The next 15 posts to my blog will contain excerpts from my new book, Developmental Mentoring. We start here with the introduction to the book. Feel free to leave a message here or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or comments. Thank you!
“A sign of a good leader is not how many followers you have, but how many leaders you create.”
- Mahatma Gandhi
There have been many books on the subject of mentoring in the last ten to fifteen years. Each of them has a particular point of view on how to do mentoring effectively. None of them address this burning issue: How does effective mentoring relate to achieving diversity at all levels of the organization? Diversity initiatives and Equal Employment Opportunity compliance are well-intentioned and certainly great for the annual report, but after four decades, these efforts still haven’t produced the kind of diversity that is representative of the culture. This is especially evident in the C-Suite and very senior executive levels of most businesses. Why is that? Diversity, as viewed by many corporations, is often conceptualized as an opportunity-driven effort to allow diverse candidates to apply or be considered for any particular position. Some organizations view diversity as meeting prescribed targets for the mix of employees from under-represented groups. The preparation for such opportunities is on the shoulders of each prospective candidate. But as I found out when interviewing and considering diverse candidates for leadership positions, their awareness of the leadership demands of the job and awareness of the behavioral predictors of success for the job were lacking in almost all the candidates. To put it another way, they were not prepared for moving to the next level of responsibility. Everyone, to a person, knew the potential position would present opportunities for growth, but none of them understood what they needed to change or how they needed to grow in order to succeed in the job. The next step up for them was a big step with more than just incremental demands. The job required a different set of leadership skills and competencies in order for one to be successful. What I found in each candidate was a view that the necessary preparation for the job consisted of a checklist of experiences, education, and certifications. Experience is important – more important in some jobs than in others - but it is not a primary predictor of success for any job. For that matter, neither is past performance. What past experience and performance should have provided are the opportunities to grow and change. And we assume that because we have one (experience), we have the other (growth). This is why people - irrespective of their status as a diverse candidate - flame out in a job or in their careers.
While my candidates for promotional consideration admirably demonstrated their self-efforts to prepare for the next level of responsibility, almost none of them had the benefit of being mentored by someone who had an objective view of their behaviors and their leadership effectiveness as a result of those behaviors. As well are, without the benefit of good feedback, many were completely blind to the kinds of behaviors and communication that held them back or caused “unforced errors” in their leadership. To make matters worse, almost all of them had not been mentored by anyone for any reason at all. Few, if any, had found someone to take a personal interest in developing them; no one had invested effort to help them develop the emotional, social, and leadership characteristics and competencies needed for success. In each case, they were pretty much figuring it out on their own. While our company had a fairly robust library of self-study courses for developing one’s leadership skills, it was up to each individual to figure out where they needed development. As we’ll discuss later, this kind of process rarely hits the target because of our inability to see ourselves as others see us.
As anyone who has overcome obstacles to get to positions of leadership will tell you, some of the best lessons on the qualities, competencies, and characteristics of highly effective leaders come through mentoring, that is, a personal investment that a more senior person made in them. What my interview experience taught me was that I needed to create an intentional and permanent space in my organization where mentoring and diversity could successfully meet. Although there are many differing concepts and constructs of mentoring, it is often conceptualized as a personal or professional relationship founded on the notion that there are areas for development that a mentor sees or in which a mentee desires growth. When applied formally in the context of a company or organization, it can be thought of as a form of facilitated leadership development - as opposed to self-directed leadership development. Diversity, on the other hand, is often conceptualized as the outcome for having consistently provided equal opportunity for diverse people to apply for and interview for any given position. The reasons the last four decades of diversity initiatives haven’t substantially changed the outcomes at mid- and senior-levels across corporate America, are two-fold. First is that the interviewing and selection processes are flawed; hiring managers are more likely than not to hire someone they are subconsciously comfortable with (i.e., someone who is most like them), and then justify the hire as someone that they are convinced will deliver the desired performance results based on previous performance. Second, many under-represented people groups don’t receive substantial investment in their development until much later in their career than employees who fit the dominant profile.
The two concepts of mentoring and diversity are seldom brought together, programmatically and intentionally, to develop a diverse leadership structure. If an effective mentoring program were in place that focused on “Equal Development” of people, hiring managers should be able to select candidates from a pool of diverse candidates for greater responsibilities and assignments with recommendations from more senior executives who had mentored them. This is where leadership development and diversity meet. My purpose in writing this book is to put these two concepts together so that any organization can build a program with a stated commitment to growing diverse leaders and a diverse leadership bench – a roster of qualified candidates from which people may be confidently selected.
The literature for professional development is rich, but there is rarely a structured approach that builds upon learned and applied competencies and concepts: “learn and apply this, and then learn and apply that”. Rather, these types of learning opportunities tend to be presented as stand-alone content modules; a “smorgasbord” of material to let the learner pick and choose what they want to learn or what they feel they need to learn. As important as this is, one of the biggest problems with this approach, diversity notwithstanding, is that having employees base their development path on their own self-identified “gaps” is not inaccurate and produces inadequate results. The research is clear that individuals are poor at “self-reporting”. Richard Nisbett and Timothy Wilson (1977) found that “we do not have access to the cognitive processes to help us understand what we do or why we do it”. This is why self-identification of developmental needs is inherently flawed and ultimately will not produce the desired outcome of getting to an equipped workforce at all levels – diverse or not. For someone to select their own transformational development path requires the input of one or more others who can help them accurately see the impediments to their effectiveness. That is the role of a mentor. Having mentored more than a hundred people in year-long programs, my empirical experience corroborates Nisbett’s and Wilson’s research. I found that there is a very small percentage of mentees who accurately identify their own developmental needs. In the first month of my mentoring program, I ask each mentee for an assessment on what they need to be better at in order to become a more effective leader. By the time we get to the third month of the mentoring program, after they’ve done some of the reading assignments, gotten some feedback, and had time to reflect, their view of their own development needs has almost always changed. This point becomes one of the important lessons for mentees: we all have blind spots that inhibit the ability to see ourselves as others see us.
My journey as a mentor of junior and mid-level executives and emerging leaders for more than 20 years has been one of discovery and growth for me as well as my mentees. Having witnessed them go through their own process of discovery and growth, I’ve long been convinced that good mentoring can change a person’s trajectory in their career and in their personal life. Unfortunately, what passes for mentoring in some companies does little to really change the outcomes for people in a significant way - the “chosen few” being the notable exceptions - nor does it significantly affect achieving diversity in the leadership ranks. If mentoring is merely a recital of the mentor’s “path to the top” or a set of directions on things the mentee should know or be better at, it will likely miss the target of helping them accurately identify their own individual development needs. Further, this “follow my path” kind of mentoring requires nothing but a few minutes of time here and there and does nothing to impact either the mentee or the mentor. The point of mentoring outlined in this book is that each mentee would emerge from the program with a new trajectory for effective leadership.
The research and empirical evidence show that diverse organizations solve problems better and faster, innovate better and faster, and tend to rise to the top of their particular industry segment. Diverse thinking and perspectives help companies perform better from accounting and finance to sales and marketing, and every function in between. Even social job and career sites such as LinkedIn have seminars and learning modules to help users understand how to increase business performance and effectiveness by increasing diversity. None of them address the question of how to reach and sustain diversity, though. As a result of diversity training and awareness – generally a required learning module in many corporations that embrace diversity – the entry level work force in American business has become more representative of society than any other level of an organization. But at some level - generally in the mid-management ranks – diversity begins to diminish and the corporate ranks become more and more homogenous. This is a dangerous disconnect because senior-level decision-making, where strategy and budgets are set, tends to become removed and more dissimilar from lower levels of management where execution of the strategy takes place.
My purpose in writing this book is to take the best from each of the concepts of diversity and leadership development, and create a structure for thought-filled introspection and reflection on the part of the mentee that enables them to have an accurate view of their own leadership gaps. Then, within the structure, they commit to take courageous steps to change in order to increase their effectiveness and enlarge their sphere of influence. Accountability to the mentor and peers helps them grow in the areas that have derailed their leadership in the past or have the potential to derail their leadership. I call this type of facilitated development “Developmental Mentoring”.
Developmental Mentoring also helps the mentee see their aspirations and career goals in a framework of “investments” that require trade-offs regarding other goals and priorities, and the time requirements to accomplish them. Part of this process is coaching and part of it is teaching, in order to enable the mentee acquire the tools, the skills, and the perspective necessary to succeed as effective and trust-building leaders. Leaders and emerging leaders who are equipped to listen to the feedback, examine themselves introspectively, embrace change, and map out a path for transformation are far more likely to succeed than ones who are blind or indifferent to the effect they have on an organization and the people in it. This equipping for the mentee comes with sound mentoring and when embraced by the mentee, can change the “narrative arc” of the emerging leader’s career and by extension, their imprint on an organization.
Developmental Mentoring also requires a safe space where transparency and vulnerability can abide. A program of this nature that can impact diversity must be open to all comers. The opportunity for equal development – especially in early career – is key to developing diverse leaders. While not everyone will successfully “make the trip” – and that’s true for all people groups - everyone should have an opportunity to opt-in for development. This also means that to have a productive Developmental Mentoring program, mentors must be open to whom they mentor and be aware that the very selection process can unwittingly signal bias or at least preference to the rest of the organization. When employees perceive this as true, the causes of development and diversity are both eroded. Left unaddressed, emerging leaders in under-represented people groups will begin to look for opportunity elsewhere, leaving the organization more and more homogenous. The long-term effects are not good for having and growing a diverse leadership bench.
The reader may find exceptions to almost anything I’ve written in this book, but the outlier story here or there does not disprove what I’ve said. The collection of data becomes the compelling evidence of the truth, and the data suggest that overwhelmingly, diverse candidates find it more difficult to make their way up the organizational ladder. While diversity may exist at entry-levels in many companies, it diminishes with each level toward the top leadership ranks in most companies. Companies for which this is a problem may proudly exclaim that they support diversity and inclusion but their actions suggest otherwise. Diversity isn’t so much about “equal opportunity”, where diverse candidates may apply or even interview for jobs. It’s about ensuring that everyone who desires advancement gets an equal opportunity to be developed into the kind of leader that will excel in the organization – or even outside the organization. This process of equal development is the type of mentoring that is intentional and programmed, where relationships and commitments help personal stories and careers change trajectories.