The Importance of Mentoring

Do you Mentor anyone?  Let me say upfront that I believe in mentoring. I think it benefits individuals, organizations, and the mentors themselves. Effective mentoring takes time and planning, but it makes a measureable difference. So, I want to share my thoughts and experiences to persuade you that the effort mentoring requires is worth it.

What is mentoring?
Mentoring is a knowledge sharing relationship between an experienced professional and some one more junior in the organization. A mentoring relationship may be formal—defined as mentor/mentee— with official meetings and planned activities or informal. In the past, informal mentoring relationships were the norm.

In the olden days, senior managers or technologists identified individuals with potential to move up (we called this succession planning). These individuals were taken under the wing of a more senior person who spent extra time with them, offered insights and advice, and shepherded the mentee into work experiences that helped extend and polish their skills.

Today, there are classes and books on “How to be a Mentor”. Amazon has almost 50,000 returns for the search term “mentoring”. Even the government has information on the subject like the State of New York’s PM Mentor program.  Although these resources are likely have to many valuable bits of advice, I do not think a Ph.D. in mentoring is an essential starting point. Rather, if you have been mentored, ask yourself what was useful, what did you learn, what else do you wish had been part of the process. If you did not have the benefit of a mentor, what tips, tricks, and processes do you wish someone had shared with you before you picked them up in the school of hard knocks?

Benefits of mentoring
To the organization–succession planning is just one benefit. The mentor shares with the mentee how to do a job well within the confines and constructs of the organization. Those observed, practiced, and honed skills developed under the tutelage of the mentor make a mentee immediately more useful to that organization.

Mentees must commit time and effort beyond the average employee to benefit from the mentoring relationship. The experience gained and the personal relationship with the mentor creates a deeper bond with the organization that promotes employee retention and satisfaction.

Another benefit is that the mentee can become an effective mentor later in their careers.

To the mentee–Brian Price at Project Management Mentoring offers this observation, “When I was cutting my teeth as a new project manager, I was constantly making things up and trying to do what I thought I needed to do…I would have loved to have a project management mentor to help me do the right things at the right time.”

  • Mentors can systematically enhance classroom knowledge and academic guidelines.
  • Mentors offer their mentees a wise ear that can help unravel problems and find solutions.
  • Mentors help mentees become aware of self defeating behaviors that keep them from reaching their full potential.
  • Mentors contribute feedback that is outside the management and performance review process.
  • Mentors extend career guidance and exposure to assignments that develop management and professional skills more quickly.
  • Mentors provide access to people, meetings, and other learning opportunities.

To the mentor–Interacting with and shaping the development of intelligent, motivated young people is rewarding. You will feel good seeing the impact you are having. You will also learn about the organization from a perspective that perhaps you have forgotten.

You may be training your replacement—allowing you to move up in the organization while remaining confident that your legacy is in good hands.

Mentoring tips and techniques

  • Schedule time to meet with your mentee. You can have a formal time slot with a general idea of what needs to be discussed or just a piece of time you carve out of your schedule to touch base. Do this at least monthly.
  • Meetings with your mentee should be one-on-one with some privacy.
  • Ask questions.
  • Listen.
  • Do not turn your meetings into status reports. Your goal is building skills. The meetings should focus on observations, experiences, and ideas.
  • Be willing to talk about yourself and your philosophy. For example, talk about how you make decisions or what you’re thinking about the issues on your plate right now.
  • Invite your mentee to sit in as an observer in high-level meetings. Talk with them afterward about what they saw and thought happened. Add your own insights.
  • Give feedback on your observations of the mentee’s skills and behaviors—build their confidence to tackle ever more challenging situations.
  • Encourage them to learn.
  • Encourage them to try new things—to stretch their skills into more responsible positions or different areas of the organization.

I have personally benefitted from mentoring by working with talented, seasoned professionals who have freely shared their knowledge with me during my career. I have also had the fortune to mentor many younger software developers, managers and project managers. I delight in seeing them become more comfortable, more productive and enjoying their work more. How about you? What has been your experience with mentoring? What advice can you share?

Project Stress: The Importance of Stress Reduction

Project management is stressful. Perhaps managing a project to a successful outcome is not stressful every minute of every day, but there are definitely times—like pulling an all-nighter to solve a problem before shipping on time—that definitely qualify as high stress.

Now it may seem like stress is your friend. It helps you focus attention and block out the extraneous. And from a physiological perspective, that is what stress is for—it is self protection; fight or flight. Discovered by Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon and discussed by Dr. Neil Neimark MD in the Body Soul Connection:

When our fight or flight response is activated, sequences of nerve cell firing occur and chemicals like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol are released into our bloodstream. These patterns of nerve cell firing and chemical release cause our body to undergo a series of very dramatic changes. Our respiratory rate increases. Blood is shunted away from our digestive tract and directed into our muscles and limbs, which require extra energy and fuel for running and fighting. Our pupils dilate. Our awareness intensifies. Our sight sharpens. Our impulses quicken. Our perception of pain diminishes. Our immune system mobilizes with increased activation.”

But, stress takes its toll on our bodies and eventually on our ability to be effective project managers. Here are just a few of the long term consequences of stress on your health:

  • Headaches
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Digestive problems
  • Depression
  • Muscle spasms
  • Difficulty focusing attention

“Psychological stress can also worsen the symptoms of many medical conditions, including diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurological conditions, chronic pain, and addictive disorders” according to Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD.

Stress Reduction
A personal friend of mine is Austin-based leadership trainer Chris Douglas, who has some excellent and easy to implement suggestions on dealing with stress and reducing its impact on your body and your performance. Improving Performance Under Stress is a seminar offered by Chris through Quest Seminars. You can receive a free copy of Chris’s Managing Stress in Challenging Times by registering your email on his site.

Chris recommends the following activities to help project managers handle stress and keep it from disrupting their effectiveness:

  • Breathe! Deep breathes from the diaphragm.
  • Timed Breathing —Inhale to the count of 4, hold for 7, exhale to the count of 8
  • Find some humor in the situation. Laughter is a great stress reliever
  • Try a mini-meditation—just one to two minutes of relaxed breathing or guided visualization can help you relax

A few other simple stress relief techniques you can practice in the office:

  • Get up and move around five minutes out of every hour.
  • Stretch your shoulders and lower back.
  • Do some neck rolls—drop your chin slowly forward then roll your head to your right shoulder, back, left shoulder and front.
  • Relax your hands and wrists. Interlock your fingers and rotate your wrists clockwise and then counter-clockwise. Finish with a stretch of your hands and fingers.
  • If you do not have an ergonomic office, try to get one. It really helps.

Don’t forget to exercise routinely and take a real vacation every year!

Now be honest – is stress getting to you on your projects?  Do you have some stress relief techniques that help keep you healthy and focused? Please share!

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