Mentoring: Building the Stars
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(I wrote this article a while back for the SPC, hope you like it)
As a project manager in a software company one of the biggest challenges is to find and keep good people. In the high-tech industry, there is more than enough work to go around for good people and we scramble to find enough people. We (the industry) have plenty of projects with paying customers, and they always want things done yesterday. The challenge is to ramp up a project team with enough talented people to get the job done. The next challenge is to keep your good people from leaving your company for another one.
Resources vs. stars
In a typical company, people are called resources. You staff a project with these resources, assign them tasks, and track their progress via a series of status reports and status meetings. If you are lucky you find resources who have appropriate skill sets that match your project needs. If not, you send them on training courses, or expect them to pick it up on the job.
That sounds pretty impersonal.
A large company I know talked about putting "stars" on their projects. A star is a kind of person who will make magic happen and brings the project through to a successful completion. Without a star, a project was doomed. With mentoring, you are in the business of developing stars. If you think of great people, there is likely a mentor behind them that helped them rise to greatness. King Arthur had Merlin, Luke Skywalker had Obi Wan Kenobi and later Yoda.
In our industry, there seems to be no end of potential stars. What we need more of are mentors who can develop those people into stars. I believe the role of project manager includes being a mentor.
What is mentoring?
To mentor another person takes time and effort. It is much more personal than just scheduling and tracking to a project plan. It requires "soft skills" that are sometimes undervalued (wrongly!) in a predominantly technical environment.
In their book, Mentoring, authors Huang and Lynch talk about mentoring as a kind of dance like in Tai Chi. Both the mentor and the mentee enter into a unique relationship, where both give and receive wisdom.
Mentoring is more than a weekly status meeting. I would say it involves creating a mutual learning environment. On an ongoing basis, you are seeking to develop the mentee, to help guide the mentee on a journey of learning and adventure.
There is a shift in your focus when you become a mentor to another person. As a mentor, your focus is on the development of the person, as opposed to the successful completion of projects. This can be a difficult shift to make, since it is hard for a project manager to see beyond their schedules and delivery dates. The truth is projects will come and go, but people should be around a lot longer. You have to really care about their personal and professional development. You have to be their supporter and believe in them.
The benefits of mentoring
Studies show that one of the biggest motivators is not money, but recognition and respect. Being a good mentor to a person shows you care and respect them.
Ken Blanchard in his book The One Minute Manager said that people who feel good about themselves perform better. Mentoring when done right, is a major contributor to helping people feel good about themselves. If you want to increase software development productivity, be a mentor to your people.
Another factor is retention of key people. It is always an interesting indicator to see a project with high turnover. It tells me that people are not getting their needs met on that project or in that company. As a mentor, it is important to find out the needs of your mentee and help them to achieve those needs. As I said, it is often recognition and respect.
If you create a mentoring culture, you will actually create a place where people will want to work. Good people will hear about it and will be applying to join your project/company.
So bottom line, mentoring helps to find and keep good people, to develop stars, and to increase productivity.
Starting to mentor
If you want to get started in mentoring, here is a simple plan:
some of the books on mentoring to develop an understanding.
- Assign a mentor to each person in the company, including yourself.
- Mentor and mentee should meet for up to an hour at least once a month or as needed.
- Start by going over the mentee's goals, help develop a plan of action.
- Leave it up to the mentee to work on the goals, but hold them accountable. Expect them to make progress since the last session.
- Don't expect to have all the answers, be prepared to learn something yourself.
- Mentoring - The Tao of Giving and Receiving Wisdom by Huang and Lynch, Harper Collins, 1995
- The Gifted Boss - How to Find, Create and Keep Great Employees by Dale Dauten, William Morrow & Co., 1999
- Coaching - Evoking Excellence in Others by James Flaherty, Butterworth-Heinemann, 1998
- Managers as Mentors - Building Partnerships for Learning, by Chip R. Bell, Berrett-Hoehler Publishers, 1998
- The Master Motivator - Secrets of Inspiring Leadership by Mark Victor Hansen and Joe Batten, Health Communications Inc., 1995