Leadership Barometer 41 Mentor Power

March 9, 2020

If you do not have at least one active mentor, you are missing a lot. In my experience, having a strong mentor at work made a huge difference in my career.

Also, turn the logic around and you should be mentoring at least one other person, hopefully more than one.

Even in my ripening old age, I am still gaining benefits from the lessons and ideas planted in me by my mentor when I was younger.

There are obvious benefits of having a mentor in an organization. Here are a few of them:

1. A mentor helps you learn the ropes faster
2. A mentor coaches you on what to do and especially what to avoid doing.
3. A mentor is an advocate for you in different circles from yours.
4. A mentor cleans up after you have made a mistake and helps protect your reputation.
5. A mentor pushes you when you need pushing and praises you when you need it.
6. A mentor brings wisdom born of mistakes made in the past, so you can avoid them.
7. A mentor operates as a sounding board for ideas and methods.

Many organizations have some form of mentoring program. I support the idea of fostering mentors, but the typical application has a low hit rate in the long term. That is because the mentor programs in most organizations are procedural rather than organic.

A typical mentor program couples younger professionals with more experienced managers after some sort of computerized matching process. The relationship starts out being helpful for both people, but after a few months it has degraded into a burdensome commitment of time and energy.

This aspect is accentuated if there are paperwork requirements or other check-box activities. After about six months, the interfaces are small remnants of the envisioned program.

The more productive programs seek to educate professionals on the benefits of having a mentor and encourage people to find their own match. This strategy works much better because the chemistry is right from the start, and both parties immediately see the huge gains being made by both people.

It is a mutually-supported organic system rather than an activities-based approach. It is pretty obvious how the protégé benefits in a mentor relationship, but how does the mentor gain from it?

Mentors gain significantly in the following ways:

1. The mentor focuses on helping the protégé, which is personally satisfying.
2. The mentor can gain information from a different level of the organization that may not be readily available by any other means.
3. The mentor helps find information and resources for the protégé, so there is some important learning going on. The best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else.
4. While pushing the protégé forward in the organization, the mentor has the ability to return some favors owed to other managers.
5. The mentor gains a reputation for nurturing people and can thus attract better people over time.
6. The mentor can enhance his or her legacy in the organization by creating an understudy.

Encourage a strong mentoring program in your organization, but steer clear of the mechanical match game and the busywork of an overdone process. Let people recognize the benefits and figure out their optimal relationships.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of: The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, and Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations.


Less Control Can Mean Better Results

January 26, 2013

JoystickThe advice in the title sounds backward, doesn’t it? The typical knee-jerk reaction when things are not going according to desires at work is for managers to add more controls. This is an effort to get more people to do what they are supposed to do, so performance will improve. Only one problem: most of the time greater control translates into lower performance.

The reason why more control is usually the worst course of action has to do with motivation. In most organizations, there is already too much control over what people do. Policy manuals and specific rules for how we do things are installed for a reason, and woe be to anybody who breaks the rules.

The signal being sent by management is that they do not trust people to do the right thing. When managers heap more rules onto the already steaming pile of procedures, people become more disillusioned, and motivation takes a hit. Result: people comply begrudgingly, but will not go beyond simple compliance. The organization suffers as workers leave most of their discretionary effort on the front steps.

Great managers realize that by reducing the control, performance often increases and does so in dramatic ways. In Smart Trust, Stephen M.R. Covey and Greg Link give ample evidence that when employees are trusted to do what is right, they normally rise to the occasion, and remarkable things start to happen. The book has literally hundreds of data points to show there is a definite trend here, but one example, in particular, caught my eye.

I like the story of Gordon Bethune, who took over the helm at Continental Airlines in 1994. At that time, Continental was approaching its third bankruptcy, and performance measures in all areas were the worst in the industry. The workers had been so abused by managers applying onerous rules and regulations that they were just going through the motions, and Gordon did not blame them. He was smart enough to recognize he would need to repair their spirits before he could get them to perform. He likened the daunting task of turning around their enthusiasm to being the adopted parents of severely abused children. He would have to earn their trust before he could begin to restore their enthusiasm for the work. But how could he do that?

In a number of steps, he started to show employees that he had more faith in them than in the rule books. In fact, at one point, he had company policy manuals taken out to the parking lot where he had them burned publicly. Rather than rely on controlling rules, he let the people know the objectives and broad operating methods, but let the employees use their own judgment in making the decisions on day-to-day activities.

Over the next decade, Continental Airlines, with this new philosophy of fewer rules and higher trust, began to win customer service awards. Their stock price went from $2 to over $50, and in Bethune’s final year, Fortune ranked Continental the Most Admired Global Airline. Let’s sum it up. Fewer rules and higher trust allowed a nearly dead airline to rise to a predominant position. Why? Because the power of the people is what you need to run any successful organization.

Covey and Link give a five part formula in the book that creates a pathway toward an enduring trust that is neither blind or naive. It is what they call Smart Trust. I recommend the book for any manager who is struggling with poor performance and a situation of over control.

It is important not to just throw away all procedures, because some of them are needed for legal purposes or to ensure standard practices in complex and critical situations. Managers should stop trying to account for every situation that might go wrong. They should stop trying to direct people how to react to every single scenario, because it chokes out the creativity and enthusiasm of the workforce.

The secret is to have specific processes only where they are needed, and allow people to use their brains when an off-standard condition requires quick thinking. For example, there may be a set procedure for investigating the situation before granting a customer refund, but there will be times when it is wiser to ignore the rule and immediately accept the customer’s word.

When managers allow people to use their God-given intelligence, they nearly always do the right thing, and if they make a mistake it is usually a small one. If the rulebook is so heavy that it takes hours to find out the proper way to react to a given situation, what you will get is simple compliance most of the time, but you will miss the opportunity to have a fully engaged workforce.


Few Employee Surveys Work

January 30, 2011

We have all been exposed to an employee satisfaction survey at some point in our working lives. For some of us, the idea of filling out yet another QWL (Quality of Work Life) survey is not nearly as appealing as having a root canal. I have witnessed a significant hit to morale in many groups as a result of these attempts by management to gather information. Let’s examine why employee surveys cause problems and suggest some antidotes that can make a big difference.

1. Questionable anonymity – Nearly all QWL surveys are advertised by managers as being anonymous. This is to encourage people to share information without fear of repercussion. Unfortunately, nearly all surveys these days are conducted electronically. Most people are aware that anything online can be traced, if a smart IT technician is assigned to the case. People simply do not believe the promise of anonymity, which lowers the validity of the data. One way to give slightly more confidence in the integrity of the process is to include a statement such as this at the end of the form, “You do not have to type your name on this survey because it is anonymous. We will pay no attention to who you are if you do not sign the document. However, some people do wish to be contacted personally to give further input that might not be adequately covered on the survey. For that reason, there is a line to give your name if you wish. Someone will get back to you.”

Of course, no statement by management is going to convince the die-hard skeptics, but this explanation will assist most people. Another action that can help is to have a shop floor person (perhaps a known skeptic) participate in the data analysis phase, so he or she can verify personally that the managers do not know who said what.

If you claim anonymity but are quietly keeping track on the side out of curiosity, then there is no hope for you, and you should get out of the leadership occupation immediately.

2. Poorly worded questions – many managers believe that putting together a survey is a simple matter of writing a few questions about how people feel. Actually, survey design is a rather complex and exacting science. There are numerous ways to present questions that will yield meaningless (or at least ambiguous) information. There are also some methods that will generally produce usable data. The cure for this problem is to have someone who is trained on survey questions actually construct the instrument. If you have not had at least one course in experimental research design, then it is best to leave the matter to someone who has.

3. Long and tedious survey – It is not uncommon for QWL surveys to contain over 100 detailed questions. It is amazing that the designers of these surveys do not realize the obvious fatigue factor involved in completing one of these burdensome questionnaires. A much more accurate reading can be obtained by keeping the number of questions to 20 or less. This can be accomplished by paying attention and only asking important questions. Leaving out the fluff can cut the time to take a survey by more than half.

4. Management interprets the information as they please – It is frustrating to witness how managers wave away complaints or gripes on surveys as simple whining. Or they might shrug their shoulders and say, “there is absolutely nothing we can do about this issue,” so they consider the input as moot. The antidote here is to not ignore input regardless of how painful it is or how frivolous it seems. All input needs to be considered valid and not assumed away with some convenient rationalization.

5. “Nothing ever changes” – This is a common theme on the shop floor. “We take these stupid surveys, but nothing ever changes.” The antidote to this habitual problem is to actually take concrete actions based on the survey, then (and this is the part most managers forget) advertise that the changes are being made as a result of the QWL survey. Rather than saying, “We are going to add a second brief afternoon break,” say “As a result of your input in the recent survey, we are changing the break rules to allow a short second break in the afternoon. As always, we appreciate your candid feedback.” If managers do not make a conscious effort to communicate that changes are the result of input, people will usually not make the connection. Once a change is made and it becomes habit, people forget that there was a change, so the perception of “nothing ever changes” is common.

6. Managers try to react but do the wrong thing – It is far better to let the shop floor people be involved in decisions of how to improve conditions based on survey results. It may take a little more time, but the quality of process changes will be far better if those impacted the most have a say in their invention. They will make the changes work rather than wonder and push back at the clueless inventions of upper management. It is better to have workers inside the tent piddling out, than outside the tent piddling in.

7. Managers reacting to the vocal minority rather than the silent majority – This problem is common when surveys give the opportunity for open-ended comments. People on the fringe can give strong input, and managers might mistakenly interpret this to be the will of the majority. The simple antidote to this problem is to verify that a strong message really does come from several individuals rather than one highly disgruntled outlier.

8. Survey not tested for validity – For a survey to be useful, it needs to measure the phenomena it purports to measure. There are statistical techniques for determining if an instrument has validity. You may not have the time or money to invest in a professional survey designer to test the validity of an instrument, but at least you should ask the question of whether you are actually getting valid information.

9. No thought to reliability – The reliability of a survey is different from validity. For a survey to be reliable, it should produce a similar result if repeated and there have been no changes in processes since the last survey was taken. If survey results are all over the map when nothing in the environment in changing, it is a sign that the instrument is not reliable (repeatable).

10. Poorly communicated – When surveys are sent out, the cover letter explaining the purpose and process is a critical document. Many managers have an administration person whip out a paragraph of “management speak” like this. “It is vital that we know what people in our operation think in order to continually improve working conditions. Please take the time to fill out this anonymous survey that will give us the information. Thank you.” Here is a different note where the manager took the time to set up the survey for success.

“We are going to re-do our strategic plan, and it is important to include your input before making changes. The attached survey will begin the process. Before you take this survey, please reflect on the following points:
• The survey really is anonymous – we will have shop floor people help with the analysis to verify no names are attached to the data.
• We will summarize the data for you as soon as it is received.
• We will use the information as the basis for a series of meetings (you are invited to participate) on how this business can be improved.
• We will be making changes based on the results of this survey.
• We are all part of making this organization a success.”

With an introduction like that, employees will know this survey will likely have some impact and their viewpoints matter. It is critical to not waste credibility, time, and energy on a poorly designed and administered QWL survey. If the above 10 points are considered when designing an employee survey, it will produce results that can be the basis of solid organizational progress.