better. I hope that by sharing some of my mistakes, you can learn to avoid them yourself.

Giving Feedback Is Not Always the Right Choice
-          In college, I mentored at a brand new, project-based charter school. The charter school movement was just getting started and nobody was really sure how to run them. My job was to walk around and engage the high school students in their projects. I enjoyed helping these young adults learn.

One day, I walked up to one of the students and asked her if I could take a look at her progress. She refused. I told her I just wanted to see how things were coming along.

She responded, “Why? So you can tell me everything that’s wrong with it?”

I’ll never forget that response. I realized that the majority of the feedback I gave, and the majority of feedback teachers often give, is critical in nature. We seek to correct to improve, but constantly being corrected is not fun, as anyone who regularly receives critical feedback from their boss knows.

I took two lessons to heart that day. 1) Positive encouragement is a very important part of feedback and 2) not every interaction in a mentor/mentee relationship has to be about correcting perceived weaknesses.

Know Your Audience
-         I was working as the Director of a school in Istanbul where I had just hired on a new teacher who had a master’s degree. I was quite excited as it’s not easy to find masters degreed teachers in Turkey.

Upon watching her first class, my excitement ended. I sat through one of the most boring, jargon-filled lessons I’d seen up until that time.

After the lesson, I spoke with her about my observations both of students’ eyes glazing over as well as my own feeling of boredom during her lesson.

She broke down in tears and sobbed for a full 10 minutes. I was caught entirely off guard. Here was a thirty-something year old woman with a master’s degree, sobbing because of a little feedback.

She quit that day and never came back.

While, ultimately, our school was better off without her, I was stuck covering classes for 3 weeks until we found and trained a new teacher.

I learned that you really need to get to know a person before providing feedback to determine how much they can handle and what kind of feedback they can handle. Education level and age don’t necessarily translate to fortitude.

Also, while I didn’t learn this till much later, I eventually figured out that feedback is best provided by the individual coming to their own conclusions based on objective observations.

Rather than calling the lesson boring, I could have highlighted the students’ lack of interest and asked her to think about why. Then ask what she could do to increase their interest. This way, the critical feedback would come from within and I would not have been throwing a judgement on the observation.
      Keep It Professional
-         This is not a story about me, but something I’ve seen more than a few others do, especially in a managerial role. They become friends with their mentee and share information that should not be shared based on their job roles.

A manager takes an employee under their wing and works to develop them. This also translates into social engagements after work, maybe going to the bar or a café.

As the relationship moves more from mentor/mentee to friends, the manager starts to divulge some of their own challenges with other employees. Well, this inevitably gets out as the mentee often does not have the professional wherewithal to withhold that information.

The office turns into a place of politics, gossip, and perceived or real favoritism. It’s never a good situation.

There also may come a time where the mentee, for whatever reason, is not working out. Suddenly, they’ve become a problem employee. But taking corrective action becomes very hard, because a friendship has developed.

These are tough situations. We obviously want to work with people we can consider friends. But my opinion is that there must always be a level of professional distance.

Learn to Let Go
-         I’m a passionate person and truly believe in helping others. This can lead me to giving people too many chances or letting slides in performance go on too long before taking action.

There are numerous times in my career where I would see performance turn south with an individual. One such time, we had an employee I was trying to develop into a leadership role. He had been very enthusiastic starting out.

But he never quite exhibited the traits we needed to move him to the next level. He started to feel that it was taking too long for him to advance, so, unbeknownst to us, he started looking for a new position. He found one and was offered a significant increase in salary, but he was under a strict non-compete that we would not let him out of.

As he’d been working with us for quite some time, and had originally shown a lot of promise, I kept trying to work with him and get him to reset expectations on how fast he would be able to advance.

Well, as you can imagine, things continued to go downhill and, then eventually, he just didn’t show up for work one day. In retrospect, once his attitude soured, I should have just let him go, but it was hard as I’d invested a lot of time in him from the beginning and we’d been through numerous challenges together.

However, it wasn’t worth all the negative energy that ended up not just affecting me, but other members of the team as well.

Over the years, I’ve become much better about just ripping the band-aid off when necessary. It’s not a benefit to you or them to continue a relationship that has soured.

One of the things I truly enjoy about mentoring is that it’s an opportunity for you to learn as much as the mentee. They often say that teaching something is the best way to learn it, and I’ve definitely found that to be true with leadership, which is often much more art than science.