As A Mentor, Are You Asking The Right Questions?

An associate recently brought to my attention a worthwhile article entitled, “The Art of Asking Questions”, by Marshall Goldsmith, the world-renowned authority on mentoring, leadership and executive coaching. Dr. Goldsmith makes a distinction between information-seeking questions and understanding-seeking questions, and he points out that in a mentoring relationship understanding-seeking questions almost always contribute to a mentee’s growth. He then gives a list of elements that produce insight and a list of techniques that enhance the value of the dialogue. In this post I suggest some high-value questions that you can ask your mentees.

First of all, I LOVE Dr. Goldsmith’s title. Asking high-value questions is indeed an art. Asking the right question is supremely important for almost any professional, including scientists, physicians, social workers, police, journalists, attorneys, accountants, sales professionals — the list can go on and on. That underscores the importance of this topic.

Here are two statements that are particularly meaningful to me:

  • The kind of question you ask determines the kind of answer you’ll get.
  • Asking the right question is more important than finding the answer easily. Often, the struggle to find an answer results in substantial growth.

I’m going to share some questions that have served me well in mentoring relationships. But first, please know that I believe that the intent of the question is more important than the question itself. If the intent is to seek the mentee’s greatest good, that will be evident, and you’ll be able to ask more challenging questions. Also, let’s understand that all questions are asked within the context of an existing relationship. Part of the art here is understanding what questions are appropriate between the you and your mentee at a given point in your evolving relationship. With that understanding, here are some questions to consider if you’re the mentor.

In many instances you’ll be reviewing a mentee’s performance in a particular situation. So you might experiment with these questions:

  1. How do you think you did? (This is just to get a mental review going.)
  2. Did anything surprise you?
  3. What went well? And why? (People always want to focus on what did not go well. There is often more to be learned in thinking about what went well and how to repeat that in the future.)
  4. What did not go so well? And why?
  5. What lessons did you learn from this experience?
  6. What will you do differently in the future to improve your performance? And why?

In some instances, you’ll be discussing an upcoming situation. Consider these questions:

  1. What are your desired outcomes from this event? And why?
  2. How likely is it that your plan of action will achieve your desired outcomes? And why?
  3. What concerns you? And why?

Let’s understand that part of the art of asking high-value questions is actively listening and asking great follow-up questions. This is a talent. Great art requires great talent. That being said, here’s one follow-up that often comes in handy:

Tell me more. (OK, I realize it’s not technically a question.)

And I want to highlight one question that, asked sincerely, works in almost all cases:

How can I help? (If you ask only that one question, you and your mentee will be well served.)

Thanks to my friend, Tiatana Costello, for suggesting this topic.

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear some questions that have served you well in mentoring relationships.

Larry Sternberg

How Do You Find A Mentor?

Oh my goodness. This is a really tough question. It’s a question about relationships. How do you find a best friend? How do you find a life partner? How do you find a mentor? I wish I had an easy answer, or frankly any answer that would work consistently. A mentor is someone for whom you’re significant, who believes in you, who likes you as a person, who enjoys spending time with you, who enjoys helping you grow, both personally and professionally, who is loyal, and who will extend herself to help you succeed. Many more descriptors can be added to that list. But the topic of this post is not, “What is a mentor?” The topic is, “How the heck do you find one?”

Even though we’re not going to find the answer, it’s important to struggle with the question. So here are my thoughts. First, it’s important to know who you are, what kind of person you think your ideal mentor would be, and what you want to get out of a mentoring relationship. You can readily see that the answers to these questions will be different for every person, and therefore the descriptors of your ideal mentor are unique to you. It’s much easier to find something if you know what you’re looking for. Answering those questions will give you a start.

Next, I encourage you to think about how you formed relationships with other important people in your life. How did you meet your best friends? Your significant other? What were you doing at the time? What were your initial attractions? Why did you both decide you wanted to spend more time with each other?  Answering those questions might well provide some valuable insight.

Next, I encourage you to participate in professional associations where you increase the odds of meeting people who share your professional interests and who might also be willing to share their knowledge, experience and wisdom. Community service groups also provide worthwhile opportunities.

Next, understand that your mentor might not initiate. You might have to ask the person on a first date. If you have (or have had) a significant other, think about how you started the relationship. Whether you hooked up or just had a beer, you probably didn’t jump into a discussion about a long-term relationship. You probably just decided whether you wanted to see each other again.

If you meet someone you think might be mentor material, don’t immediately discuss a mentoring relationship. Just ask them out. Have a cup of coffee, a glass of wine, a corn dog. Get to know each other. See where it goes. Maybe a mentoring relationship will develop over time. But remember, this really is very much like dating. If you don’t ask, you’re done. The possibility will pass you by.

Thanks to Matt Ream for suggesting this topic.

And thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Can You Do What’s Necessary To Bring About Rapid Culture Change?

This is going to be a short post. There is a qualitative difference between gradually shaping a culture and rapidly changing a culture in fundamental ways. To see a previous post on how to shape an organization culture, click here.

Rapid culture change requires that certain people leave the organization — particularly those in leadership positions. It’s unpleasant, it’s painful, it’s regrettable — but it’s reality. This applies to leaders at every level. If a particular leader cannot or will not enthusiastically support the desired new culture, he or she must be replaced. To achieve rapid culture change we can’t be patient.

These departing leaders are, in a sense, casualties of war. We should treat them with respect and dignity, but we need to transition them out of the organization. Then, of course, we need to identify new leaders who embrace the desired culture.

Recently I’ve observed situations in which a new CEO is brought in to rapidly change a culture, but he or she is prevented from replacing the leaders. That’s a non-starter. That CEO is being set up for failure.

Rapid culture change is painful and confusing for all stakeholders. We always experience unanticipated consequences. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem.” Working through these types of challenges requires a great deal of intestinal fortitude from the leader. And without the authority to replace people, nobody can bring about rapid, fundamental culture change.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

What’s the Best Way to Evaluate Cultural Fit?

When I use the term “culture” I mean a set of shared values and beliefs that form the basis for: 1) what we actually do, and 2) what we believe we ought to do. As I’ve said before, I think culture has more impact than strategy on the long-term success of an organization. That’s why it’s so important to select people who fit, whose natural values, beliefs and behaviors align with those of the culture. That’s what this post is about.

The challenge here is that culture is always in flux. Some elements of culture are more malleable than others. Some are deeply entrenched and extremely difficult to change. Furthermore, the description of an organization culture depends on where you’re standing. It depends on your perspective. That makes the endeavor of describing a culture a lot more complex than we typically acknowledge.

First let’s think about perspective. If you ask a wealthy New Yorker who lives on Park Avenue to describe the culture of New York City, we’ll get a very different description than the one given by the person who lives in a poor, dangerous section of that same city. If we ask the C-suite executives to describe the culture of their organization, we might well get a very different description than the one given by a rank and file employee.

Now let’s think about flux. (By the way, when was the last time someone asked you to think about flux?) The culture of any organization, any community is continuously evolving due to influences from both internal and external sources. Whatever a person’s perspective, their description of the culture is a snapshot in time. To further complicate matters, different parts of the culture are evolving at different rates of speed.

So when you say that you want a candidate to fit the culture, what culture are you talking about? The culture of a specific division or department? The present culture or the culture the CEO envisions for the future? This is immensely complex. It can make your head hurt. But there’s an easier way to determine cultural fit.

In my opinion, the endeavor of determining who’s a good fit for the existing culture is in some respects easier than describing the culture. Even if we’re not sure we can describe the culture, we can identify existing employees who are a good fit. These are individuals who thrive in the culture and who are widely regarded as exemplifying the desired cultural values and behaviors. We can create profiles of these people and hire to those profiles. This can be done for an envisioned culture as well. We can identify existing employees who exemplify the values and behaviors of the desired future culture, create profiles of those people and hire to those profiles.

Objectively and properly describing an evolving culture from multiple perspectives is a daunting task. But we don’t need to do that in order to answer the question, “What kinds of candidates would be a good fit?” Whether we’re focusing on an existing culture or a desired culture, we simply need to study existing employees who are a good fit and hire more people like that.

Thanks for reading. And, as always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Who Should Have 51% Of The Vote?

The question in the title of this post can be expressed as follows: Who should make what decisions? We see this question constantly in government. For instance, all disputes about states rights vs. federal rights fall into this category. In business, all questions about empowerment fall into this category. What decisions are people in role x empowered to make? I love this question. To see one of my previous posts about empowerment, click here.

In this post I want to discuss the title question from a different perspective: effective collaboration. In today’s world effective collaboration is essential. Lack of clarity about who gets to decide what has detrimental effects on collaboration. Disputes about this question slow down progress, damage relationships and undermine the group’s ability to achieve excellence. I’m sure you’ve seen this happen.

In many cases a group can find clarity on its own. Sometimes an informal leader emerges organically because group members appreciate this person’s leadership. This leader helps the group reach consensus about decisions, which maintains forward momentum. That’s one possibility.

Also, groups can understand that not all decisions have to be made by the entire group. The group can “deputize” a person to make certain decisions on behalf of the group. The group is saying, “We trust you. We have confidence in you.” For instance, suppose a project requires a Web page. Instead of having every aspect of the Web page approved by the group (consensus approach), the group can deputize one person to make decisions about the look and feel, and another person to be in charge of how the site will function. A third person can be deputized to write copy, and so on. The other group members can critique prototypes and drafts, but at the end of the day the deputized individuals have 51% of the vote in their areas. Forward momentum is maintained.

This deputizing strategy is underutilized, by the way, because it requires people to relinquish control.

There will be situations where individuals in the group are competing for control. They cannot agree about certain decisions, and they are making mutually exclusive claims for 51% of the vote about those decisions. When they cannot resolve these issues internally, progress will stop and relationships will be damaged. In this case, a leader external to the group must step in to do what the group cannot do for itself: decide who gets 51% of the vote about what decisions. Individuals in the group will then be able to focus their energies on achieving the mission rather than fighting about who can decide what.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Self Development — What’s In It for Me?

I stand for the point of view that human development is best nurtured through the right kind of relationships. Parenting, mentoring and coaching exemplify the kinds of relationships that can help shape a person and can lead to significant growth. So how does self-development fit in?

Each of us matures at his or her own pace. But whatever the pace, as we mature we assume more and more responsibility for the outcomes in our lives. By the time you’re an adult, you should assume some responsibility for your own development. Mentors and others should help you with this, but you must be an active participant in the process. For example:

A mentor can get you involved with a variety of activities and assignments to help you discover your aptitudes and interests. But you must enthusiastically engage.

A mentor can ask what you’re passionate about and can help you pursue those passions in ways that contribute to your growth. But your passions must arise from your heart. Your mentor is not responsible for installing them.

A mentor can help you ideate about various career arcs, but you must own your goals and your path.

Mentors exert a great influence on their mentees. But influence is not ownership. At some point in your journey you should assume the responsibility for your development. You should articulate a vision for your future. You should be clear about your values and goals. Mentors and others can help, but you have to own it. The final decisions are ultimately yours.

So with regard to self-development, what’s in it for you? Nothing more or less than taking charge of your future.

Using self-development tools you can gain a more profound understanding about how to align your strengths, your passions and your aspirations. After creating your own plan, you can ask your mentor or supervisor, “Will you support this plan? How can we improve it? Is there anything else I need to think about?” Then you’ll be leading your own development.

I hope you’re fortunate to have people in your life who are excited to invest in your development. In my opinion, self-development tools should not be viewed as a substitute for that sort of investment. But such tools can empower you to create more value in the relationship, not only for you, but also for your mentor.

Thanks to Beth Bruss for suggesting this topic.

And thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Expense Or Investment? How Do You See Your Employees?

Recently Rick Newman wrote a very interesting article entitled, “Why most employers aren’t like Starbucks or Costco”. To read it click here. Newman states that employers who view their employees as expenses typically compete on cost (e.g., Walmart) whereas most companies who view their employees as investments typically compete on quality (e.g., Starbucks).

He points out that many companies whose business model is premised on keeping labor costs low could actually afford to pay people more, but doing so would risk the ire of investors and Wall Street analysts — despite the fact that numerous studies have established that the investment approach can pay for itself. There are lots of way to make money. I prefer to work with companies that take the investment approach, so in this post I want to address the how. How do you make the investment approach pay for itself?

Properly implemented the investment approach — which includes a focus on the quality of products and services — delivers several important outcomes:

  • Increased repeat business
  • Increased per transaction spend
  • Improved word-of-mouth
  • Increased productivity
  • Reduced employee turnover

As Newman points out, this approach begins with the recruitment of highly talented employees, which requires a sophisticated selection process. Conduct a proper study to understand the profile of top performers in the organization. These are employees who not only perform their tasks with excellence, but also they thrive in your unique culture. Then, recruit and select to this profile. In any job, top performers are way more productive than others, they make fewer errors (reducing costly re-work), and they miss fewer days of work. If you select highly talented people who fit your culture, you can have fewer employees, each making more — and your overall labor costs go down while quality goes up.

In addition, if you also select highly talented supervisors, your employee turnover will go down which not only saves the money associated with turnover (a VERY large number), but also improves your quality because a) more of your new hire training budget can be re-purposed, and b) employees who stay experience more practice, which helps them improve performance. Cost go down, quality goes up.

So how do you make the investment approach pay for itself? Select highly talent employees who fit your culture, pay them well, invest in training and development, and give each employee a supervisor who truly cares, who cultivates close, positive relationships. You’ll earn a handsome return on these investments.

But I have to be honest with you. I do care about the business case, but that’s not why I take the investment approach. I want it for its own sake. I want the employees in my culture to have no doubt that they are our most important competitive advantage, that I care deeply about each and every person who works with me, that I take great joy in facilitating both their professional and personal development, and that I will extend myself to meet their needs. A business case has no soul.

Thanks to my wife, Salli Sternberg, for suggesting this topic.

And thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg