Sunday, June 12, 2011

Mentorable Me

If you've read "Outliers," you know that there's a theory that do something for 10,000 hours and you have a good chance at getting good at it.  Were that the case, I'm less than a year away from being an expert employee.  However, it's not quite that simple.  I think maybe 10,000 hours of playing a musical instrument or playing a sport may make you quite the expert, but it also assumes that you've got a good coach, you know the rules and they don't change.  Now, that may have been good enough for Bill Gates to become a really proficient computer programmer.  But I'm not sure it works out so well when it comes to management.

Shortly after I started with my employer, I learned of a mentoring program but was told I couldn't participate as a temp.  As soon as I became a full-time employee, I submitted my paperwork and waited.  I never heard anything back.  It crossed my mind a few times, but it was never at one of those moments where I thought "I should remember to do something about this."  Probably my loss.

So now it comes to a time where I am in need of a mentor.  I've become fairly proficient with managing and I have occasional opportunities to lead and even the rare opportunity to innovate.  I think I am well-liked or respected by my team, but my ability to manage up may now be ready for some... how shall we say... honing.

What may have passed as "managing up" no longer cuts it.  It's not enough to keep those above me informed, to prevent them from being embarrassed or caught off guard by bad news that they should have known about.  Now, as they say, it's personal.  I need to step up my game.  I think that securing a mentor now suggests an investment by the organization in my future with the company and goes beyond just career pathing.  This may be spin, but it's the right spin.  It's not that I'm in trouble, but there's been a few things recently where the outcome could have been better.  The outcome wasn't wrong, but it wasn't the most right it could have been.  And that's not spin.

So I'm going to get some help in the "gray" - black and white is good, but it's also a trap.  If you fall back on the black and white every time, you're not exercising leadership, you're not showing that you can see the bigger picture and you're not showing anyone else that you can be flexible.  Not morally flexible, but that maybe some things shouldn't be as black or as white.  This isn't something being told to me, it's just something I've been realizing.  There are those things that are truly black and white - those things in the realm of legal, moral, good business practice.  And there are things that are still pretty good things to adhere to - policies and procedures, maybe designed to protect staff from "abuse" (I can't think of a better word - short of "disrespect" or "courtesy") or burnout or to protect other constituents, your business' customers or maybe internal constituents.  Or even your own sense of integrity and honoring the promises you made.

It can be so easy to wall yourself in with rules, regulations, guidelines and policies to where you are no longer flexible, you can't act quickly, you can't identify something that's truly urgent and quickly assess something and realize the policy, in this case, stinks.  Policy can also hinder growth.  You build up enough rules for yourself and you've got the walls of a virtual cube you need never leave.

So for me, it's worth in the gray - the ability to see when something black and white needs to be overturned and how to do that in a way that makes sense and will make sense to others.

I know of two examples that recently occurred.  One I'm not sure how I could have handled differently, the other I know in retrospect I should have gone a different path.  I don't think it's really appropriate to discuss them here, but I do think that we'll investigate those two issues to see what else we can glean from them.

But at the same time, I have a worry.  I do have a worry that things can tip the other way.  You can be so much into the personal, so much freed from the constraints of black and white that all you do is make friends, doing what needs to be done to win people over.  At that point, it either becomes political, or it becomes all about personal gain.  The person is so busy making sure their superiors are pleased, their value is known to many who might call on them in the future, multiple exit strategies and promotion paths are assured.  But it's their subordinates who suffer.  (I'm always reminded of when Mr. Burns hires Frank Grimes for whatever it was, only to stop being enamoured with him the following week when that dog saves a baby or whatever it was.)

So I look forward to this mentoring, I look forward to my next round of growth.  I know I've got more potential I haven't had the opportunity to use yet, but maybe this honing, this finding the statue inside the block of marble, maybe this is the next shot in the arm I need.

It's interesting to see this as I've also been spending some time in discussion with several colleagues much younger than I.  I wouldn't want to presume or claim that I've been mentoring them, but it is interesting to able to impart wisdom (I think it's wise, they keep asking me for more, so they must be getting something from it, and they don't work for me, so they're not making a book called "Dumb Things My Boss Says" so far as I know), but it brings me to a realization that's probably a real no-brainer -- we're always influencing others, leading, guiding, advising, setting good (or bad) examples.  So formal mentoring is just a possible turbo boost,  a kickstart, an extra hand possibly pulling you forwards faster.

And had I thought about it in these terms, I probably wouldn't have waited until someone else suggested it and gone after where that missing paperwork for the request nearly five years ago.  So, learn from me - if you have the opportunity to mentor or be mentored, take it.
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