Many Generations in the Workplace

With so many generations in the workplace, how do you find common ground to work optimally together?

Currently there are four generations in the workplace.  They are:

  • WW II generation (born before 1943)
  • Baby Boomers (born between 1944 and 1963)
  • Generation X (born between 1964 and 1984)
  • Gen Y or Millennials (born between 1985 and 2005)

Research has shown that each generation views work and careers differently though many experts disagree on the degree to which their perspective vary.  Furthermore, it is necessary to realize that this is at best imprecise, and those born on or around a so-called boundary years (i.e. 1963 between Boomers and Xers) might very well be inclined to be with one generation or the other.

I believe it is still important for effective leaders to be aware of these potential differences in perspective if they are going to maximize performance and fully understand how different members of the team may approach a problem or work/life balance.   This is also not an “airy fairy” effort to achieve an artificial diversity goal but can be of value to any team for a number of reasons.

  • An expansion of the number of creative ideas available to you
  • Better contacts with your customer or client base
  • Access to a wider range of problem solvers
  • Reduction in tensions and hostilities across demographic and generational lines
  • An increased appreciation of different people, ideas, and general respect for others

Research has shown that perhaps the biggest factor in working across the “divide” is establishing trust with each other across generational lines.  This may often times require a good deal of listening by the leader to determine why and how alternative approaches are proposed.  For example, in general, Boomers tend to value competence. Xers value relationship/communication and seem to have a greater need for open discussion.

Probably the best place for the leader to start is to get the team to focus on what they agree on.  It is also important to keep in mind that other factors affect how individuals confront problems and work effectively on teams.  It should not be surprising to learn that generally men and women often have different perspectives of what leaders do and how they do it.  The literature further suggests culture also influences individual perceptions, roles and identities. Surveys of cross-generational teams also indicates that in addition to culture, gender, age, and education are important, and these factors influence each other. If you only look at one factor, it may lead you to mistaken conclusions.

It is critical to keep in remember that not every member of generation is “that way”.  Failing to keep this in mind can potentially create biases in dealing with other generations.  Finally, it is useful to keep in mind the words of Winnie the Pooh!  What makes me different…is what makes me….Me!

-Dr. Jeff McCausland

Great Organizations Do Small Things Well

Great Organizations Do Small Things Well — Find the Long Snapper

I have been thinking about what do great organizations do that differentiate them from good organizations, and there are a number of things. But one that sticks out to me is that great organizations do small things very well. Let me give you an example that I observed while watching the end of the 2016 college football season.

By any measure you would have to accept that the University of Alabama football team is successful at what they do despite losing in the NCAA football championships to Clemson University earlier this year. The Crimson Tide have won 16 national championships including four in the last eight years. They have made more bowl appearances (64) than any other team in NCAA history. Alabama has won 30 conference titles and had 11 undefeated seasons. Currently, there are 24 committed recruits to the Alabama football program in 2017. Five are ranked number one in the nation at their position, including Thomas Fletcher from Washington State. Thomas graduated from the prestigious IMG Academy and is a long snapper. [1]

Now for those of you who may not be football aficionados, a long snapper is a center who only snaps the ball on punts. This means he will likely only be on the field for seven or eight plays per game. But those plays are often crucial. Place kickers have gotten better and now may attempt field goals from well over forty yards. Consequently, punts normally occur when a team remains in their own territory. A badly handled snap can result in disaster. The long snapper must snap the ball between his legs and send it approximately fifteen yards in 0.75 seconds. He must do this accurately and repeatedly during some of the most pressure packed moments of a football game. Furthermore, he knows that as soon as he snaps the ball he is going to be hit by at least one (if not more) 300 pound defensive lineman.

After years of success, clearly Alabama’s head football coach is leaving little to chance and will consistently bring in the best players he can. But many Division 1 teams still rely on a walk-on or fourth string player who is still learning to become their long snapper. But Saban wants to insure that his organization has every advantage as they confront their competition — and all leaders can take a lesson from this. This is not encouragement to micro-manage but rather the need for successful leaders to try and “see around corners,” think a little out of the box, and encourage their team members by their actions to be thorough and relentless in the pursuit of perfection in what each does for the overall success of the team. If the leader stresses the need to “find the long snapper” then the entire team will focus on what are the small things that can potentially make a difference.

If you still find this unconvincing, consider the following: Where did Nick Saban acquire his relentless focus on insuring his team did small things well?  He was mentored by a master, Bill Belichick, head coach of the New England Patriots. Saban worked under Belichick from 1991 to 1994. Last year Belichick stunned many in the NFL when the Patriots selected a long snapper in the fifth round of the NFL draft. 

But if you’re still not buying this idea, I suggest you simply call the Atlanta Falcons and ask them their opinion.

-Dr. Jeff McCausland

[1] Sam Borden, “An Upside-Down Priority”, New York Times, December 26, 2016, p. D1.

Leading During a Crisis: Overcoming Obstacles and Keeping Calm

OB-DE821_billge_D_20090224183025It seems like we are surrounded by crises. Sometimes they are private troubles and other times we worry about a problem we aren’t directly connected to. In mental health terms, a crisis refers not necessarily to a traumatic situation or event, but to a person’s reaction to an event. One person might be deeply affected by an event, while another individual suffers little or no ill effects. As we consider crises it may be useful to remember that the Chinese word for crisis summarizes its components. The word crisis in Chinese is formed with the combination of two characters — danger and opportunity. A crisis presents an obstacle, trauma, or threat, but it also presents leaders an opportunity for either growth or decline.

We often think of a crisis as a sudden unexpected disaster, such as a car accident, natural disaster, or other cataclysmic event. However, crises can range substantially in type and severity. Sometimes a crisis is a predictable part of the life cycle.  Situational crises are sudden and unexpected, such as accidents and natural disasters. Existential crises are inner conflicts related to things such as life purpose, direction, and spirituality.

All leaders know that their organization will undergo crises. They must prepare plans and processes that “inoculate” as much as possible their organization from its worst effects. This includes plans for immediate crisis action, leader succession, communications, etc. Next, good leaders must realize that all members of the organization will look to them for both direction and encouragement. Finally, leaders must realize that their organization will not be the same after the crisis. They must demonstrate caring and set a new course for the future. A critical part of this is to take the time to confront a difficult question: “What can we learn from this experience no matter how difficult that will make us a better organization in future?”

Finally, it may be helpful to consider an old phrase from World War II — “Keep calm and carry on”. This was a motivational poster produced by the British government in 1939 during the beginning of the Second World War. It was intended to raise the morale of the British public in the aftermath of widely predicted mass air attacks on major cities. Oddly, the poster had only limited distribution with no public display, and thus was little known. The poster was rediscovered in 2000, and since then has been widely used throughout the United Kingdom. During the preparation for the Olympic Games it was reissued — “Keep calm and carry on…it’s only the Olympics!

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Dr. Jeff McCausland is Founder and CEO of Diamond6 Leadership and Strategy, LLC. His most challenging and unique leadership experience was leading and commanding 750 troops into the first Gulf War. He is proud to say that everyone came home healthy and safe.
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Day of Infamy: Leadership Lessons from the Attack on Pearl Harbor

“Yesterday, December 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by the naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

-President Franklin Roosevelt in his speech to Congress.

“I am afraid we have awakened a sleeping giant.”

-Admiral Yamamoto, Commander of the Japanese attack force

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Every American, no matter their age, conjures up a mental image of the attack on Pearl Harbor when they hear the date December 7. Today, we commemorate the 75th anniversary. This attack was a turning point in the history of our nation and the world. The war that followed lasted nearly four years, and the entire nation mobilized to meet this challenge. But ultimately it was leadership at all levels, exhibited initially on this Sunday morning in Hawaii that allowed America to be successful.

The actions of leaders on both sides of this historic battle made the difference in the events on that day — for better or for worse — and arguably set the conditions that determined the course of World War II. It is no overstatement to say that Pearl Harbor on the beautiful island of Hawaii proved to be one of the most important and intense “leadership laboratories” in the history of modern warfare.

As we reflect on the courage and sacrifice of the brave servicemen on that day, what can we discern about the actions of their leaders? And what can we learn about leadership in a complex, rapidly evolving, high-pressure environment like the one we are living and working in today? While there are innumerable leadership lessons that can be drawn from this event let me use three examples.

Leaders must act in a crisis and feel empowered to act. The battle actually began at 0342 that morning. The minesweeper USS Condor detected a periscope at the entrance to Pearl Harbor. The captain of the Condor sent a message to the USS Ward, a destroyer on patrol in the harbor. Sighted submerged submarine on westerly course, speed 9 knots.

The Ward was commanded by Lieutenant William Outerbridge. He had assumed command on December 5, but still immediately ordered his ship to engage what turned out to be a Japanese mini-submarine that was attempting to enter the harbor.

All leaders will face a “crisis” at one point or another and several factors are important. First, crises demand that organizations have developed solid leadership and organizational preparation. Second, leading in a crisis takes more than just common sense. Leaders must establish a climate that allows those they lead to make decisions, fail, and grow. Third, it is critical that everyone in the organization even the newest person feels empowered to act.

Lieutenant Outerbridge’s quick actions are consistent with each of these.

Leaders must challenge assumptions particularly during changing times. The Army-Navy game in 1941 was played on November 29 in Philadelphia Municipal Stadium. Navy would defeat Army 14-6. The program for the game contained a full-page picture of a battleship and noted that it had “never been successfully attacked from the air.” The Pearl Harbor attack began at 0755 eight days later. Within 10 minutes half the battleships were badly damaged. The battleship was no longer the centerpiece of what 20th-century navies were all about.

Leaders must promote organizational resilience. The United States suffered 2,335 dead and 1,178 wounded on December 7. Over 180 aircraft were destroyed and 18 ships badly damaged or sunk. This included eight battleships, three cruisers, and four other vessels. It was perhaps the worst military defeat in American history. But all the American aircraft carriers were at sea.

America recovered quickly. Four months after the attack (18 April 1942) sixteen B25 bombers took off from the USS Hornet and conducted a bombing raid on Tokyo. On June 4, 1942 the American and Japanese fleets fought perhaps the most important battle of the war in the Pacific near Midway Island. Japanese Admiral Yamamoto sent four of his carriers to draw out the American fleet and hopefully destroy the carriers. But in the ensuing battle, the Japanese lost all four of their carriers while the US Navy lost won.

This can also be illustrated in the American industry’s reaction to Pearl Harbor. On December 7, 1941 the US Navy had eight aircraft carriers and 112 submarines. At the end of the war the Navy would have 140 carriers and 214 submarines.

Scientist Brian Walker and David Salt in their book, Resilience defined it as: “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and still retain its basic function and structure.” Bad things will happen, and effective leaders must insure their organizations can “bounce back.” Every ship that was part of the Japanese task force that attacked Pearl Harbor was sunk by September 1945.

As we reflect on the sacrifices of those Americans who lost their lives on December 7, 1941 let us further consider what we can learn from this iconic event that will make each of us a better leader.

Perhaps the words of former Secretary of State Colin Powell are appropriate. Leadership is the art of getting your people to accomplish more than they may think is possible.


Dr. Jeff McCausland, Founder and CEO, Diamond6 Leadership and Strategy, LLC

The Battle of Antietam: an interview with Tom Vossler

Colonel Tom Vossler has long been the lead historian of Diamond6 TVossler_Headshot_2016Leadership. He has taken many of our groups through various Civil War battlefields, providing a historical playing field in which to discuss important leadership lessons.

In the past he has teamed up with Carol Reardon, the George Winfree Professor of American History at Pennsylvania State University, to write a history of the Battle of Gettysburg—A Field Guide to Gettysburg: Experiencing the Battlefield through Its History, Places, and People. They have a1rjerl95mlcome together once again to write A Field Guide to Antietam: Experiencing the Battlefield through Its History, Places, and People.

Diamond6 sat down with Col. Vossler to discuss Antietam, its place in Civil War history, and its leadership lessons. September 17 will be the battle’s 154th anniversary.

Why is Antietam important in the context of the Civil War?

This campaign, this battle, is part of a larger picture called the Maryland Campaign of 1862. There has been a string of Confederate victories as they cross the Potomac to begin this new campaign. What is also important to note is that while the Maryland Campaign is being fought, out west there’s a Confederate campaign for the invasion of Kentucky.

These are two simultaneous Confederate advances into two border states, Kentucky and Maryland. From a political and military strategic standpoint, we must remember that President Lincoln said he must have Kentucky or else he would lose its support.

This battle forces the Confederacy back, which is why this battle is so important. The incursion into the border states is turned back by Union forces.

What are four key moments that turn the tide in this battle?

First, this battle takes place on September 17, following the South Mountain battles, which really disrupted Lee’s plans to invade Pennsylvania. He doesn’t make it that far. Meanwhile, General McClellan, the Union commander, could’ve attacked on September 16, but delayed one full day to get his forces ready. But if you flip that coin, that affords Lee another 24 hours in which to get his forces to the battlefield.

The second moment also has to do with McClellan. During the battle, there is an opportunity for him to commit his reserves to a weak point in the Confederate line, but he hesitates and then doesn’t follow through. He fears if he commits his reserve forces, he won’t have any later. That could have split the Confederate defense. Instead it stays in place and frustrates his movements.

The third key moment is the failure of General Ambrose Burnside to make his attack across the lower bridge. There are three bridges—the upper, the middle, the lower—and his forces were at the lower bridge. He had repeated orders to get across the Antietam to attack the Confederate force on the other side of the creek. He delays, and his delay eats up several hours in the battle. This then ties into that fourth moment.

Number four is the timely arrival of an entire Confederate division commanded by General A.P. Hill. They have forced march from Harper’s Ferry, which the Confederates had captured earlier, and arrived on the battlefield just in time to turn back the advance of the Burnside’s 9th Corps.

There is no clear victor in this. From a larger overview, a strategic and operational overview, what is gained is that Lee’s army is forced out of Maryland and the Potomac River Line is restored.

After the battle, what changes do we see in the Union and Confederate leadership?

In the days and weeks after the battle, President Lincoln goes to Antietam to inquire of General McClellan why he has not followed Lee across the river into Virginia. McClellan essentially sits there with his command. He does not go after Lee, and this frustrates President Lincoln. The end result of McClellan’s delay is Lincoln relieves him of command and appoints a new commander. This leads to a continual roll over of leadership. By the time we get to Gettysburg, none of the higher level Union leadership remains.

The same thing happens in the Confederate Army. They lose a number of key leaders when they reorganize the army. They reorganize in a positive way. The replacement of the leadership leads to a slew of powerful victories.

The leadership question is what fascinates me most about Antietam—figuring out where the leaders who were at Gettysburg were at Antietam.

How then does this battle relate to today’s leaders?

What we’re talking about is the growth of leaders and the sorting out of those less capable. They’re not rising to the top anymore. They’re staying in the same position or getting washed out of the organization. The leadership over time gets better. You can watch this happen from First Bull Run, the first major land battle of the Civil War, as they progress through the war.

For today’s leaders that translates into organizational effectiveness, whether we’re talking about a school district or a corporation. At Diamond6, we’re striving to make them effective organizations through the development of their leadership. These leaders in the army, like in any organization, wherever they are they’re being developed and creating a succession of command. Every organization must think about what they’re doing to allow their leadership to mature and grow. That concept is thoroughly explored at Antietam.

Click here to purchase A Field Guide to Antietam: Experiencing the Battlefield through Its History, Places, and People.

 

Is the juice worth the squeeze?

A new turn of phrase has infected the Diamond6 office: “Is the juice worth lemon-your-hand-cut-citrus-squeezing-drop-white-background-54396239the squeeze?”

CEO and founder of D6 Dr. Jeff McCausland began asking the question during staff meetings, and it is something that all employees have started to consider. Essentially, it boils down to the following concept: is the end result or reward worth the time and energy required to accomplish a task? Is what we are doing consistent with our mission, vision, and values particularly if it is going to demand considerable effort and resources?

This is a fundamental question that a leader must ask him/herself every day.

When Dr. McCausland teaches his Gettysburg seminar that discusses the leadership principles learned on one of the largest battlefields of the Civil War, he focuses a fair amount on the idea of innovation. One of those innovations he focuses on is the development of “triage” by American surgeon Dr. Jonathan Letterman.

This 19th century doctor organized injuries into different categories depending on the severity of their injuries: those who couldn’t be helped, those in immediate need of care, and those whose wounds did not put them in immediate danger. Triage is still used to this day during events that involve mass casualty. Emergency medical personnel would have used triage in dealing with casualties at the Boston Marathon bombing or the shooting in Orlando.

Most modern leaders rarely face life-or-death situations, but they must organize their teams to confront organizational problems similarly. At times, we are faced with issues that we can invest all of our time, energy, and resources to, but in the end we are just treading water.

It is at these moments that leaders know to focus on difficulties or complexities that they can resolve, begin to undertake, or are fundamental to what their organization is about. Meanwhile, they must rid themselves of the unsolvable and either relegate the minor problems to a subordinate or push it to a later date when they have time to address it.

Time management is a key characteristic of a good leader.

So the next time you look to conquer your own personal battlefield, take a moment and ask yourself: “Is the juice worth the squeeze?” You may quickly realize that the task you have dedicated yourself to wasn’t worth the few drops of liquid swimming around the bottom of your glass.

Five tips to help you deal with a bad boss

So you don’t like your boss, or maybe your boss doesn’t like you. Either bad-boss-4001way, you two aren’t getting along and communication is breaking down. You’re starting to feel like the odd man or woman out on all the work that you once found fulfilling. But before you start heading toward the exit, perhaps you ought to reconsider. Having a bad boss can be an excellent opportunity to sharpen your leadership skills, so that you can lead everyone — even your boss — in the workplace. All that this requires from you is a proactive spirit and a desire to make the best office space possible.

One of the most common reasons for leaving a job is a incompetent or haughty supervisor, so let’s flip that proposition on its head and refuse the easy surrender. The most gratifying jobs can sometimes force us to interact with difficult people, so consider this an opportunity to get some practice in.

While you’re going at it, here are a few tips that might help:

Figure out if they’re actually a bad boss

There are many reasons we can start to resent someone, so, before you dismiss your boss totally, take some time and consider him/her fairly. Are their opinions, ideas and actions actually hurting the stakeholders in the current plan? If so, move forward with the other tips. Identify those failings, so that you can be sure to buttress yourself and others against future issues. But if they seem competent and create positive change and growth, reconsider your position. There is always the possibility that you have let your ego get in the way of a productive work environment.

Identify their motivations

Figure out why they’re acting the way they are. Gaining insight behind their actions might help you understand their desired bigger picture and management style, or it could help you understand why they’re mishandling the situation. Either way, this added layer of perception will definitely help you. A little compassion and empathy can cause you to become an active participant at the office, pushing it to new heights.

Don’t back down from your ideals

Don’t ever cower. Stand tall for your principles and make sure they are heard. If you truly believe in them, then they will hold water. Maybe the boss is stubborn or arrogant and is unwilling to allow you to build upon them, but if you’re willing to go to battle, so will your co-workers. If you don’t sacrifice any moral ground, then you have nothing for which to apologize. Plus, you never know who else might be listening. Your higher-ups could take notice.

Take the high road

Though you don’t want to back down, it is important to not turn into a tyrant yourself. Be flexible and competent. Listen. Take on the roles of your job with gusto and do them to the best of your ability. If your boss is a tough individual to deal with, offer yourself up as an example of what a good leader looks like. Show your co-workers respect, and you will be sure to get it back in spades. When angry or upset, keep your tone even, remain professional and leave the situation. Screaming or panic will only make everything more difficult later.

Avoid future bad bosses

As they say, hindsight is 20-20. If you decide to leave your current job, surely you don’t want to end up in the same situation at a different company. Be smart and do a little digging before your interview. Identify the likely people who will be in charge and see if you can recognize any similar patterns to bad bosses of working past. Take a potential co-worker out to lunch and ask them about the job’s environment. This kind of intelligence will help you make your future decision. Just make sure you’re not being weird about it.

How Great Mentors Start Strong with Mentees

mentoringWhat makes some mentorship pairings take off, quickly becoming transformative developmental relationships, while others simply wither on the vine? This question often vexes mentoring program organizers. Even when a mentor and mentee appear ideally suited on paper, even when both claim real interest in the relationship, perhaps even sitting through a mentorship training session, some relationships never get off the blocks. Although most people report a preference for organically evolved (informal) mentorships, informally-developed relationships are less frequent. Organizations have learned that simply waiting for “nature to take its course,” for pairs to form informally, results in lower rates of employee mentorship. Therefore, more organizations attempt to launch mentorships through some formal strategy for pairing, training, and supporting mentor-mentee pairs. When a mentoring relationship has a formal “start date,” there are a few things effective mentors do to insure that those connections succeed. Here are two of the keys to starting your mentorship strong: be there and discern the dream.

Once the initial buzz and excitement of a formal mentoring program’s launch begins to fade it is easy for both parties to get sidetracked and bogged down by the tyranny of busy schedules and deadlines. As weeks slip by, well-intended mentors forget to reach out to mentees. Scheduled mentoring meetings get canceled or pushed-back by the latest emergency. Mentees may feel reluctant to “bother” their busy mentors and so resort to passive waiting for the mentor’s initiative.

There is a striking and consistent finding in research that compares the distinguishing characteristics of successful versus unsuccessful mentor matches in organizational mentoring programs: Those pairs that actually get together frequently during the first several months of the program tend to connect, hit it off, and go on to develop productive and enjoyable mentorships. This finding supports a fundamental principle from decades of social psychology research. When two people see each other and interact frequently (proximity) they grow to like each other more and increasingly enjoy their interactions. In other words, mere exposure to your mentor or mentee is likely to fuel your relationship during those precarious early months. Proximity and exposure help mentors and mentees bond.

You may get together in-person (ideal and preferred), or via some combination of face-to-face meeting, teleconference, or phone conversation; whatever your communication modalities, the secret it to make those meetings a top priority. Mentors, be sure to reach out reliably and consistently! Your mentee may feel like an imposter—somehow unworthy of bothering someone of your stature in the organization. Silence or absence on your part may erroneously communicate disinterest or disappointment on your part. Mentees, be sure to reach out reliably and consistently! Your mentor may be swamped, scattered, and/or new to the mentor role. Put aside your concern about being a “pest” and get on the phone or send an email. Prompt your mentor to schedule that next meeting or ask a question about your career or the organization to get the mentor thinking about you again. Engaged mentees—squeaky wheels—do get more mentoring.

In addition to being there, excellent mentors understand the critical importance of working early and often to understand their mentee’s fledgling career dream. In a famous study of adult development, psychologist Daniel Levinson and his colleagues determined that young adults in any profession or discipline begin to formulate a still-hazy sense of who they may become and what they might achieve in their lives and careers. Levinson called this underdeveloped and vague sense of self in the adult (professional) world the dream. The dream may have the quality of a vision or an imagined possibility that generates excitement and vitality in a mentee. It is the early career mentor who must nourish this dream in the mentee and set the mentee into creative flight, affirming the exciting possibilities while tempering idealism with the wisdom of experience.

Mentors, one of the more important things you can do for your mentees is to “listen” for hints and clues to your mentee’s fledgling aspirations. Remember that your mentees’ career/life dream may feel fuzzy and shapeless, even to them. Mentees need us to take time to get to know them, to ask the right questions about what they love doing and where they imagine their career might take them. They need us to listen carefully, to gently paraphrase what we hear, and in so doing, help them give form and bring clarity to their dream.

To make the job more challenging, mentees are often reluctant to give voice to career aspirations that may feel grandiose and unreachable. Most of us feel anxious early in our careers, often questioning our own competence, feeling like an imposter among accomplished senior colleagues. Yes, we imagine thrilling career trajectories but we also harbor hidden doubts about whether we have what it takes. When a mentor asks us what we’d like to do in our careers, we can freeze up, feeling self-conscious and reluctant to risk embarrassment by revealing ambitions that sound farfetched even to our own ears.

Mentors: It is your job to help your mentee overcome these barriers to forming, articulating, and pursuing the dream. Take time to meet with your mentees and when you do, listen carefully to discern their unique talents, inclinations, and interests. When you decipher glimmers of the dream, help your mentees express it in their own words and then affirm their vision like crazy! When a mentor both communicates and demonstrates faith in the mentee’s ability, the mentee is more likely to trust the mentor and believe the dream may be within grasp.

Mentees: Use your mentoring relationship to actively explore and then discuss your ideal—“perfect world”—career dream. If everything in your personal and professional life were to come together seamlessly, how would it look? What jobs might you have along the way? What would the dream job look like (at least, from your current vantage point)? Be bold and think through these questions out loud and in the presence of your mentor. That’s what mentoring is for!


Brad Johnson, Ph.D. is a Professor of Psychology at the U. S. Naval Academy, a Faculty Associate at Johns Hopkins University, and an expert on mentoring relationships. His latest books include Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women (with David Smith); The Elements of Mentoring (with Charles Ridley) and On Being a Mentor: A Guide for Higher Education Faculty.

The Critical Importance of Mentors

mentoringI have always known that my success in the military and since was due in large measure to several mentors who provided me critical assistance throughout my life. If you are blessed with a mentor, you know that he or she is only a phone call away despite the fact that you might not see each other for several years. I could always call my mentors day or night to seek their advice and assistance.

But what exactly is “mentoring” and why is it important? Mentoring has been described as a dynamic relationship in which a more experienced person (the mentor) acts as a guide, role model, teacher, and sponsor of a less experienced person (the mentee). It is based on several distinct elements including:

  • Reciprocity, collegiality, authenticity, and mutuality.
  • Intentional role modeling
  • A “safe harbor” for self-exploration (disclosure)
  • Transformation particularly of the mentee’s professional identity.
  • A connection that endures.

The Harvard Business Review conducted a survey of 1,250 top executives as listed in The Wall Street Journal. It discovered that 65 percent had at least one important mentor. Furthermore, the analysis suggested that executives with mentors had higher salaries, more rapid promotions, greater achievement of career objectives, and higher overall job and life satisfaction. It has also been discovered that organizations with a culture of mentorship have lower attrition rates.

Through this relationship, mentees seek better job performance that may include more involvement in professional organizations. They also want help with networking, job opportunities, and finding greater satisfaction in the organization they are part of. Over time they will likely want assistance in achieving a stronger sense of professional identity, more productivity, and having a greater impact.

I would argue that having a mentor and eventually becoming a mentor is particularly important for those who are members of one of the following professions – the military, medicine, education, the clergy, the media, or law enforcement (lawyers, judges, and police). Such occupations are focused on the continued development of the abstract knowledge associated with the profession and the critical service it provides society. Consequently, the development of the next generation in the profession is a critical requirement. I was amazed how quickly I found other younger officers seeking my advice and counsel as I progressed through my career, and I am confident that most teachers, doctors, lawyers, ministers, journalists, and policemen have had the same experience.

Effective mentors must, first and foremost, take the time to get to know the mentee. Spend the time to learn their strengths and weaknesses as well as their goals. In doing so the mentor must “affirm” the path the mentee is taking while gently shaping as well as redirecting them away from unrealistic aspirations. The mentor is both a teacher and a coach. He or she must look for “teaching moments” during their time with the mentee and, if working in the same organization, demystify the “system” for the mentee while providing the “lay of the land.” The mentor must be prepared to offer counsel in difficulty times but challenge the mentee in order to stimulate their growth. When appropriate, the mentor should actively sponsor the mentee and hopefully match opportunities with their “dreams.” This may also be part of pointing out milestones and successes to the mentee while helping them to objectively step back and appreciate their own progress. Finally, an effective mentor has to be humble and have patience. He or she must be open to feedback particularly as the mentee matures. Nobody wants a “perfect” mentor. Humble mentors model their own fallibility. Important qualities for effective mentors include patience and high-quality emotional intelligence.

Good leaders are not only effective mentors but also seek to create a mentoring culture in their organization. This is difficult to do but essential nonetheless. Leaders must continually stress its importance and how it is closely related to the organization’s mission, vision, and values. It may also require not only traditional mentoring but also peer and team mentorship. An effective program will seek to select mentors carefully, train/support them, prepare mentees, and assess/reward mentors for their efforts. It should also be a topic during annual performance review discussions, and many organizations conduct annual surveys in order to ascertain the level of satisfaction and experience with mentoring. Finally, it should be part of all exit interviews when a member of the organization is departing.

Being a mentor is crucial to the success of any organization, and I would argue a professional responsibility. An expert on mentoring described it as “the seal of approval.” He further observed, “to have a mentor is to be among the blessed. Not to have a mentor is to be damned to eternal oblivion or at least to a mid-level status.”

Furthermore, we would all be wise to remember the words of the author, Robert Louis Stevenson:

He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often and loved much;
Who has gained the respect of intelligent men and the love of little children;

Who has filled his niche and accomplished his task;
Who has left the world better than he found it;
Who has looked for the best in others and given the best he had;
Whose life was an inspiration,
Whose memory is a benediction.

Stevenson was clearly describing a mentor. I know because having mentors has been invaluable to me, and I only hope that I have fulfilled my responsibility of being a mentor to others along the way.