Managers as MentorsMy granddaughter is dyslexic—a genetic condition that makes learning to read difficult because of the way the brain erroneously processes certain symbols.  We realized the potential of dyslexia when we asked her to read us a bedtime story and she responded, “Why don’t I just look at the pictures and tell you the story.”  She is a very imaginative storyteller!

She entered a wonderful elementary school exclusively for bright, dyslectic students.  After a few months, she learned how to become a terrific speed reader. At grandparents’ day she reported that the best part of being able to read was that the pictures were now created in her head and not viewed on the book page.

Before the special school, she was just calling out words, completely missing the imaginative presence of her mind’s eye.  But, two other byproducts emerged from her amazing discovery.  Thanks to her new Kindle and generous grandmother always ready to refuel her Amazon account, she became a ferocious reader.  Second, she became extremely confident—boldly eager to explore new journeys and dive into unfamiliar adventures.

The old-fashioned view of mentoring is someone outside a learner’s chain of command who equips that learner with new skills and knowledge.  It is an archaic expert-to-novice or smart-to-unwise philosophy.  The goal is the transfer of information or expertise, much like pouring knowledge into the head of a passive learner.  It is the model that antiquated teachers used to teach facts students only recalled long enough to score favorably on the test.

The new perspective is that leaders should mentor all associates under their direct influence.  Their aim is power-giving insight—the “aha” discovery that creates true understanding, not just rote recall.  When a learner discovers the rich capability of insight, like my granddaughter, what emerges are new attitudes, valuable enlightenment and liberating confidence.

But, insight is potentially dangerous stuff!  It can take the blinders off of blind obedience and rid boldness of timid restraint.  Mentors who ask thoughtful questions instead of making directive statements nurture employees to discover that true learning is a door opened only from the inside.  That “I am in charge of my own learning” moves the mentor-protégé relationship to a learning partnership.  Learners become confident enough to be humble, open enough to be accepting and curious enough to be become wise.

Small businesses with an eye toward growth will ultimately need associates who remain confidently on the cutting edge.  Whether labeled employees or contract associates, all leaders will need to be a person who serves as a champion of learning and the learner, not one who acts as a shepherd, directing subordinates to “follow me.”

Practices of Insight-Seeking Mentors

Insight-seeking mentors foster confidence-building acceptance by avoiding testing tones, judgmental gestures and parental positions.  They show acceptance through focused and dramatic listening.  A wise leader said, “There are no individuals at work more important to your success than your associates—not your boss, not your customers, not your vendors.”  When your associate needs you to listen, pretend you are at a raffle for a big prize and are waiting to hear the winning number.  Treat your associate with the same focus and priority.

Insight-seeking mentors encourage inventiveness and experimentation—a springboard to insight and a foundation of acumen.  Amazon was ranked the #3 most innovative company in the world by Forbes magazine.  Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos asks all job candidates: “’Tell me about something that you have invented.”  Bezos reported to Forbes, “I want associates who will try new things.  I encourage our employees to go down blind alleys and experiment.”  Rote learning is about repetition and imprinting, like learning to type.  But, insight-filled learning is about risk-taking in an ardent pursuit of wisdom.

Insight-seeking mentors are cheerleaders of excellence.  They affirm the pursuit of distinction, even the type that sometimes fails.  One small business gives its annual green weeny award—recognizing the associate who, while doing their very best, made a mistake that resulted in the greatest organizational learning.  A coveted badge of courage, it signals to all a strong recognition that the path to progress is rarely a freeway.  Henry Ford said, “Even a mistake may turn out to be the one thing necessary to a worthwhile achievement.”

In a knowledge economy, smart business owners and entrepreneurs must have self-directed associates eager to flourish and willing to repel anything that inappropriately restrains their growth.  “The ability to learn faster than your competitors,” wrote Arie de Geus, “May be your only competitive sustainable advantage.”  Insightful associates are passionate about excellence, and unwilling to settle for mediocrity.

Associates full of insight act with the mature stewardship of an owner.  “Nothing is more terrible,” wrote historian Thomas Carlyle, “Than activity without insight.”

What do you think? Does this concept of insight-seeking mentors resonate with you? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.