Finding a Mentor

How to Find a Mentor

Think back on the most significant help you have received in making you effective at work.  Did it come from a class?  Was it the result of a training seminar?  Was it an event?  Most likely you will respond like a large number of others.  The most significant shaping event that occurs in most of our lives is typically an encounter with another more experienced person who took the time to invest in our performance with an insight, word of encouragement or demonstration of a trick of the trade.  That person influenced your life informally – they were training “on the fly” or mentoring you. 

Mentoring occurs in most every organization. It is the “unofficial” training that occurs as employees provide each other with their perception of what makes the company tick, what its felt-values are; it’s consistent or inconsistent behavior and the “rules” of survival.  Such mentoring may be a powerful source for building employee engagement and identifying leaders or it may serve as the backdoor in a talent exodus. 

The point is that actively seeking out and engaging mentoring relationships provides a powerful platform for expanding one’s skills sets, deepening awareness of political interactions and enlarging awareness of market forces that impact daily decision making.  I am talking about finding a mentor. 

First: Define Mentoring

Mentoring is a powerful dynamic that is not always leveraged by emerging leaders.  In my coaching practice I often find young leaders too busy trying to prove themselves to listen to experienced leaders around them.  However, metaphorical hearing impairment is not the sole venue of inexperienced leaders.  Even experienced leaders fail to listen to younger leaders in areas they may find a little mentoring helpful e.g., using new technology.

The simple fact is that the most important learning tool any leader possesses is the ability to find and collect mentors who provide a variety of key inputs during times of decision, crises, and personal or professional transition periods and in the daily grind where experienced has found appropriate short-cuts to higher efficiency in task management.  I have found that mentors are particularly helpful in:

·         Investing the knowledge of key individuals into my workflow and decision-making processes. Such an investment of knowledge enhances or amplifies the practices that make me a more effective leader. 

·         Provides depth in my decision-making processes thus ensuring greater consistency to my company’s business objectives and values that contributes to the results that build rather than diminish momentum. 

·         Transmits the “how to” knowledge of the experience when I face situations that are new to me.  Since one of the most often cited reasons for high turnover rates in many industries is the lack of “how to do it” skills. Any relationship that accentuates practical knowledge possesses an immediate impact potential on both performance levels and feelings of employee engagement and satisfaction.

In today’s competitive business environment two things are critical to short and long term success.  First, because being a learning organization is a significant point of leverage in gaining a competitive advantage giving attention to the development of mentoring relationships with emerging leaders in your company is a way to accelerate execution of tactical and strategic goals.  Second, finding mentors is a way to position oneself for better advancement opportunities and expanding responsibility by both benefiting from others’ knowledge and the relationships that that serve as points of sponsorship. So what is a mentor?

A mentor is not a person who can do the work better than his followers; he is a person who can get his follower to do the work better than he can. (Fred Smith)

A mentor is an individual who influences others in possessing the ability to see potential in another person, tolerate mistakes, brashness, abrasiveness and the like to see that potential develop. (J. Robert Clinton)


Second: Understand Mentoring is not Monolithic

Mentoring itself is an expression of various developmental functions it is not a monolithic developmental exercise.  Mentoring is a holistic approach that recognizes workplace performance and behavior do not occur in a vacuum.  College students surveyed in July of 2001 ranked balancing work and personal life as the most significant value to career decisions. (Nan Hallock, “Customer Service Industry Incentives, Bonuses and Employee Retention.” A White Paper. Chicago, IL: International Customer Service Association, 2001.  Available at;

Mentoring includes development that focuses on personal life and development that focuses on career skills. Realize that career development cannot be separated from personal life.  Kathy Kram’s research of mentoring relationships at work revealed that;

Among the studies completed, a set of functions converges.  These functions can be summarized in two broad categories.  Career functions are those aspects of the relationship that enhance learning the ropes and preparing for advancement in the organization.  Psychosocial functions are those aspects of a relationship that enhance a sense of competence, clarity in identity, and effectiveness in a professional role. (Kathy Kram.  Mentoring at Work.  New York, NY: University Press of America, 1988, 22.)

Table 1 illustrates the primary functions of a variety of mentoring activities.  As you survey this list what functions could you see yourself operating in as you relate to the people who work around you?

Table 1: Mentor Functions Defined

Ministry (Career) Functions

Personal Development (Psychosocial) Functions

1.      Coaching – skills, insight to informal and political processes.

1.      Discipline – habits.

2.      Trainer – knowledge

2.      Role modeling – values

3.      Sponsorship – opportunity for advancement

3.      Acceptance and confirmation – self-differentiation in a relationship in which conflict is safe

4.      Protection – reduction of unnecessary risks or criticism

4.      Counseling – advice on personal concerns

5.      Exposure and visibility – preparation for greater responsibility

5.      Friendship – a sounding board, perspective

6.      Challenging assignments – development of technical or managerial skills

6.      Divine contact – guidance in decisions


Third: Recognize that No One Mentor will Do It All

It should be obvious that no one mentor cannot function in all 13 mentoring functions at the same time.  What does this mean?  It means an individual will have a variety of mentoring relationships over time each serving a different function in his or her life and developmental process.  Ideally these mentoring relationships enjoy a full constellation of age and life experience.  Mentors may be peers (people similar in age and life experience) or older more experienced individuals.  Kram’s research demonstrates that in the professional context it may be best to seek out a variety of mentors.  She notes,

Given the limitations of mentor relationships, the fact that they are relatively unavailable to most individuals in organizations, and their potential destructiveness in certain situations, it is risky to rely on one individual for all developmental functions.  Relationships with peers can also offer developmental functions, and individuals should develop a relationship constellation that consists of several relationships, each of which provides some career and/or psychosocial functions. (Kram 200)

The concept of a mentoring constellation is helpful to both mentors and mentees.  For mentors the constellation relieves them of having to be omniscient, omnipotent or omnipresent. Nothing makes me run faster from an individual who approaches me for mentoring than the feeling that they expect me to answer every issue of life.  Conversely nothing makes me drop a request for mentoring than seeing that the person I may consider approaching views themselves as the ultimate gateway to my future success or failure. 

Four: See Mentoring as a Continuum

Finding a mentor or mentee also involves seeing mentoring as a continuum (range or variety).  Direct personal interaction with a mentor is classified as an active mentor.  Indirect interaction with a mentor is classified as passive mentoring.  For example Abraham Lincoln serves as one of my indirect mentors in leadership and decision making strategies through his writing and memos written during the civil war.  I gain tremendous insight into how to correct subordinates, how to communicate in conflict and how to remove or place leaders in strategic positions.

Other mentors have direct influence.  For example Dr. J Robert Clinton of Fuller Theological Seminary is one of these for me.  He is an occasional mentor in my life.  We meet once or twice a year sometimes with gaps of years between meetings.  During these times I ask specific questions about leadership or personal development and we discuss his insights and experience as they apply to my situation.  The mentoring continuum is illustrated Figure 1.  The point is that mentors not only serve different functions in life they also exhibit a variety of levels in relationship.  Why is this important?  It helps set appropriate expectations about the degree of involvement to expect from a mentor and the type of outcomes that will emerge from the mentoring relationship. 

Table 2: Mentoring Continuum

Mentoring occurs along a continuum of involvement in terms of mentoring types and functions.  This categorizes mentor involvement into various types depending on the kind of empowerment, deliberateness, depth and awareness of the effort.

Active Mentoring


Occasional Mentoring


Passive mentoring











Challenging Assignments





Acceptance Confirmation

Spiritual Guide

Divine Contact


Role Modeling

Spiritual Guide

Divine Contact

In mentoring others, understanding this continuum is important in planning the kind of empowerment, deliberateness, depth and awareness of the input you intend to give to a Mentee.  For example, if you observe a team member in need of coaching, your time commitment and the nature of the empowerment you seek to provide is both more intense and more deliberate.  Plan to meet a specific need (deficiency) through specifically designed input (role play, simulations, instruction, exercises etc.).  This requires preparation and planning on your part.  Simultaneously however, your coaching efforts may be modeling good coaching for other Managers.  This does not require a deliberate approach or direct definition between you and the other Manager.  However, to the degree that you are aware of the developmental level and empowerment needs of the other Manager you can design your coaching efforts in a way that provides the maximum role modeling impact.

Five: Recognize the Stages of Building a Mentoring Relationship

So, how is the mentoring relationship established?  How does one find a mentor?  First, be aware that active mentoring is characterized by six stages of relationship development (the mentoring lifecycle).

  1. Attraction: a mutual respect or recognition of potential in another’s skills or abilities.  This usually occurs in a period of six months to a year when the relationship becomes important to both participants.  All active mentoring must begin with some degree of attraction to be effective.  Here in is the danger in assigned hierarchical mentoring relationships (such as assigned coaching or remedial training).  If no element of attraction exists then the relationship will simply be ignored at best or develop into an active or passive hostile resistance to the relationship.
  2. Initiation: approaching a mentor or mentee with a plan for development and a request for assistance.  I do not recommend open ended engagements.  Plan on a period of 3 to 6 month increments with a specific review of the results of the mentoring relationship at the end of each period.  This allows the mentor and the mentee to identify and celebrate progress and to adjust to changing situations and needs.  I have experienced mentoring relationships that last up to 5 years in 6 month increments.
  3. Cultivation: the relationship is defined in functional terms.  The objective of a mentoring relationship is that both individuals continue to benefit from the relationship.  When this occurs cultivating the interaction provides opportunities for more frequent and meaningful interaction.  At this point emotional bonds (loyalty, respect etc.) and intimacy (the degree of disclosure and openness) increase.  In cross gender mentoring relationships this stage introduces the greatest risk.  There is an inevitable sexual tension that arises in cross-gender relationships.  Recognizing this internally and defining clear boundaries to the conversation and location of meetings is essential.  Careers have been destroyed by unclear boundaries and naiveté in cross-gender relationships.  Two dynamics are important in cultivation:
    1. Responsiveness: determines whether reciprocity (give and take) exists in the relationship.
    2. Accountability: determines whether follow-through on insight and training will occur.  This definition must be mutual even if the empowerment is defined from a mentor who imposes a development plan aimed at improving productivity.  If a supervisor is utilizing a mentoring function in the course of bringing about remediation of poor performance the employee being mentored must demonstrate a willingness to respond to the coaching or training by practicing new behavior or changing work patterns from the ineffective to a new more effective pattern.
  4. Empowerment: outcomes in the mentoring process are defined.  The full impact of the mentoring process becomes evident.  The senior manager may develop a reputation as a key company mentor or effective trainer or desirable sponsor.  The Mentee experiences greater effectiveness and gathers respect by association with the mentor but also by virtue of his or her growing effectiveness and productivity.  Empowerment may be evidenced in as short a period as several weeks (as with skill development inherent in coaching and teaching functions) or may take months or years to become fully evident (as with sponsorship functions).
  5. Separation: may be a deliberate strategy for moving the mentoring relationship from an active to an occasional to a passive role or an involuntary event that significantly alters the structural role of the relationship.  It may also be initiated in the emotional experience of the relationship for example the Mentee may no longer want guidance but the opportunity to work autonomously.  The mentor must demonstrate the emotional intelligence and the awareness of the developmental level of his or her Mentee to respond positively to this change in the relationship.  Kram points to other possible causes, “Job rotation or promotion limits opportunities for continued interaction; career and psychosocial functions can no longer be provided.  Blocked opportunity creates resentment and hostility that disrupt positive interaction.” (Kram 49)
  6. Redefinition:  an indefinite period after the separation phase when the relationship ends or assumes a significantly different character.  This dynamic is the synthesis point with the concept of situational leadership.  The separation strategy is built on the development level evidenced in the behavior of the Mentee(s) as response is made in the mentoring relationship.

The presence or absence of these dynamics is one means of determining the type of mentoring relationship that exists.  Why is this important to understand?  To the degree that the mentor is deliberate in the definition and use of mentoring models their effectiveness in developing others increases.  The presence or absence of these dynamics also predicts the success of the mentoring relationship.  To the degree that the mentee is aware of all these dynamics the ability to identify appropriate mentors and establish positive relationships that become more productive over time exists.

Six: Don’t Sweat Rejection be Persistent

One last word on how to find a mentor; realize that two in ten leaders may appreciate or have the capability needed to be an effective mentor.  This means that two in ten will most probably turn you down.  Do not despair in rejection.  Press through the embarrassment of rejection to find the mentor that you need. Talk to your peers, expand beyond known networks.  Positive mentoring relationships not only enhance skill they contribute dynamically to a sense of personal identity and satisfaction.

Leadership and Vision

Point: vision is not simply a fancy slogan or wild-eyed dream, it is a passion to change or impact lives that focus energy, inspires action and provides a reason to endure hardship, setbacks and disappointments that inevitably accompany any objective worth pursuing.
“I just don’t think I am much of a leader,” said one of my clients (I will call Bill for the sake of this article), “I don’t have vision I like to work behind the scenes and I am not that inspirational.” I was admittedly surprised by this self assessment especially in light of the description this client had just given me of his dream to build a camp where youth who were confused, unsure of themselves, living in a beat up self esteem or who had experienced abuse could go to find new direction and foundation in life. In fact I listened to Bill outline the broad points of the program or process on which the camp would someday operate.

“I like to build things with my hands; I am not the greatest public speaker. I don’t know what I am doing in leadership and I am not sure I should continue working with youth.”

The pathos I heard on the phone was not new, the discouragement the deep process of reassessment and the reframing of identity characterizes the development of a vision. It is part of the testing of character (endurance, integrity, motivation, compassion, humility, discipline etc.).

“So, what is vision exactly?” I asked. The question lingered in the silence. I recognized that some deep insight into how Bill viewed himself was occurring. “What is leadership?” I asked after a pause. There was a sense that my client was on the verge of a significant series of epiphanies that would open a new vista of perspective in how he viewed himself, the people he worked around and the youth he so desperately wanted to impact.

The silence did the job of leveraging the questions deeper. “I don’t really know that I know” Bill responded. “I know that I am not like Tom. Tom can inspire people by walking into a room, he speaks with such authority and in minutes he generates energy. I walk into a room and engage one person at a time by comparison I don’t feel I generate much of anything. I can’t outline a big vision I want to work with my hands.”

“So, how many years out is the idea of the camp you outlined earlier?” I asked. “Oh, wow, um…maybe 10 years” he responded. “And how many years do you think the camp will exist when it is built? Ten? Twenty? Thirty?” I asked. “Hmm…” Bill’s response seemed to be echoing from the depths of his soul.

The power of leadership and vision is an undeniable part of any successful organization. In both academic assessments of leadership and in informal reflections of the nature of leadership both of these concepts exist somewhere. In my work with leaders and organizations it is painfully evident when leadership and vision are absent. Without leadership and vision organizations exist for themselves cannibalizing their own resources and people to simply exist. When I am around such an organization I can’t help but picture Jaba the Hut of Lucas’ “Star Wars” fame i.e., a big blob of consuming pointlessness that has turned completely toxic encouraging betrayal, intrigue and self-absorbed corruption that is no longer capable of even remembering what the point of the organization is much less capable of returning to the mission.

“I see the camp as impacting youth for a life time and I hope it continues well after I am gone.” The answer came slowly almost reverently as though Bill was feeling the weight of responsibility that came along with his dream to impact youth.

As we talked I asked Bill to complete several sentences for me. I designed these sentences to contrast leadership types and to point out that there was no such thing as a solo leader. In fact the idea of “leader” when speaking of organizations has rightly given way to the concept of “leadership” in research. There are a variety of leadership styles and approaches, personalities and talents that comprise leadership. In Bill’s case I wanted him to see that while some leaders have profound symbolic presence others have profound practical presence and that both are needed.

“Bill,” I said, “complete this sentence…Paul and __________________?” “Barnabas,” he responded. (Paul was recognized as the spokesman the orator the one who outlined a significant part of the theology of the early church, yet it was Barnabas who had first recognized Paul’s “conversion” and sponsored him first in Jerusalem and later in Antioch as Christianity picked up momentum outside Judaism among multiple cultures of the Roman Empire.)

“Ok, how about David and _____________________?” “Nathan,” he responded. (David was king of Israel ca 1000-961 BCE. As the political and symbolic leader of the nation he needed and was profoundly influenced by Nathan a prophet, someone who could lead David to reflect on the impact of his own actions/behavior on others in a way that leads him to change those behaviors.)

“You know Nehemiah right?” I asked. “Sure,” Bill answered; “he rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem after the return of the exiles from the Babylonian deportation.” “Ok, so, like you, Nehemiah was someone who worked with his hands in living out and describing a vision for his people.” The sudden felt silence on the other end of the phone told me that Bill was having an “aha” moment. “Here is the question, how do you complete this sentence; Nehemiah and _______________?” “I don’t know” Bill said. “Well then that is your assignment; find out what kind of person Nehemiah needed to work beside in order to fulfill the vision he had for the well being of his people.”

Bill will find the priest/prophet Ezra who led the first exodus from Persian back to Jerusalem when he investigates. Ezra’s vision for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the resettlement of Israel was stalled because of local political opposition. Without Nehemiah’s passion for rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem to serve as an anchor of stability Ezra’s vision would have ended in shambles. Both men saw the plight of their people and both men acted with great courage, tenacity, persistence, passion and spirituality to address it. But they approached the task from completely different means of getting to the end goal.

Vision is not about hype or great emotional surges of enthusiasm. Hype and enthusiasm drop like flies in a cloud or insecticide when trouble or resistance arises. Vision is a passion driven by the sight of something that needs to happen stirred in a person who has the courage to address injustice, need, or opportunity that requires a persistent effort to overcome known and unknown obstacles. Vision is not for the weak or the slick. It is for that man or woman whose character is available for the reshaping and deepening that inherently results from pursing something of great value. Vision is one of the hall marks of leadership and Bill will discover that the vision he has can result in transformed lives and will require more than he currently realizes. Why will Bill pursue the vision he has? Because he has seen what it means in the life of a young person’s development to have a mentor who believes in their capabilities, helps them discover their personhood and who affirms that opportunities exist if they will see them.

What is your vision?

The Barnabas Factor – Catalysts who Identify and Develop the Right Talent

Who are the innovators in your organization? More importantly who are the mentoring innovators who discover and develop the latent talent of others in a way that provides the impetus to organizational effectiveness, efficiency and growth? Surprisingly, while many organizations tout their need for leaders they exhibit the kind of behavior that limits leadership from emerging. Talented people whose discovery and development rises out of now where usually trace their emergence to the mentoring of a unique type of leader. I call the work of these leaders “the Barnabas Factor” after its namesake in the Acts of the Apostles. I routinely read in the Christian scriptures (1) to help me define my life’s mission and purpose and (2) for their case studies into leadership situations and actions.
Barnabas (whose name was actually Joseph) “earned” the knick name Barnabas because his behavior consistently demonstrated the ability to identify potential in others and provide a mentoring relationship that encouraged their emergence as highly effective contributors. In fact Barnabas demonstrates five critical characteristics every organization needs to remain vital and innovative in their social context. This article is the first of several that will follow in which I explore this interesting leader.

Barnabas was an early adapter/change agent. Barnabas was an expatriate, part of the Jewish Diaspora who hailed from Cyprus operating in the early church in Jerusalem. As in any group those who are “in” and those who are “out” or “on the margin” exist in various levels of tension. The identity Barnabas had as an “outsider” or immigrant or expatriate is significant in today’s context for global organizations or organizations that find themselves in a globalized urban situation and a multi-cultural context. Cultural groups do not normally integrate rather they exist in an uneasy tension. It takes someone of unique cultural perspective to bridge the gap between cultures in a way that helps construct a new way of seeing. According to the biblical record Barnabas was significant in two prominent cultural bridging events the first between the Judaic Jews and Hellenized Diaspora living in Jerusalem (Acts 4:36-37) and the second between the multifaceted Jewish community and the Gentiles of Antioch (Acts 11:19-29).

Barnabas exhibits a cross-cultural perspective i.e., the ability to explore and adapt the assumptions, language, customs and logical forms of a culture alien to his own while assessing the extent to which faith in God has impacted those assumptions, customs and logical forms. Some readers may object that the fact I include a level of assessment in my definition of Barnabas’ skill set negates his credentials as a multi-cultural man. However, the idea of assessment is central to the biblical text and to organizations attempting to negotiate contracts, employment agreements, risk mitigation etc. If these routine organizational tasks are attempted by someone who only exhibits a mono-cultural perspective then these common organizational functions exhibit ethnocentrism, a naive absolutism about one’s own cultural assumptions, superiority, denigration of the other and pejorative dismissal of another because their dress, communication style, language, family systems, business practices etc., are different.

As an early adapter or change agent Barnabas’ cross-cultural perspective offered a critical identification of two important turning points in the development of early church and helped launch the church’s existence from a local subset of Judaism to a global and multicultural movement anticipated by the Jewish prophets (cf. Is. 49:22-23). First, Barnabas recognized the need for a critical capital infusion at a point of growth that had outstripped the church’s ability to maintain its growing membership (Acts 4:36-37). Barnabas did not just throw money at problems he modeling a strategic investment into the mission of the early church that (1) helped define its organizational culture and (2) contrasted the vital aspects of its mission from the diffusive forces that vied for power as self-aggrandizement at the expense of the mission.

Second, Barnabas possessed the cross-cultural skills needed to read the degree to which the Gentiles in Antioch (Acts 11:19-29) had actually contextualized the message of the early church. By contextualized I mean the way in which the believers in Antioch had understood the meaning of the message of the early church and had rethought their cultural assumptions, allegiances and values.

The ability to read the depth to which the real mission of an organization is understood or contextualized or believed by new markets or new employees is vital. In the absence of this ability organizations impose procedures, policies and punitive reactions that disenfranchise emerging leaders (and/or deflate emerging markets).

Organizations without a Barnabas often miss critical moments of change in their organizations and end up rejecting new or different people or markets/opportunities. When organizations fail to recognize critical moments for change they end up “circling the wagons” in a defensive maneuver designed to protect the familiar from the unfamiliar. The end result predictably is that organizations lose their vital connection to constituency or emerging markets. Barnabas seems to have spent significant time negotiating for change as a means of explaining his insights. Barnabas was mere claqueur of the latest fad he invested his personal resources and time in strategic moments. Many organizations have those around them that insist on following the crowd under the name of innovation. Few organizations know how to listen to those who see the next big thing and are willing to invest in it. Those organizations that do know who to listen to the catalysts or early adapters also have the discipline needed to get the most out of these insights and financial infusions.

In light of Barnabas’ early adapter/change agent character one other unspoken characteristic must be mentioned. Barnabas never invested himself or his resources in movements, people or opportunities that did not demonstrate the potential to make significant contributions. His presence in every situation we find him follows a series of actions that verify the potential. Barnabas never experienced a con or a rip off because he seems to have insisted on the actions and character that verified potential prior to making an investment in it. Barnabas did not need to generate success, he lived successfully and as a result he was simply not a target for charlatans. His apparent insistence on evidence prior to action provides a significant leadership insight for leaders in any sector.

Helping Employees See Incompetence

Why is it that people possessing low competence in any set of skills often do not recognize their incompetence and assess themselves as having a much higher level of competence than they actually possess? I was hired to help a supervisor enhance his skills.  In my initial interview and in watching his performance on site I noted that he did not possess even the most fundamental of skill in planning, relating to employees, problem solving, conflict resolution or assessing performance. This is why his response to a self assessment of capabilities surprised me. How was I to help him recognize his need when he possessed such an inflated perspective of his capability?
Tom is an office manager in a small professional business (less than 50 employees). He is a confident and pleasant person but after encountering repeated conflicts with the owner of the business and other employees he was directed to seek out coaching on his leadership and management skills. In our conversations about what he was facing and what he had done to address his challenges it was quickly apparent that while he was a competent employee with experience at supervising others he had not developed several critical supervisory skills.

I supposed that Tom’s difficulty in defining what skills he was missing resulted from his lack of exposure to larger organizational dynamics and the relatively flat and fluctuating organizational design in the business he presently worked. Pam, the owner of this business was entrepreneurial and sales focused. Pam could add new business to the work load of her team at a rate that consistently outstripped their ability to keep up. Structure and policies felt more constrictive than helpful to Pam hence she had delegated the operational structure to Tom and Tom had done a sufficient job putting the basic structures in place based on the model of Gerber’s E-Myth. However, while the structures existed on paper they were not followed in behavior.

Pam’s employees were well cared for and had an intuitive understanding that they had to meet high expectations of performance, appearance and loyalty. Because of Pam’s care for them (they had great benefits in profit sharing, healthcare, retirement, professional training) the employees loved Pam but also dreaded her entrepreneurial vision that felt more like sudden and undulating upheavals of normalcy that would emerge and subside with both the frequency and unpredictability of a southern California earth quake. Pam had bought the business right out of college from a retiring professional that had given Pam her first internship. He saw Pam’s potential and worked out a fabulous retirement for himself in the sale of the business on the sure bet on Pam’s abilities. Tom was floundering in (1) his inability to successfully engage and negotiate conflict between employees and (2) an inability to apply policy consistently in performance and assessment of performance. His assessment of his peers abilities was surprisingly inaccurate to what I observed when I was on site.

Tom described himself as vice president material – the assessment floored me, I was stunned. How could a person who barely met the qualifications of a supervisor feel he could function at a corporate level in the C-suite? This was more than a lack of exposure to larger organizations this was a significant lapse of self awareness. Tom felt slighted by Pam’s failure to recognize his true talent and felt that Pam had torpedoed his career potential by removing some of his supervisory responsibilities from him. Tom was assigned to design processes, check them to regulatory requirements and maintain the documentation of all operational and human resources procedures. However, Tom was removed from direct supervision of the other employees. When personnel issues arose Pam stepped into the gap often reminding Tom that he needed to work on his people skills. At this point in the conversation I knew that Tom needed some fierce feedback.

What explains this gap in self assessment? Justin Kruger and David Dunning’s study on self awareness posits that individuals who utilize incompetent methods to achieve success or fulfillment diminishes their ability accurately assess their own abilities or to realize their own self deception. As a result Kruger and Dunning made four predictions:

Prediction 1. Incompetent individuals, compared with their more competent peers, will dramatically overestimate their ability and performance relative to objective criteria.

Prediction 2. Incompetent individuals will suffer from deficient metacognitive skills, in that they will be less able than their more competent peers to recognize competence when they see it—be it their own or anyone else’s.

Prediction 3. Incompetent individuals will be less able than their more competent peers to gain insight into their true level of performance by means of social comparison information. In particular, because of their difficulty recognizing competence in others, incompetent individuals will be unable to use information about the choices and performances of others to form more accurate impressions of their own ability.

Prediction 4. The incompetent can gain insight about their shortcomings, but this comes (paradoxically) by making them more competent, thus providing them the metacognitive skills necessary to be able to realize that they have performed poorly.  (Justin Kruger and David Dunning, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self Assessment” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1999, Vol. 77, No. 6), 1122.)

I could see all four problems in Tom’s situation. Not only did he fail to recognize his incompetence, he could not see competence in those he was supposed to be supervising. As a result he cut off their suggestions for improving performance or morale and reverted to an enforcement of rules that often had no direct bearing on the situation in which he sought to apply them.

The most hopeful insight Kruger and Dunning provided in their study was that the incompetent can be trained to be more competent thus enhancing the metacognitive skills needed to gain a more accurate assessment of their own and others performance. I began to work with Tom by providing the exercises he needed to gain supervisory skill and a more accurate picture of his own inadequate performance.

What recommendation do I have for employers? Pre-promotion training must be a critical component to talent development to avoid both overinflated self assessment and exceptionally poor assessment of the performance of others. Expose potential supervisors, managers, or executives to the challenges, skills and knowledge base they will need in succeeding at a functional role. Provide training in skills and test knowledge prior to promoting people to new responsibilities. If this is not done a very real risk of exists of driving true talent out of the company because supervisory or management talent cannot see their own incompetence nor recognize competence in others. Even more alarming is that a lack in metacognitive skill means they will not learn from experience. Experience will only reinforce their inflated self-assessment thus compounding the problem for employers.

What if Tom already exists in your company? Engage him/her in the training, testing and coaching needed to enhance their metacognitive skills i.e., the ability to reflect on thinking as thinking and to determine one’s relative level of competence or incompetence in any given domain of knowledge. The predictable result of not intervening in the incompetence of supervisors, managers or executives is passive contribution to continued poor judgment and all its legal, interpersonal, financial and customer impacts. Why does it seem your employees are not learning from experience? They may not possess the cognitive tools, yet, to recognize that there are lessons there to learn.

Aspects of Leadership Development

How do leaders develop? Since research has completely discredited the idea that leaders are born (or become leaders by some innate characteristic or right) and that class room input is not that useful since most of the content delivered in classrooms rarely makes it into practice then how is it that leaders emerge from among us?
I observe that in the best case we recognize leaders through the convergence of three factors that ebb and flow like a tide sometimes raising in synergistic force that propels a person to a unique influence in the lives of others and that sometimes ebbs causing influence to recede and a time of exposure and reflection emerge when new insights are germinated and given a chance to alter the landscape of the personal experience and insight. As I see it character, acquired skill and circumstance (what some call opportunity) converge and dissipate constantly in life providing the situation in which influence, recognition and results align to render the recognition that one is a leader.

Convergence is the best case because I have to admit that plenty of historical examples exist of leaders who emerge simply because those around them abdicated their personal responsibility to these three factors – as Lipman-Blumen observes, toxic leaders are made by their followers in just the same way good leaders are recognized and empowered by their followers.

Of the three factors I see character as the most significant. It is certainly the one thing over which the potential leader has the greatest control. How one chooses to invest their time, energies, emotion and mental capabilities determines whether a potential leader will (1) recognize the opportunity to lead; (2) have the insight, knowledge and tenacity needed to engage the task; and (3) possess the capability of winning the right to gain other’s attention and trust. By character I mean those virtues that are recognized as beneficial for the social good. Lists of virtues are as abundant as the writers who think about them.

For brevity I prefer to use the four cardinal virtues of Greek thinking because they serve so well as expansive categories:

• temperance: σωφροσύνη (sōphrosynē) – self-discipline, strength of will or strength of mind

• prudence: φρόνησις (phronēsis) – discretion, good sense, forethought or acumen

• fortitude: ανδρεία (andreia) – courage, staying power, grit, resilience

• justice: δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosynē) – evenhandedness, impartiality

A person of character demonstrates the temperance needed to be prepared, the prudence needed to read the situation and others with relative accuracy, the fortitude needed to step up to meet challenge or change with courage and the justice needed to provide a common hope which is the foundation for action in the vision of a mutually beneficial and preferred future. Reliance on virtues suggests that leadership possesses a strong moral center from which ethical decisions are made and choices are evaluated.

Acquired skill is a function of learning. Learning is sometimes described as experience and it makes sense to assume that someone who has engaged a task, situation, life or people for a longer period of time should also have acquired unique insights that provide wisdom for navigating challenging and unknown situations in life.

However not everyone with time served in life possesses experience or learning. It is quite possible to flow through life without any of the critical reflection, synthesis or curiosity needed to catalog insights or information into retrievable and applicable knowledge or wisdom. Without critical reflection that tests one’s assumptions or observations insights either degenerate to hasty generalizations or evaporate for lack of effort to retain their significance. Those recognized as having made a difference in the lives of others and their organizations seem to be people who make a habit of the rigor of learning from all their experiences – good or ill. They possess a curiosity that seeks to understand so they investigate and they test their insights in real life. They become more proficient, more insightful, and more capable by continual reflection and practice.

Circumstance is a word that holds a greater sense of recurring potential than does the word opportunity for me. Perhaps that is because when people talk about opportunity relative to leadership they seem to talk more about privilege than recognition of chance occasion to risk stepping out in practice of what one has learned. For example when one ascribes their lack of accomplishment relative to another as a problem stemming from their never being granted an opportunity it is often followed by an embittered commentary on how the other was granted every chance to succeed. I have no doubt that privilege (opportunity stemming from affinity to someone in power) occurs regularly. However I find that leaders can see far more opportunities arise because the situation or circumstance in front of them provides the arena they need to put their acquired skills, abilities and insights to work among those who want help in making sense of what they face. The need to put skill, ability and insight to work does seem to open new doors of opportunity. It appears that Jesus’ statement that those who are faithful in little are indeed given much.

How is it that emerging leaders recognize these opportunities? Often they don’t at least not in the way that is later described when those around them write reflectively about what occurred. I find that leaders step up to what we call opportunity in hindsight because their sense of justice, temperance, prudence or fortitude was summoned to action because they saw a chance to make a difference by applying what they had learned through life. This is what I call the convergence of character, skill and circumstance.

This pattern of convergence seems to hold true in my experience which is of course still being tested in life. The pattern causes me to reflect on my own habits, perspectives and attitudes. It causes me to ask myself to what degree I pursue contribution to others as well as success (my own sense of accomplishment). It summons me to ask the degree to which I exercise my own virtues, learning and vision. It also allows me to determine what opportunities I will invest myself in and which ones I will turn down. Virtue leads me to seek a return on my time and energy not just for my own inurnment but also for the benefit of those I serve as a leader.

Gender and Ability

I am still amazed at the frequency of times I encounter managers and leaders who discount the talent, skills and abilities around them because the human packaging happens to be the wrong gender.  This gender bias is often masked in poor performance marks that have more to do with conflicting gender stereo types than actual performance. 
One female executive described a poor performance review that tagged her for demonstrating an  undercurrent of insubordination.  When she asked for information on what characteristics seemed insubordinate she was told that she often was too direct, too objective and just did not meet the demands of executive level work.  Her unit was out performing those of her peers and the same qualities in her male counter parts were considered the formula for success.

Studies consistently indicate that the gender gap is not defacto a talent or ability gap.  It does appear to be a socialization gap in both some males (who assume women are less capable of sustaining performance in high pressure or highly competitive environments) and in women who fear that their more public or powerful characteristics (direct communication, flexibility to new approaches, directive and commanding management style, orientation towards the general benefit or tendency to take direct action to get things done is either too “girly” or inappropriate female behavior in the work place.  The irony (and tragedy) of the no win assessment is painful.

In my observation company’s that minimize gender bias are better run (fewer employee claims, lower turn over and better financial strength), seem to have better competitive and cash positions and have a culture of innovation and collaboration.  Mind this is only anecdotal, but as an outsider who spends time in numerous different companies and industries it seems to be a non-exclusive pattern (meaning that not all highly competitives and positive companies are run by or have significant number of women in key leadership roles).

So, I contemplate ways to help organizations break out of the pink curtain and discover the full depth of talent and ability that exists in their own ranks, and to invest in that future purposefully.

Discipline and hope

I was reading recently through Lamentations and could not avoid wrestling with the idea of God’s intervention in human affairs alongside human culpability, misproportionality and change in hope. I agree with critics of Christianity in that I would love for the idea of God and humankind to be tidy, less complex, less messy.  Alas culpability and misproportionality exist, things won’t be tidy either in my personal life or in the context in which I lead.
The question that arose for me in reading through Lamentations and then the minor prophets was this, is hope really hope without also the expectation of judgement?  The question is tricky. I want God to exercise justice in the face of the injustice I experience.  Yet were God to exercise the kind of justice I seek an injustice would have to be done toward others.  For example, I want the earning power and ease of life I remember prior to accelerated globalization religious pluralism and cultural pluralism.   However, to return to my historical ideal (and I am not even addressing how my ideal is a highly selective memory that may not approach historical reality) is to return to the repression of others who slaved at non-livable wages to produce what I want to consume.  Perhaps they prayed for justice and judgement on imperialist consumers like myself.

So I find my quest for justice to be a two-edged sword God doesn’t render judgement on those I seek vengeance from without also addressing my own failures. I like judgement pointed outside myself and justice that is a tool of my own preferences.  Now I see that my sense of justice has as much potential for injustice as the injustice I seek to correct.

So, can I live in expectant hope without also an acceptance of discipline (judgement) of my own perspectives, values and allegiances?  Judgment and hope are mutual themes.  Not only do they temper and refocus my perspective on my situation, context and assumptions about how I define what is happening around me they guide my work as a leader.

As a leader (in one context I lead a sales team; in another context I lead teams of researchers for special projects; in yet another context I lead students in the classroom) I want my team to succeed, excel and become all that they appear to have the potential to become.  As a result of this hope I am also pulled into a corrective stance with them at times.  I have to be willing to address attitudes, actions, or beliefs that contradict or counteract their development. In other words as a leader I have to be willing to exercise discipline and provide candid feedback as well as paint a picture of a different future and inspire them to move to that future.

Lets talk about culpability.  Identifying the problem sounds easier than it is.  “Ah,” one may say, “in my context it is easy a person either performs or is out.”  True, performance may be easy to identify if metrics are properly identified and measured with appropriate quantification in order to avoid the traps of subjective assessment.  The problem is that I too am in the process of development as a leader, my perspective is not always accurate.  I do not always make myself understood when I give instructions, or outline my expectations.  So, when I exercise discipline it is with two very important things in mind; respect for the individual I address and awareness that I do not have a comprehensive picture of all that is happening. 

Hence I start by asking permission, “May I offer a perspective on what I see happening?” This works when there is not some overtly damaging failure on the part of my team.  Reality is however that I have seen individuals engage in self-destructive behavior in the workplace with a vengeance that indicates a reaction to outside sources of stress.  In this case the approach must be terse enough to arrest attention to gain permission as I noted earlier. Gaining permission to offer insight before an attempt to engage in offering it offers a greater chance for success it creates a dialogue rather than a diatribe.  Diatribes are emotional pressure valves for those who provide them and while such scenes may be entertaining to watch from the outside they never accomplish anything of substantial value for the subject or the object of the display.

Misproportionality is something I find in the workplace daily.  It appears when one “overreacts” to an event.  Ever see the blazing email response that resulted from one sentence being taken out of context because the reader either didn’t investigate the context first or assumed the worst on the part of the person against whom they reacted?  Ever see a VP stomp into the work group yelling about some violation of protocol, failure in performance or insubordination only to find she/he did not know that situation and that the decision they were reacting against actually just saved the company thousands of dollars in penalties?  proportionality measures response to the intensity or seriousness of the need.  Misproportionality in the way I am using it is typically an indication of poor emotional intelligence.  Leaders have to assess situations and respond proportionately.  Sometimes this means an appropriate display of anger.  I do not subscribe to what I call the Zen Aura of management that seeks a level or non-existent emotion in the workplace.  I embrace emotion not emotionalism.  Emotion helps create a transparent workplace and I find people able to move more rapidly to trust.

Finally I mentioned change.  Change is the crux of hope and the interstices of discipline.  There can be no change or development without an awareness of inadequacy or error.  Change, something all managers optimistically embrace, is a two-edged sword that a leader engages to bring about different outcomes and is simultaneously challenged by his or her self.  When a leader maintains this awareness they maintain a learning posture. When change is only something others engage then arrogance and ignorance follow on the part of the leader and on the heel of these comes failure.

So, does hope exist apart from judgement?  I don’t think so.  I think only self deceptive optimism exists without judgement and such optimism often flies willy-nilly forward without regard to consequence.  Good luck with that.

Practice makes perfect

A mentor once told me that if I was going to write, I needed to practice by simply writing all the time about anything. Of all the things I learned in doing graduate work the most important thing was the power of feedback. So, I reason that a blog which is subject to public scrutiny and is a medium in which it is customary to practice writing has the two most imporant aspects I need to act on the advice of my mentor. I hope that this becomes a place where the ideas that are important to me are refined, tested and moved to a place of value in discussions that move beyond my own musings. I therefore launch into this world which for me is both unknown and uncharted.