The Benefits of Mentoring

The giver gets as much out of it as the recipient

by Joe Conklin

Way back in my early career as a quality professional, about the same time as yuppies became a big thing in the media, there was a good deal of buzz in the business press about the importance of mentoring.

The concept didn't seem to receive widespread acceptance--at least on my part. What I remember most is the lampooning the mentoring buzz took after a while. The best example was the Doonesbury comic strip in which Mike Doonesbury asks a company manager to be his mentor, in the same spirit and style as if he were proposing marriage. Back then it seemed as if mentoring required a long, involved and complicated system.

The term has come to take on more importance as people refer to me as "mister" more often and as new college graduates describe the events of my childhood as "American history." I have come to appreciate that good mentoring is easier with a system, but it doesn't have to be long and complicated.

What mentoring is

What is mentoring, anyway? For me, mentoring includes any special effort I make to share the benefits of my experience or contribute to the development of my younger co-workers. When I think of it this way, mentoring is something I can do a few minutes at a time instead of for hours at a stretch.

Why should anybody think about mentoring? I will grant you it may not be in your official job description. There are the various idealistic and altruistic reasons to justify any general attempt to be helpful, but to be honest, I find these motivating only up to a point.

By far the biggest motivation for me is the desire to remain relevant. At this point in my career, I am no longer the hot graduate freshly minted in the latest technology. Although I pride myself in serving my customers well, I have long since realized I am not the only one in the office capable of successfully concluding a project. While finishing a project is enjoyable, I have come to desire a little something more in my professional life.

A sneak attack

All that said, the opportunities for mentoring crept up behind me instead of leaping directly to mind. Over time I noticed the younger people on the staff coming to me more frequently with questions on this or that technique or formula.

In a recent job, my boss liked the big picture stuff but was not quite as enthusiastic about the day-to-day details of running the office. As my forte is more in this area, I stepped forward to pick up some of the slack. Encouraging the development of the staff was part of this package. Chances to mentor began to pop up all over.

Sometimes during meetings, for example, I made younger staff members responsible for handling agendas, minutes and group discussion. As notices of appropriate training opportunities crossed my desk, I began sharing them and encouraging people to sign up for them.

In gathering information to update my boss on the status of projects, I occasionally noticed someone struggling with a computer program that had once puzzled me. I offered one or two tips to help break the jam. Periodically I contributed comments to performance reviews, often in conversation with my boss about the best place in the department to leverage an individual's talents.

Although I am now in a different job, the same types of opportunities are still around. I make a conscious effort to see and act on them. Watching people grow and being a part of the process are extremely fulfilling. The better each one does his or her own job, the easier it is for all.

Good mentoring

I appreciate more and more with time what good mentoring demands. It calls for constant cultivation of one's listening skills. I have to be willing to learn another person's strengths and weaknesses in addition to remaining aware of my own.

Mentoring means sometimes imagining a person in a new role. Quite often the first guess about what someone needs to know is wrong. Being willing to alter one's opinion becomes paramount. Most important, mentors must be willing to take risks.

Mentoring is more process than role. Once in a while people may ask for help. More often, however, they may not know or be comfortable about asking. In that case, I make the first move and leave the response to it up to them.

In performing the main part of my job, I am firmly anchored in the present. In mentoring, I leave a part of myself for that day when the anchor will be moved. Then I may leave in body but for a time linger in spirit.  

JOSEPH D. CONKLIN is a statistician with the U.S. Census Bureau, analyzing the performance and quality of Census 2000 operations. He is now evaluating the potential of automated imaging technology to increase the speed and accuracy of processing census forms. Conklin earned a master's degree in statistics from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and holds the following ASQ certifications: quality engineer, reliability engineer, quality auditor, quality manager and software quality engineer.

IF YOU WOULD LIKE to comment on this article, please post your remarks on the Quality Progress Discussion Board at www.asqnet.org, or e-mail them to editor@asq.org.

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