Of the three previous blogs on the five learning principles for EPowerment – this one is likely to generate some divergent perspectives. A couple of qualifiers up front – EPowerment, the amalgam of Empowerment, Emotional Intelligence, and leveraging the E-world, is the idea of disseminating decision-making down the proverbial hierarchy so that good and real-time decisions are made by people most close to customers, clients, vendors, suppliers and other stakeholders. In order for this to happen, those on the front lines have to feel like they are all the tools and resources necessary to make those decisions so that wheels are not reinvented, mistakes are not duplicated and best practices are employed. Our 4th learning principle is mentoring – and I define it in the very classical sense of the term acknowledging that there are a myriad of models of mentoring and coaching. The classical model is to learn from someone who has literally done what it is that you are trying to do. Hundreds of years ago if you wanted to be a carpenter, who did you learn from? A carpenter of course. You would hardly go to the town mayor or the blacksmith no matter how old or wise they were to learn carpentry.
One has to admit that there is tremendous power in the classical model. And ironically, it is seems to be mostly employed only where human performance is at a true premium. If you look at athletics and professional sports, you will find that the coach of say an NBA basketball team is someone who … well … played basketball … not someone who played soccer. If you look at Olympic athletes, their coaches are also people who spent a lifetime in the field that the young athlete is trying to master. And indeed, these athletes perform at tremendous performance levels on some of the grandest stages in front of thousands and millions. So why is it that we do not follow the same model for working professionals? Working professionals are also “paid” for their performance are they not? It just seems like the workplace has simply accepted the fact that most of their employees will be mediocre and can’t all possibly be superstars. And it also just seems like many professionals have also accepted this fate – that they are simply going to be average.
Here the controversial part now. It seems that companies have resolved to provide executive coaching to well … executives. There are some fundamental differences between coaching and mentoring. First, coaching is reserved mostly for top executives while mentoring is ideal for middle managers. Second, coaching is mostly an intervention model, meaning that coaches are often hired to “fix” some flaw of an executive whereas mentoring is a wellness model – nothing is wrong with the mentee but they certainly can benefit from being better. Coaches are generalists, and often times never have worked in the industry they have clients in nor have they worked in the positions of their clients. Mentors, on the other hand, are folks from the industry and do have experience in the very same roles their mentees are in. I concede there are exceptions to these differences and that there is some overlap between mentoring and coaching, but these distinctions are important to note in the context provided above regarding optimal human performance. It may appear that I am biased against coaches but this is simply not true. While there is a place for interventions and for executive coaching, these solutions are a very expensive and not scalable. As we peek into the workforce of 2010 and beyond as baby boomers begin their migration out of the workforce replaced by a newer generations who are more comfortable in different modes of learning, then the idea of mentoring should become even more appealing. In fact, in a recent study, the younger generations reported Mentoring as their #1 preferred model for workplace learning.
The reason that traditional mentoring disappeared is because we grew in size and then geographically dispersed business across the world. To find a person wherever you lived or worked who had done what you wanted to do became challenging. With the advent of the web and devices that can now connect you to new people, new communities and new sources of knowledge, the definition of mentoring itself needs to be revisited.
Last year I spoke at a national mentoring conference and I offered to redefine mentoring. You see, I have clients that call me all the time and say they want mentoring. I respond by saying,”No ….tell me what you really want.” And they insist that their surveys show their employees want mentors. Mentoring is NOT an outcome … it is a process. It is a process of getting experiences, knowledge, and wisdom from wherever it exists (traditionally in the minds of older folks) to whoever needs it AT THE TIME they need it most. In this process, should it matter what the source of the experiences, knowledge, and wisdom are? Whether it is internal or external to your company? Whether it comes from a person or a community or a knowledge source? Companies and organizations that say NO are the ones who are going to take significant advantage of the new world – a world where geography has virtually been eliminated as a barrier to finding that one person, that community, and that knowledge source that can get you to perform at higher levels. EPowerment is truly coming alive now and it will only grow. I encourage leaders to think about this paradigm-shifting model of mentoring to empower unprecedented levels of performance.