Mentoring: how you can take your colleagues to the next level

June 11, 2017 · Mentoring Article Mentor T3N Published

This article was first published, in German, in the t3n online magazine (June 1st 2017) and translated by yours truly. I tried to remain true to the original German version, even if it sometimes produces some clumsy sentences.

In the data-orgy era we live in, the knowledge of the world is just a tiny click away. And rejoicing in the anonymity of the Internet, we have forgotten that much is also understood through exchange.

Mentoring is the almost forgotten art of leading people to their peak performance by simply putting them in the middle: listening, challenging and accompanying them. This is the way to break up comfort zones and make bold decisions possible. This is my experience report.

Mentoring straight to the point

I order a beer and take my notebook out of my pocket. A little Moleskine with arbitrary doodles and writings, which I sometimes can hardly decipher. On this autumn evening, it is cool at the terrace of the Irish pub. I'm going over the notes of our previous mentoring meetings and suddenly I'm not cold anymore.

I am now deep in the summer. We are both working on the same project. I am a senior something and he is fresh out of college. In the middle of our daily madness, the question comes - a question which has nothing to do with our task. A question about the financial setup of our consulting company and its various cash flows. My answer is banal, but the impact is quite massive.

In the next days, this question doesn't leave me. I must ask myself: have I understood my company correctly or have I perhaps misinterpreted something? A week later we sit together again and I tell him about my research. This raises new questions. That's how the spiral starts. Deeper. Deeper. Deeper. We meet several times a month and discuss further. Officially, I am the teacher, the experienced, and he is the student. But his questions put my knowledge to the test and I discover huge cracks. I learn at least as much as he does.

A few months later, we are no longer lingering on money but talking about software development.

Better to learn the outdated version of the Framework X used in the current project or rather learn the newer version right away?


How do I deal with this design-pattern problem?

My technical knowledge is sometimes not enough. I often have to answer with other questions. But it works all right. He answers the questions himself and comes up with some more. This is not a teacher-student relationship anymore. I am all ears. I am like a mirror. I help him find the answers himself. I am amazed by the way he is growing.

He always demands our appointments. I've slipped into a consultant role. I'm listening. I reply rarely myself. Instead, I ask stupid questions, which help him clarify his thoughts. I've become his rubber duck and help him debug his life.

It's Christmas. It's over with beer in the wild. We meet in the canteen and munch on gingerbread. In the evening, he also codes for fun. The topics he discovers in his room at night, fill up our sessions. He tells me again and again what he discovered. I help him drill even further. For months, I bombard him with resources on these topics. For months, I help him see where his journey could go. He goes along with it and continues to drill down. Time for a challenge. I manage to motivate him to organize a whole day workshop on the topic he works on at night. The next few months we will work on it together. Create the structure. Make the content logical. Imagine fallbacks and so on.

I dive into my own public speaking preparation process, investigate all these steps that I have never really verbalized and learn so much about myself. He does all the work and I calm him, he can do it. He builds it and I merely nudge him to go in one or the other direction, he really can do it. I give him tips and tricks and show him that he has already prepared enough content. He is ready. He does not know it. The day is coming. His workshop is a complete success. He is exhausted but proud. I was the Challenger. I took him out of his comfort zone. I was also the consultant, who remained at his side until the end. I finally was his cheerleader, gave him strength and was there to celebrat his success!

Spring is now upon us. My wife and I got a second child, I took a parental leave and left the project. We can no longer chat in between doors. But we still manage to meet. The summer is back and our evenings, after the children are in bed, are long. The topics he puts on the table become more complex, but they also match my expertise better. It is about soft skills, about leadership, about friction and conflicts. The apprentice has become a Padawan. As my mentoring unfolds, I am sometimes a teacher, sometimes a consultant. I sometimes push him in corners and challenge him with questions that I will never answer. I also become a "networker" and connect him to other people, right before he starts needing them.

Toolbox for intensive conversations

In these two years, I have added new tools to my mentoring toolbox. And I started to learn how to use them. First comes the "teacher-hammer". This is the easiest to use, but not necessarily the appropriate one. With it I can simply answer, advise. But with this, I force my way of seeing the world on my mentee, which is not always ideal.

Then comes the "listener-pincers". With it, I can avoid a question by answering with another one. I try not to give answers, but rather hunt the "why" and lead my mentee to finding the answers on his own. The hardest part is sometimes not to pull out those pincers and accept that one, two, or even three mentoring-meetings pass without him finding the answer.

I also practice with the "Challenger-Saw". I constantly show him ways and opportunities that he could pursue, but often lie outside his comfort zone. And when he decides to pursue it, I accompany him with my "cheerleader oil" to make these challenges successful and instructive. But I do not know everything. Therefore, the last tool is a "networking instant glue". I use my address book and refer to other people. I animate my mentee to go into the wide world and ask other people for help.

So many facets of the mentor for so many mentoring situations. Since then, I have developed as a mentor even further: my mentees are no longer fresh from the university, some have more experience than me. With some mentees, we remain on professional side, while with others we also talk about very personal problems. This is the blessing of mentoring: every topic is welcome and desired, as long as the mentee is in the middle of it. It is intense, but so fruitful for both of us. I like to take this time. The human part always falls back behind in our daily life. As Winston Churchill wrote it:

"We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give"

I have not given it all yet. I continue discovering this mentoring art every day.

Back to today's meeting at the terrace of the Irish pub. He arrives and sits down. I put down my notebook and try to read his expression. It is crazy, how fast he has grown. Oh, how strong I must work to follow his pace. I know who has learned the most between us, me. I'm happy to see him again and I'm anxiously waiting for the subject he will put on the table tonight. The surprise is great every time.

Let's go with a new mentoring session!

This article was first published in the t3n online magazine (June 1st 2017).

Have you given mentoring a chance? How does this resonates with your experience? I'd love to know. Drop me a line here below!

Comments powered by Disqus