By Chip Bell
The goal of mentoring is not simply learning. The goal of mentoring is to foster betterment . . . better performance, greater productivity, higher effectiveness. Granted there is merit in learning for learning’s sake. But in today’s business world with its razor-thin margins, learning must be for result’s sake. Mentors don’t have the luxury of helping protégés increase their knowledge but not their use of that knowledge.
Transfer of learning has been the challenge for all learning facilitators-– be they teachers, professors, trainers, or mentors. The argument often posited is, “Once they leave my tutelage, it is up to them to put it to use.” That argument is usually punctuated with old saws about leading horses to water. Great mentors know, however, that the experiment isn’t over until the learner has tried it out in the laboratory of life. And there are all sorts of actions that help ensure that what is learned in the relationship actually “takes.”
Lend a Helping Hand
Peter Senge wrote in The Fifth Discipline: ‘When we see that to learn, we must be willing to look foolish, to let another teach us, learning doesn’t always look so good anymore . . . only with the support and fellowship of another can we face the dangers of learning meaningful things.’ The key word is fellowship — a word that combines the constitution of a partnership with the warmth of camaraderie.
Look for ways to “be there” when your protégé has “opening night.” Remember that rehearsal is always a far cry from the reality of actual performance. Boldness within the cloistered safety of a mentoring relationship is quite different from bravery in the school of hard knocks. When your protégé is slated to engage in her or his first attempt at “flying solo,” send your well wishes and affirmation. Call after the fact to learn of the outcome. Regardless of the success or failure of the first time out, be supportive. Offer your help; do not automatically give your help. Your protégé needs to feel independent, not still saddled with a “Father knows best” Monday morning quarterback.
If you can actually be there, assume the role of fan and cheerleader, not sideline coach. Let your protégé know you are there, feeling excited and confident. But avoid the grandstanding of the doting parent eagerly letting the stands know, “That’s my kid!”
Run appropriate interference to help ensure your protégé has a fair chance at putting his or her new learning into practice. This may entail securing support or permissions from others who may affect the protégé’s performance.
Be Vigilant for Obstacles to Learning
The late Geary Rummler was fond of saying, ‘You can take highly motivated, well-trained employees, put them in a lousy system, and the system will win every time.’ Effective learning results can become ineffective performance results if the protégé enters a system, process, or unit that punishes-– or simply does not encourage-– the newly acquired skills. A crucial part of your role is to be ever vigilant for obstacles that undermine the learning acquired through your mentoring.
Think of your protégé’s learning as a newly planted tree. In time the tree will have deep roots and a hardy resistance to wind, disease, and extreme temperatures. But, as a sapling, it is particularly vulnerable. It must be supported, protected, and meticulously cared for until it can fend for itself. So it is with a protégé. As a novice, new skills are still weak and unstable. Defending new behavior against external pressures to go back to the old way is challenging. Protégés need mentors to aid in their struggle to sustain new skills.
Be an Advocate for Informal Learning
Being a great mentor includes fostering an environment that values and nurtures learning. This means advocating informal learning. And there are a myriad of ways to make learning a natural part of the work world.
A major consulting firm found that professional reading among employees increased when the firm installed magazine racks with professional journals in the lavatories. The firm’s president discovered that surprisingly few journals were absent-mindlessly removed, and employees began contributing their own copies of journals to which the firm did not subscribe. Comments like ‘Did you read that article about . . .?’ were frequently interjected in staff meetings, which further reinforced the amount of informal learning through journal reading.
Company magazines, newsletters, blogs and bulletin boards can also be a good source of learning for employees. An insurance company found the most popular articles in its company magazine were interviews with executives, managers, and employees dealing with what their area was engaged in at the time. Done with clever layout and graphics, “to all employees” media can serve as a valuable but inexpensive way of fostering employee learning. The unit or company intranet can likewise be a great boon to learning.
Learning that ends when the protégé bids adieu to the mentor is likely retained only until the protégé reaches the elevator. Given the shaky tentativeness of new learning, it is up to the mentor to come up with ways to help shelter, support, and nurture it until it “takes.” Knowing how to eliminate barriers and erect supports to buttress the learner until habits are cemented and competencies are hardwired can go a long way to help the learning-transfer process for your protégé. Most important is to create a climate that prizes not only ongoing learning but also risk taking in the protégé’s trying out new knowledge and skills back on the job.
Chip Bell is the founder of the Chip Bell Group and manages their Atlanta office. Prior to starting the Chip Bell Group in the early ‘80s, he was Director of Organization and Management Development for NCNB, now Bank of America. He is the author of several best-selling books and his work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and USA Today. He is hosting a webinar for HRDQ-U on July 30th at 2PM EST called Managers as Mentors: Building Partnerships for Learning. Don’t delay! Register today!