Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A Case for Mentoring

From the August issue of The Business Journal of West Central Ohio.

Several years ago, I was a Regional Vice President for a financial services firm and was travelling with my new boss. Our first appointment of the day was with a firm that I had been trying to get into for several months. The business potential with this firm was significant and I had been persistent in seeking an opportunity to speak to the decision makers there, so I was excited.

Jim, the Divisional Vice President—my boss, had been my boss for only a couple of months. I had met him at some training in Minneapolis a few months earlier and had a favorable impression of him. While in Minneapolis, I made a presentation that was critiqued by a panel that included Jim and he spoke in support of my style and my approach. He was held in high regard so I felt good about receiving those comments.

But on this given morning, Jim destroyed my confidence.

We arrived at the firm ten minutes before our presentation and were shown to the conference room by Kathy, the spouse of the firm’s president and a co-owner of the firm. The presentation lasted for just under an hour (as I had promised) and went very well. The staff of the firm was very interactive with me and the mood was light and cordial. Many questions were asked and there were many “buying signals” given by the staff. After the presentation, Don, the president of the firm, invited us back to his private office where he spent an hour telling us all about the philosophy of his firm. His pride was clear and I felt that he was welcoming us to his business. After he was done, he walked us up to the front desk and instructed his assistant to schedule a private follow-up meeting for me. This appointment was now, officially, a success!

As Jim and I walked out of the office toward my car to continue with the rest of the day’s appointments, I commented that “this was a great way to start the day!” “You think?” said Jim. “Sure. What did you think?” I asked. Jim replied with a stern look on his face “It was awful.” All my enthusiasm drained out of me as if I was a tire that just ran over a spike. Jim offered no further explanation and, frankly, I was no longer interested.

Each appointment that day produced the same negative feedback from Jim. That is, until the completion of the very last meeting. After that meeting, Jim said nothing. I reluctantly asked why he hadn’t said anything about it. He replied that I “did nothing wrong” and that it wasn’t his job to tell me what I did right.
Within six months, neither Jim nor I worked for that company any longer and sales in my former territory dropped to 20% of what they had been while I was there.

Clearly, opportunity was lost here. There was, of course, the opportunity for increased business for my company. Beyond that, because there was no mentoring relationship between me and Jim, I missed a chance for me to grow in my skills in my position. Whatever it was that made that meeting “awful” could have been made into a coaching opportunity. If it had been handled correctly, I could have become an even more valuable member of the organization. There was opportunity lost for Jim as well. At the end of the day that he invested in me, he ended up with someone less connected, less motivated, and less likely to excel. In other words, instead of a stronger team, Jim ended up with a weaker one.

To be a mentor is not a simple proposition. Chip Bell, author of Managers as Mentors: Building Partnerships for Learning, says that mentoring is “more about a mutual search than imparting wisdom.” He goes on to say that mentoring is more “art than science”. In its truest sense, says Dr. Bruce Winston of Regent University, mentoring is about helping the protégé “be all they can be.”

Can your organization afford to NOT be mentoring?

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