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Safety Leadership: How to Be an Effective Mentor

Aug. 6, 2020
Collaborating with high performers could spell success down the road.

Editor’s Note: In June, Larry Fast, our Ask the Expert – Lean Leadership columnist, offered up some tips for the up-and-coming manufacturing leader. I asked if he had any advice for mentors of these up-and-comers. Here’s what he wrote. – Jill Jusko, IW Associate Content Director

Webster’s dictionary defines a mentor as “a wise and faithful counselor or monitor.” A more expansive way to say it is “one who has extensive experience in life and in work, and is willing to help others develop as people, and as productive contributors of excellence in their workplace.”

Great mentors along the way can put a high-potential person’s career on a rocket ship to their full potential. Poor mentors can slow a high-potential’s progress and stunt their growth. That’s why senior leaders select and assign mentors who are among the most talented people in the organization. They are very knowledgeable about the business, have a professional demeanor, excellent communications skills and set a great example of what success looks and acts like.

In short, they become a model of what it takes to be successful in the company. Ideally, this mentor is two levels above the high-performing mentee. As the high-potential individual moves up, the next mentor should be one two levels above, and so on, right up to the C-Suite.

The Mentor’s Role

Here are a few tips about how to engage the individual. Obviously, whoever hired the high-potential employee saw potential that suggested this person could go a long way in the company. The mentor’s role is to build upon the skills and human traits already present with the new hire.

1.    Establish a personal rapport. The early days are often stressful for the mentee. A good mentor will explain the purpose of the mentoring program, and put the candidate at ease by providing patience and reassurance. Building rapport will establish trust and open dialogue. Encourage the high performer to call anytime questions arise between meetings.

2.     Establish the skillset that the high performer already has and discuss developmental needs. Ask questions such as:

a.     What have been your best experiences with college courses and why?

b.     If the individual has business experience at another company, ask for examples of the learning that transpired there.

c.      Ask about what direction the high performer wants to go in the company, e.g., supply chain management, manufacturing, engineering, sales, whatever. Based on that….

d.     Come to an agreement on which areas of lesser strength to focus on in the short term and establish an action plan

        i.      Hard skills

        ii.      Soft skills

e.     Collaborate with the high performer and make an improvement plan.

3.     Establish accountability.

a.     Once you and the high-performer mentee have agreed upon expectations, it is the high performer’s responsibility to take ownership of the “to do’s.” Discuss progress at each follow-up meeting, or before if questions arise.

b.     In the beginning, I encourage meeting on a weekly basis. This strengthens the relationship and provides the mentor with early insights on how well the high performer is absorbing and acting on the agreed-upon agenda. It’s also a great way to evaluate the level of understanding and engagement.

c.      As progress becomes evident, consider moving the meetings to bi-weekly and ultimately, to monthly.

d.     Look for examples of initiative and proactive behaviors.

e.     Use your own experiences as teachable moments for the high performer. Describe the situation and walk through how you responded and what tools you used to get the job done.

f.       Before you adjourn, ask the question: “Do you have any further questions or comments about today’s discussion?”

4.     Make special events part of the development

a.     Find a workshop or seminar to supplement in-house training. My early mentor suggested I take a time management course. It’s the best advice I ever got. As one progresses up the ladder, it takes real discipline to manage time based on importance, not urgency. (Of course, some things are both important and urgent and get immediate attention!)

b.     Send the high-performing mentee to a section meeting with the trade organization most appropriate for the business. Here again, my mentor sent me to a section meeting at NEMA (National Electrical Manufacturing Association). After two years of attending meetings, I was elected chair of two committees. It was a great way to meet leaders from our competitors as well as improve my technical knowledge.

c.      Take the high performer on the road with you to visit a customer. My road trip wasn’t glamorous. It was a 1.5-hour drive with the top sales leader to Fort Wayne, Indiana (I was hoping for Las Vegas). I got first- hand experience hearing the customer’s perspective on our company in general and my plant specifically. Most of it was good, but there was a delivery problem that caused me to return to work with a whole new understanding of how much grief we could cause an important customer. Quite a motivator!

d.     Invite the high performer to attend part, or all, of a leadership team meeting with you. It’ll be an eye opener for the individual but also great exposure to how senior leaders think and debate and make decisions. It’s a brain stretch that will impress the mentee. It also is a powerful model to help drive aspirations.

“A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” -- John Maxwell

“The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority.” --Kenneth Blanchard

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