What Separates The MEN-TORS From The Boys...

"We make a living by what we get.  We make a life by what we GIVE!"

Winston Churchill

I was doing an interview this week with my friend and amazing mentor Stephen Woessner for his powerful "Onward Nation" podcast.

During the interview, Stephen asked me to comment on  my best advice for giving effective mentorship.

I couldn't help but giggle a little at the question, because it reminded me of a time, about 10 years ago, when I learned what makes an INEFFECTIVE mentor.

The company I was working for had implemented a "mandatory mentorship initiative" which was directly tied to every supervisors performance evaluation.

The way the program was set up, each supervisor had to "choose" three people to mentor, and keep an electronic log of who they mentored, and that they had met a minimum of once per quarter.

One of the "rules" was that the supervisor was NOT allowed to pick someone who worked in his or her department.

As you may have expected, the vast majority of the supervisors weren't actually interested in mentoring others for performance improvement.

Most were only interested in being "checked off" for completing their obligation to the company.

Worse yet, the supervisors were never evaluated on their mentorship abilities.

They simply had to document that they had enrolled 3 employees, and met with each every 4 months.

A bright young man named Jake, who was one of my best employees, was chosen to be mentored by Jeff, one of our store's assistant managers.

Jeff was about as warm and fuzzy as a Brillo Pad.

He was a gruff, muscular sort of man in his late-forties who had a reputation for speaking in short sentences designed to belittle whomever he was speaking with.

The "word on the street" was that Jeff had a chip on his shoulder because he had been passed up for promotion on several occasions because of his intimidating nature.

Most people were afraid of Jeff and Jake was no exception. 

Jake was a tall, thin, handsome twenty-something young man who laughed and joked with just about everyone he met.

He was going through some tough personal problems, but for the most part, he kept a positive attitude and was a pretty reliable worker.

"I don't have to do it, do I?"  Jake blurted out as I was walking into the pharmacy to begin my weekend rotation.

"Of course you do!!" I replied in my silliest voice.

I had no idea what he was talking about.

"By the way, do what?" I added with a goofy smile.

"Well at lunch today this old dude from the other side of the store walked up to me and said:  'I guess I'll be mentoring you this year.  Come to my office at 3 o'clock this afternoon.'  I didn't know what to say, so I didn't say anything.  But, I don't have to do it, do I?"

The panic in Jake's eyes, combined with Jeff's approach to mentoring struck me as hilarious, but being a professional, I forbade myself to laugh.  I did however, feel a small tear run down my right cheek as I tried to figure out how to respond to the situation.

"Jake" I said as I put my hand on his shoulder, "I want you to do this for me.  Not because I think you need it, but because I think Jeff needs it. It must have been difficult for him to choose someone, and you should be honored that he chose you."

Jake was unamused, but he didn't argue.

He just walked away, kind of sulking and muttering.

It was kind of adorable.

The next day, as I was walking through the store to get a sandwich for lunch, I heard a rough gravely voice say something like "I talked to that punk last night." 

I looked up to notice Jeff on my right side working on a display of shirts.

When we made eye contact he continued:  "You know, that clown that works for you?!?"

Of course, I had forgotten about his meeting with Jake and it took me a moment to catch on.

"Jake?" I asked in a surprised tone trying to give myself some space to assess the situation.

"He thinks he's a real wise-guy!" Jeff blurted out intensely.

"It didn't go well?" I responded hoping to get a clear picture of the situation.

"I started telling him that he needed to get serious and stop acting like a comedian if he wanted to get somewhere in life, and he started getting cocky with me.  If you ask me, he has a really lousy attitude." 

"Wow!" I said calmly.

I wasn't surprised at Jake's response to Jeff's "mentoring".

"Tell me more" I added.

"It's these young punks.  They have no respect for authority.  You can't tell them anything or they get an attitude."

Now, I was seriously amused.

"What questions did you ask him?" I wondered aloud.

"I didn't need to ask him any questions, I've been watching him.  He needs to stop acting like a clown.  Kids like him are a dime a dozen.  I've seen his kind before. They think life is nothing but a joke."

"Did you know that his mother has cancer, and that his father is disabled, and that he is essentially supporting his entire family?" 

"Well, no..but" he began as I cut him off.

"He was scheduled to start pharmacy school a year ago, but he had to pass because his mother's illness took his college money.  I've been working with him to help him find a way to go to school and support his family.  What made you think he would care about what you had to say before you even asked what his biggest concerns were?"

He looked at me kind of blankly so I continued:

"Jeff, when you go to mentor someone, you have to understand that they are a human being with problems, issues, and concerns that extend well past the entrance to this building.  People can't concentrate on what you want to mentor them about, until you concentrate on helping them with what they care about most.

Jeff sort of shook his head and walked away.

Jake told me later that Jeff came and apologized and asked if he could do anything to help Jake manage his personal problems.  He said that Jeff told him that he had experience with aging parents, and he knew how difficult it could be.

I guess they had more in common than either of them originally thought.

The moral of the story is that mentoring is not offering unsolicited advice.

Effective mentoring is listening first, and only then, trying to figure out how to best help the other person according to where help is truly needed.

Deciding where someone else has holes in their development is inappropriate and ineffective.