Th 0711prfovercoming01

Overcoming the Fear of Mentoring

Nov. 1, 2007
Inever had a mentor. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of.
Click here to enlarge image

by Michael Ventriello
Inever had a mentor. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of. I didn’t resist the attempts of others to mentor me by kicking and screaming throughout my career. I don’t have a Ghostbusters-like bumper sticker on my car that says “No Mentors.” It just wasn’t in the cards.

My parents meant well, but my father was a banker and my mother lived the June Cleaver existence that has long since faded into the hazy black and white nostalgia of three-network television. To this day, I still don’t think Mr. and Mrs. V fully understand what I do for a living. “Something to do with advertising,” they say. Now don’t get me wrong, they did a good job in the basic character building and work ethic department. In fact, anyone who has as many vowels in their name as I do knows that a little Italian guilt goes a long way in keeping one on the straight and narrow – unless your name is Tony Soprano.

With that said, I’ve learned a lot of on-the-job stuff the hard way. This caused me to ask myself this attitude-changing question: “Wouldn’t my early years have been a lot more productive if they had been filled with a little more trial and a little less error?”

That’s why I’ve always tried to be a mentor to those who reported to me directly or to others in the organization open to coaching. And coaching is really what mentoring is all about. In my humble opinion, the best mentors are player coaches who strap on the gear every day and get into the thick of the action with their team. I’ve never been a big fan of talking heads – the band maybe, but not the all-talk, no-action type of manager.

The No. 1 reason the mentoring concept hasn’t spread like chicken pox through a crowded preschool is fear. That’s right. Many potential mentors are just plain chicken, especially those in high-turnover positions such as “gulp” public relations and marketing. They think that keeping all their knowledge to themselves and taking credit for every idea will make them irreplaceable. Wrong!

What they fail to realize is that their paranoia will become evident and irritating to management, peers and subordinates. Their failure to delegate effectively will eventually cause a critical project to crash and burn because they couldn’t do it all or do it well. Then they end up being the smartest person behind the counter asking, “Do you want fries with that?”

Mentoring benefits the mentor, the person being mentored, and the organization. Mentoring can occur from top-down, side-to-side or bottom-up. But before you get dizzy and reach for the Dramamine, let me explain:

Top-Down: A manager mentors a subordinate. This is what you probably expected. A manager should strive to mentor all direct reports.

Side-to-Side: A member of one department mentors one of equal stature in another department, kind of like the buddy system without the hand holding and name tags.

Bottom-Up: A subordinate mentors a manager or executive. Now that’s one table turnin’, role reversin’ concept!

The last point may seem odd, but when you consider that everyone has a unique set of experiences and skills from school, past jobs, etc., you can see the value and possibility of learning something new despite your job title. So, just get over yourself and listen.

I don’t profess to be a mentoring guru. You won’t catch me on the lecture circuit blinding people with my laser pointer and pontificating about “Mentoring Metrics.” But I’m not going to let that stop me from sharing my top 10 mentoring tips based on what I’ve learned through experience, observation and trial and error:

  1. Share your knowledge and experience freely; otherwise you’ll be doing all the hard stuff all the time. If you don’t share, you’ll be providing very little value as a manager.
  2. Make time to mentor. Before work, after work, during lunch or whatever works so you can minimize distractions.
  3. Give your staff projects that push them beyond their comfort zones. This allows them to learn, grow and avoid boredom. It elevates team capabilities overall.
  4. When implementing tip No. 3, allow for do-overs. Projects with long timelines are obviously best for this. Remember, do-overs are not failures, just part of the learning process.
  5. Don’t just give assignments — explain how they should be done and why. This is the hardest tip for a type-A guy like me because it takes time. It’s also No. 1 on my “be a better mentor” list.
  6. The only stupid question is “Why are you asking me a question?” Good mentors don’t ask this.
  7. Protect your team. Share accountability with them and never expose their inadequacies in public.
  8. Give credit where credit is due. Step back, be proud and let someone else bask in the limelight.
  9. Instill trust. If someone you mentor tells you something in confidence, keep it under your hat. Bomb plots, computer hacking and check forging are exempt.
  10. If you’re mentoring somebody, be prepared to set them free. Today you may be mentoring someone who reports to you and tomorrow they may move on to a better position in another division or another company. Look at it this way - you must have done something right.

Mentoring doesn’t end when someone you’ve coached leaves the organization to pursue another opportunity. If you want, mentoring can be for life. Like all relationships, it takes work to stay connected. To this day I still receive calls from former employees to give me an update, ask for advice or just to say hi. It feels pretty damn good. Be someone’s mentor — there’s nothing to fear.

Click here to enlarge image

Michael Ventriello is the public relations manager at Lanmark Group, a full service advertising, marketing and communications agency specializing in the dental industry. He can be contacted at [email protected].