The way we speak is often the first cue we give others that they can count on us to provide meaningful information, that we are credible and trustworthy. However, one of the trickiest things about public speaking instead of writing- whether in front of a big audience or a small group- is that it’s happening in real time. We don’t get the extra few minutes to review and polish like we do when writing an email. Public speaking is hard. Sometimes our minds race much faster than our ability to form words which causes us to look nervous or pepper our presentation with fillers. And while some can improv, many of us need to practice or even memorize lines before we can talk comfortably in front of a crowd. For anyone with an eye toward leadership, public speaking is a crucial skill. Doing it well assures listeners that we will be dependable when leading, supporting or managing whatever task is at hand and gives us an opportunity to draw them into our causes and interests. In this month’s newsletter, we’d like to provide some strategies to help you do it better. Eliminate filler words Filler words often creep into our vernacular without us noticing. It’s okay to let that happen sometimes, but if you find yourself saying “like…”, “um…”, or “you know what I mean…” a lot, be aware that you might be deflating the power of your message. Fillers often operate like a brain break, a second to catch up, a mental breath. Our brains do need breaks, but it’s better to stay silent than fill the space with nothing words. A recent article in Mental Floss explained that great speakers often take pauses- sometimes even as long as two or three seconds. Taking a break when speaking might seem long to you but, to others, it comes across as being thoughtful and organized. Here are some strategies for cutting filler words: Take a moment before speaking to mentally focus. You can use mindfulness tricks or visualization strategies. Inhale deeply and imagine each breath scrubbing your brain of excess worry and unrelated topics. Create pauses when you speak. Remember that a good public speaker pauses when they need a quick second to plan their next sentence or even transition ideas. In fact, well-placed pauses can add suspense and excitement to your delivery. Break the habit with practice. Tape yourself or enlist a mentor or colleague to target the filler words you are most prone to overusing and then attack them. For example, if you tend to say, “she was like” practice replacing like with said. Then make a list of substitution words such as “explained”, “complained”, “expressed”, “enthused” …Your goal is two-part: ditch the “likes” and replace them with more interesting language. Practice, practice, practice. Non-verbal speaking cues Not to pile on, but what you do with your hands and the rest of your body matters too. Get yourself into the habit of making eye contact by starting with your family, roommate, or even yourself in a mirror. It can be awkward to look people in the eye but looking at your notes or focusing on the back door dilutes your credibility. So maybe the next time you ask your neighbor if the recycling truck is coming this week, notice the color of their eyes when they answer. It sounds incredibly awkward but taking that step will force you to linger just long enough to show your interest in sincerity in their answer. Mind your posture too because standing up straight exudes energy, confidence and poise. Here’s a checklist to make sure you are standing up straight: Brace your core Hold your elbows out to the side, lace your fingers in front of you Feet pointed straight ahead Keep your shoulders down, away from your ears Hold chin high Fold practice in your daily routine When you have something coming up that involves speaking in front of others, fold practice into your daily routine. Maybe you are being interviewed by a late-night talk show host on your commute or serving as an expert witness in a courtroom while fixing dinner. When it’s just you, talking to yourself doing the things you normally do, you tend to be more experimental. Try out an anecdote or explaining a complex idea. Ask a hard question or predict which ones might be thrown your way. Formulate an outline and fill it in with details in these moments where the stakes are low. If you find something that works, write it all down so that the next time you practice…you will have a script. Ask a mentor: Your mentor has likely had many opportunities to speak in front of a group, ask them for tips and strategies to do it better: What do you think the most confident speakers do in front of a crowd? How do you prepare for a presentation, big or small? Have you ever signed up for Toastmasters or any other public speaking training? Are you willing to observe me giving a presentation and then give me feedback?
Mentoring can be a career- and life-changing experience...or it can feel like a bit of a let-down. So, what makes the difference? We asked mentees who have participated in formal mentoring programs to share their advice for how to make the most of mentoring and ensure that, not only is it time well spent, but that the investment pays off for years to come. Below are some of the tips they shared along with some ideas for how to apply them. You get out of it what you put into it. Perhaps it should go without saying, but you have to invest the effort if you want to see results. Most people who sign up for mentoring are hoping to improve or advance in some way, so it makes sense to bring your best self to the experience. Come to the mentoring program committed and willing to work and dedicate time, energy, and focus to mentoring. From there, it’s a matter of being involved. Aside from the opportunity to connect with a formal mentor (and perhaps a situational mentor, too), the mentoring program offers trainings, events, tools, and resources—take advantage of as many as you can. Attend the group events and engage fully with others in the cohort. Navigate The Mentoring Connection to mine the on-line resources of newsletters, discussion guides, and other valuable resources. Act on recommendations from your mentor and follow up through on the goals you set for yourself. Take the lead. One of the biggest mistakes a mentee can make is to sit back and wait to be mentored. The mentoring program is designed to be mentee-driven, so take those reins! Schedule meetings, reach out often, identify discussion topics for mentoring meetings and come prepared with questions or specific challenges to discuss. Be clear about what you’re hoping to gain from the program and how you hope your mentor can help. Moreover, if you want your mentor to do something differently, tell them! Mentees sometimes wait until they are taking a survey at the mid-point or the end of the program to talk about the things they would have liked to do differently in their mentoring partnership. Be proactive and assertive in communicating your mentoring needs. Make connections. Among the greatest strengths of a mentoring program is its ability to connect employees from across an organization who probably would not normally cross paths or interact. Mentoring programs are full of opportunities to expand your professional network, from building rapport with your mentor and seeking out situational mentors to participating in breakout groups at formal trainings, volunteering for groups or activities as part of your mentoring work or attending program mixers or lunch-and-learn sessions. Make time to engage in these opportunities, and don’t be afraid to suggest and/or volunteer to organize an event. Mentoring programs offer a great way to meet people from other parts of your agency and connect right away over the shared focus of mentoring. Be open, be honest. Mentoring work requires openness and honesty from both parties. Having an open mind, being open to feedback, and openly sharing your goals, challenges, questions, and concerns is key to receiving honest and helpful feedback and advice from your mentor. Don’t be afraid to open up to your mentor—the better they get to know you, the more they learn about you, the more they can help. Equally as important to being open and honest with your partner, however, is being open and honest with yourself. We all have strengths and weaknesses. Professional growth happens when we learn how to capitalize on our strengths and take steps to grow in those areas of opportunity. Be willing to look within—or perhaps even ask for feedback from others—to identify where you are strong and where you have room to grow. Talk to your supervisor. Supervisors can make a huge difference in your mentoring experience—but only if they know what you’re doing. Achieving career goals or working through professional challenges generally requires building and honing specific technical or interpersonal skills. Mentees can talk with their supervisors about the skills they’re building even if they don’t feel comfortable sharing their overarching goals or challenges. Sharing some aspect of your program work is important because it enables supervisors to recognize opportunities that may help you apply those skills on the job, share ideas and insights, and observe your gains and successes. Apply what you’re learning. Applying what you’ve learned and practicing new technical and interpersonal skills on the job is beneficial for several reasons. For one, it helps cement new skills and allows the mentee to tailor what they’ve learned to be relevant and useful in their current role. However, it also demonstrates a willingness to learn and a commitment to professional growth and development, showing supervisors that the mentee has the initiative, drive, and discipline to lead themselves and others. Ask a Mentor Here are some questions mentoring pairs can discuss to ensure a well-rounded mentoring experience. Where do you think I could invest more effort to achieve greater gains and success? How could I be more proactive to take the lead in our partnership? What opportunities are available to make new connections and expand my network? What are some ways I could loop my supervisor into the process to give them visibility and seek their feedback? How can I apply what I’m working on in the program to my current role?
Recently a friend was telling me about how disappointed he had become in his work. Over the last few years, he had watched his department dwindle due to several reorganizations, layoffs, and resignations. On top of it, there was a sense of isolation after working remotely through the pandemic. He had interviewed for other jobs, but each presented its own obstacles like taking on a long commute or even requiring relocation. My friend was feeling stuck. Any of us can find ourselves in situations where we need to re-energize our careers. The pandemic years locked us in and gave us new flexibility in how we do our jobs. It changed the way people approached their jobs. It made some people even leave their jobs. After three years of these ups and downs, it’s not surprising that so many of us are sitting back and rethinking how to bring joy and meaning in our work. If what you are craving is a deeper connection to your work and firmer boundaries between your job and the rest of your life, consider the following: Energize your career goals. Enrolling in a mentoring program is one of the best ways to do that. Also, connecting with your supervisor about goals- which can, but don’t need to involve actively pursuing a promotion. You might be looking for opportunities to leverage a certain strength or improve daily tasks such as email communication and agenda planning. Goals give you momentum whether you’re hoping to get an advanced degree or a promotion. Having established goals also gives you the opportunity to check in with yourself periodically to know if things are on track or you need to make a change. Retool your work routine. Whether you’re still working from home, back in the office, or trying out a hybrid schedule, adding or taking away a small element to your work routine can be energizing. Some ideas: Create a new morning routine (walk, stretch exercises, inspirational reading). Do a quick inversion pose. If you take yoga, you already know about headstands and downward-facing dog. But have you tried the “legs-up-against the wall” move? This restorative pose allows your body to circulate in a different direction. Switch up the order that you complete administrative tasks. Schedule “focus” time into your day. Personalize your workspace (bring in live plants, artwork, family photos, etc.) Mediate for 5 minutes before lunch. Put a quote a day calendar on your desk for inspiration. Eat a healthy breakfast. Drink one full glass of water before your cup of coffee. Find a podcast that interests you. Isolate your motivators. If you are excited about what you are doing and why you are doing it, your enthusiasm will be the key to your competitive edge. What makes you feel most engaged during your workday? What do you find enjoyable about your organization? When do you feel most proud of your work? What opportunities or working groups exist in your organization that lean into these areas? Can you set up a reward system for yourself? Plan your boundaries with intention. Know your boundaries because otherwise, during busy times, everything that comes your way will feel like too much. If you find yourself feeling grouchy or anxious whenever someone approaches you with a question, you might have allowed people to breach your boundaries too many times. Don’t hesitate to say when you feel overextended and have some templated excuses for when you just can’t take on anything extra. Consider developing a new skill. Is there something you’ve been wanting to tackle that would be a helpful contribution to your team? You might consider learning a new spreadsheet platform or scheduling app. Even shadowing another team managers’ staff meetings would be good training for leading meetings in your own department. Seek a situational mentor or even peruse online certification programs. Ask a mentor: Your mentor has probably had times when they struggled with engagement at their job. Ask them about how they navigated it: What have you done to energize your commitment to work when feeling sluggish? How often or do you ever re-evaluate your career goals? What are your favorite daily work routines? How do you set personal and professional boundaries?
When asked to share what they gained from a mentoring experience, mentees often point to the clarity they gained on their career path and, most importantly, their goals. Establishing the mentee’s goals should be among the first steps in any mentoring partnership, and the importance of this step cannot be overstated. After all, as Emmy award winning designer and Chief Executive Officer Chris Do says, “Clear goals, clear results. Fuzzy goals, fuzzy results.” Mentoring without established goals is like driving without directions. In the best-case scenario, the mentoring partners might enjoy the ride, but they likely won’t arrive at either partner’s intended destination. Worst-case scenario, they’ll wander aimlessly without purpose, growing anxious and frustrated, squandering the opportunity for an impactful experience, and perhaps even feeling that mentoring is burdensome in their already overloaded schedules. Having a clear understanding of what the mentee hopes to get from the mentor and from their mentoring experience is critical to setting off in the right direction and staying on course. Here are some things mentoring pairs can do to clarify the mentee’s goals and lay the foundation for well-managed expectations, targeted mentoring work, and, ultimately, a successful partnership. Define the mentee’s priorities. Early mentoring discussions should include asking the mentee to explain what is most important to them—not just where they see themselves in five years, but why. Some mentees may not have a vision for their future but may easily be able to list the things that matter most to them, such as having flexibility and work-life balance, feeling like they are making an important contribution to their work, or earning a certain salary range. Others, meanwhile, may rattle off a list of goals but may struggle to explain how those align with their priorities. They may think they know what they want only to discover they are responding to the priorities other people have set for them rather than priorities they’ve set for themselves. Regardless of where the mentee is, a mentor can help them dig deeper into what truly drives them by asking them to name their values; write down what they would like to maintain, improve, and change in their work and personal lives; define their strengths and what energizes them; make a “to don’t” list that helps them clarify what they don’t want (which is also important to understand); or apply the Toyota “5 Whys” process to their stated goals or priorities to understand the root driver beneath them. Refine the mentee’s goals to align with their priorities. One of a mentor’s key roles is to help their mentee confirm that they are moving in the right professional direction. Once the mentor understands the values that motivate the mentee, they can help set or refine goals that align with those priorities. For example, a mentee may have come to the partnership with the goal of achieving a position that seemed like an obvious end-goal but discovered through early mentoring conversations about their drivers that the tasks and responsibilities of that job don’t match their values, strengths, or passions. Once the partners confirm that the mentee’s goals align with their priorities, they should also confirm that the goals align with reality—does the mentee really have the time and resources to meet the goal? Are they willing to sacrifice the time and effort required to achieve it? Would that sacrifice be worth it to them? What are the benchmarks for success? Realistic timelines? Outline specific steps to achieving the mentee’s goals. By this point, the mentee should have a clear (or at least clearer) picture of what is important to them and goals that reflect what matters most. Now it’s time to map out the path to success. Mentoring pairs can define actionable steps to achieving each stated goal. Here again, the mentor plays an important role. In the first two steps, the mentor has primarily asked thought-provoking questions designed to help the mentee arrive at their own conclusions. When it comes to career-mapping, however, mentors can offer insights and advice that the mentee may not have considered or known on their own. Mentors can help the mentee break their goals down into smaller “sub-goals,” lay out a checklist and schedule for achieving them and prepare for the pitfalls and challenges they are likely to encounter. Identify mentoring activities geared toward the mentee’s goals. Now that the mentee and the mentor both have a clear picture of the mentee’s priorities, short- and long-term goals, and their plan to achieve them, it will be much easier to identify how the mentor can help. With the end in mind, the partnership can focus on a mentoring strategy or action plan. For example, establishing strategic connections, taking on stretch assignments or applying for opportunities that will help them start building the experience they’ll need. This is also a great time to identify a situational mentor to set up a shadowing experience or work on a specific skill or project.
Having the ability to think critically about an issue is one of the most powerful demonstrations of your leadership capacity. Critical thinking or, the ability to analyze and evaluate information to make a decision, isn’t the easiest skill to develop. It isn’t an automatic byproduct of your knowledge or learning. On the contrary, it is something that requires self-discipline and practice. People often put it like this: critical thinking is turning knowledge into wisdom. It is unlikely that you could hear about a new problem and immediately have a clear vision for how to solve it. Using your previous experience and personal intuition should only represent a part of your decision-making process. In fact, the best leaders deeply absorb new information before integrating it with what they already know. Forbes devised seven critical thinking tactics that high-performing leaders use to make informed decisions. Much of their advice centered on listening, asking questions, and reflecting. The origins of critical thinking The Foundation for Critical Thinking traces the skill all the way back to Greek philosopher Socrates. Remember, Socrates challenged passionate rhetoric by asking a series of targeted questions and urging those in authority to provide evidence for their claims. He would then, through more questioning, analyze the evidence to determine its logic. Essentially, the Socratic Method, is asking and answering questions to draw out any inconsistencies or irrational thought. The method is, at its core, critical thinking. Critical thinking has become a point of emphasis in education in recent years. In the previous century, students might have taken Latin because it was assumed that being able to unpack difficult vocabulary would help them perform better on exams. But over time, academic researchers have realized that being able to read a question, understand what it is asking, planning steps to answer it, and communicating the answer well is of greater value to students. In other words, a very smart student who has studied extensively for a test might still make errors if they aren’t able to think through each problem on the test and understand what is being asked of them. The knowledge itself isn’t enough. As early as the late 1980s, the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking started considering the value of elevating knowledge into something more profound, a deeper understanding of concepts and ability to make sound judgement based on that understanding. They said critical thinkers share two qualities: 1. A set of information and processing skills, 2. A habit of using those skills to guide behavior. Processing and resulting behavior won’t be the same with each problem. As Daniel Willingham of the University of Virginia who has written extensively on the subject recently pointed out, “Critical Thinking is needed when you’re playing chess, designing a product, or planning strategy for a field hockey match, but there are no routine, reusable solutions for these problems.” Improving self-awareness One of the most dangerous trappings of hasty decision making is letting your own assumptions and biases guide you. To be an effective critical thinker, you need to understand the way you handle things and how your own belief system is structured to include your preferences, ethics, and solutions you lean into because you’re good at the skills required to pursue them. Understand your priorities and consider jotting them down to keep focus but be willing to adjust them if necessary. Seek opportunities for feedback, whether it’s from your supervisor, mentoring partner, or colleagues. Ask them how you’re doing on a specific project or whether you’re tackling a new skill appropriately. Be positive and open to critical feedback which is, honestly, sometimes most helpful. Don’t lose sight of your strengths because it’s easier to hear about your weaknesses when you feel rooted in what you know you’re consistently doing well. Developing a keen self-awareness is helpful when synthesizing new information on a problem and developing a fair and balanced solution. Be a good active listener A strong critical thinker cannot make a decision without having proper background knowledge. Once you’ve heard everything, it’s okay to begin synthesizing that information by adding in your experience and the things you already know. Listen well and don’t interrupt when your co-workers are talking. Take stock in the challenges they are facing on their end and do not jump to conclusions or drift off thinking about what you’re going to say next. Don’t forget the non-verbal listening cues: put your phone away, mute notification, make eye contact, nod. Only ask questions when they are done speaking. Avoid “why” questions because when you’re gathering information, it’s too soon to jump to they “whys.” Stick with the “whats” and “hows.” Your questions should only serve to check your understanding. You might ask them to clarify a specific point or to build upon something they already said. Also paraphrase what they’ve said to boil down their meaning and confirm you have a strong understanding of the situation. Be the one to point out different perspectives Once you have a firm handle on the information, you can start pulling in different perspectives. Getting outside of your bubble will help you develop richer insights. You might leverage your existing professional networks or mentoring experience to get to know people in different groups. If there’s time, it helps to find several sources that present a different view. Are there alternative systems of thought on this? If so, think of examples and weigh their value. Look for assumptions and biases that can result from groupthink and point them out explicitly. Here are some tips for building perspective: Seek counsel from those with diverse backgrounds. Form relationships with people who challenge you. Ask for opinions in a way that lets others know it’s okay to disagree with you. Try to learn something from each person you meet in your networking encounters. When making a plan, consider the outcomes To round out your critical thought, brainstorm to think of the potential outcomes of any decision you make. Think through what can happen in several different circumstances and be able to articulate that to your colleagues. Consider what might change and how you will pivot your plan if necessary. You need to have foresight and be able to make predictions. It is most important that you communicate your predictions clearly and with confidence. But generally, when it comes to predicting outcomes, here are some units of measure you should consider: What is the main goal, after doing these things, what will the distance be between the outcome and that original goal? Who will be affected? At what point in the process will they feel the affects of this decision? How will you track progress? What are some performance measures? (ex: budget money saved, customer satisfaction.) What will be your plan for reviewing the outcomes and articulating them to the rest of the group? Ask a mentor: Mentors have often developed their own critical thinking skills over time. Ask for their advice on establishing your own: - What are the metrics you use to predict outcomes on a project? - How do you check your own biases and assumptions? - What do you do to encourage critical thinking in problem solving for your team? - What are some of the best ways someone can demonstrate self-awareness? - When you need wider perspective on an issue, how do you find it?
Most of us can look back on our careers and think of at least one person who took the time and energy to provide mentorship, guidance, and a listening ear. And when we think back on those mentors, we likely don’t reflect on the projects they led or the awards they won, but rather the difference they made in our lives, both as professionals and as people. Mentoring is usually a powerful and lasting experience for both the mentoree and the mentor, but mentoring is bigger than two people and the finite period of time they work together. It has the potential to become a legacy—a legacy of people investing in people and paying forward the investment that others have made in them. Each of us is part of a larger team, group, and community, and we all—mentorees and mentors alike—have the opportunity to take what we learn from each other and amplify it. When we remember the times, we have been helped, it can motivate us to help find ways to help others and enhance their lives in ways big and small, creating a powerful butterfly effect in which helping one person indirectly helps dozens, maybe even hundreds, of others. So, what does paying it forward look like, and how can anyone from a fresh out of college new hire to the seasoned veteran nearing retirement carry on the mentoring legacy? Here are some ideas. Seek and apply advice—and tell the advisor how it went. People love to give advice, and it’s even better when someone asks for it. This may seem like a small thing, but in day-to-day life, many of us are less likely to seek others’ advice compared to when we are in a mentoring environment. Looking for opportunities to ask others for feedback or guidance will not only benefit you but will signal to them that you recognize their knowledge and experience and value their opinion. Even better, try their advice and follow up to let them know how it went. Not only will you make them feel appreciated, you might inspire them to do the same. Thank your mentor. Mentors are hard-working heroes. On top of their day jobs, personal commitments, and challenges of their own, they make time to mentor and develop employees who often do not even work for them or directly impact their day-to-day work. They are motivated solely by the desire to help someone else by sharing what they’ve learned. Say thank you often and show your appreciation by communicating the difference your mentor has made in your life. This simple act will show them the powerful impact they have and inspire them to continue mentoring and influencing others. Share what you’ve learned. One of the great things about mentoring is that it is a tailored, individual experience, which means that everyone is going to learn something different. Don’t keep that knowledge to yourself! Look for opportunities to pay it forward by sharing what you’ve learned in your mentoring work, whether it’s passing on your mentor’s helpful tips to a friend or colleague facing similar challenges, giving your team a class on a program you gained proficiency in, or maybe just openly practicing your new skills in your day-to-day job to help make your team more successful. Chances are, if something you learned from your mentor helped you, it will probably help someone else, too. Be generous with your gains and look for ways to share them with others. Mentor someone else. For mentorees in a formal mentoring relationship, this is an obvious next step and one they feel confident taking. For others, it may seem far-fetched. But the truth is, even if you are brand new to the workforce or your agency, even if you’ve never been a supervisor, even if you are not yet an expert in your field, there is a mentor in all of us. Seasoned employees can help guide the next generation of leaders; meanwhile, junior employees who are still getting their footing in their careers, can find plenty of opportunities to mentor someone else through community programs and other opportunities outside of work. We all have something to offer and something to teach.
When it comes to finding fulfillment in our work, we might need to actively seek it. It isn’t always practical to turn our most naturally revered passions into a source of income. That’s not to disparage the magical mix of dreams, grit, and perseverance that pushes us to reach for the stars and conquer our goals. It’s just that, often, where we are is exactly where we need to be. When a promotion or heading in a new direction isn’t the right course at the moment, how can we find inspiration in the very thing we’re already doing? When we turn on the office lights and switch on our computers, how do we access passion instead of just grind? Notice what tunes you into your work Take an inventory of your current strengths and interests. When is your attention most rapt or when does time fly fastest for you? Maybe you enjoy planning meeting agendas and project timelines or collaborating with other teammates to fix problems and strategize workarounds. Isolate that thing because it’s likely what gives you the deepest sense of purpose. Think about how that thing enhances to your colleagues’ work, division’s responsibilities, and organization’s mission. Consider why that component of your work is valuable to others and brings you contentment. Does it lean into your natural abilities or contribute to the organizational goals of which you are the proudest? Does it relate to your original career vision? Look for opportunities to elevate the things you do well Let your supervisor (or other influencers) know that you feel an affinity for this specific part of your job. Express gratitude and let them know of your interest for more opportunities get involved in this capacity. Think of it like a position on a baseball team. If you love centerfield, but the coach is always rotating positions, let them know you feel a fire for center. Enthusiasm is crucial as talent. Read trade publications and pass them on to your manager. Ask to sit in on related meetings or even lend a hand on another project so that colleagues associate you with competence and expertise in this space. Find a mentor There are likely other parts of your job that don’t come as easily to you as that thing. Keep working to your fullest potential in areas where you feel most confident and look for help where you don’t. Mentors are everywhere. Once, a friend told me that a full email inbox was her pet peeve. “I just can’t stand when I have to scroll to see all my messages,” she said. For me, it was the opposite. I was having an awful time keeping up with email and knew that my clogged inbox was distracting me from my other work. “Are you kidding?!” I gasped. “I’d love to have a tidy inbox! Can you tell me how you do it?” She showed me a system of responding to and archiving messages that I still use today. Keep a healthy perspective An important ingredient to success is balancing the things we have to do with the things we like doing best. There will always be expectations, demands, and even dull routines that no one can get out from underneath. Don’t put yourself down or let hyper awareness of your weaknesses keep you from amplifying your strengths, but it’s okay to let people know when you’re in uncomfortable terrain if you do it graciously: “You always catch all the details! I would have missed that on my own. I’m so glad we’re working on this together.” But also make sure to let others know when you’re in your sweet spot: “I can’t wait to start working on this. This is my favorite stage of a project.”
When people seek to relate or connect with one another, they often strive to find common ground—something they share that provides a sense of recognition and affirmation. They seek the familiar, the comfortable. But focusing on similarities alone can have a downside, especially in mentoring relationships where the focus isn’t on the familiar and comfortable but on stretching and growth. That is one reason that The Training Connection matching process—which is consistently named by program participants as a key program strength—seeks to connect partners who, while they share some commonalities, also have significant differences. Whether it is a differing DISC style or career field, or perhaps differences in demographic, educational level, or values, the mentoring process benefits from connecting partners who are not mirror images of each other. Regardless of how similar or different mentoring pairs are, each partner brings to the program and their mentoring relationships different life experiences that shape the way they see the world, the other people in it, and themselves. Making the most of those differences comes down to a few key principles that can help mentors and mentorees bridge their gaps and leverage their differences to develop even more effective, productive mentoring relationships. Recognize your own assumptions. Every single one of us has been shaped by our life experiences—gender, culture background, generation, education, geography, and any number of other influences. And every single one of us has developed assumptions along the way. Assumptions are thoughts that we believe are true without any supporting evidence. In fact, because they present themselves as self-evident truths, you may not even realize that you are making assumptions! Though assumptions are common and often harmless, recognizing and overcoming them is an important step in being able to engage fully and effectively with someone who has distinctly different experiences and, therefore, assumptions. Think critically about your viewpoints—does this belief make sense? Do you have any proof that it is true? Are there other, different ways to look at the situation? How might your past experiences shape the way you see things? While you may not always be able to do away with your assumptions, simply recognizing that you—and everyone around you—have them can help make you more receptive to others’ points of view. Ask questions. Empathy is not always human nature, but curiosity is! And while it may or may not come naturally, considering what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes is a skill we can develop simply by tapping into our human inquisitiveness. Be curious about what your mentoring partner brings with them into the relationship—ask questions about their background, personal and professional experiences, and perspectives. No two people see life through the same lens, and no one person has the “correct” perspective. Mentoring recognizes that each person will have a fundamentally different viewpoint and experience and leverages those unique vantages to help expand horizons and introduce new ways of thinking—or at least an awareness of such. Taking the time to ask your partner questions can help you understand what informs their worldview and how they perceive their day-to-day life. Address and appreciate your differences. One perk of the formal mentoring program is that it encourages participants to not only reflect on their perspectives but also to share them. Mentoring activities provide a unique opportunity and setting in which to discuss sensitive and difficult topics that are part of everyday life but are rarely discussed. Take advantage of the safe, candid environment to openly acknowledge and discuss differences with your partner and examine how they might help you learn from each other. Mentoring partnerships should actively seek to identify how differences influence perspective, motivations, worldview, and learn how to recognize those differences in terms of diversity and inclusion rather than separation and division. Learning to connect with someone different from ourselves helps us develop a higher tolerance for unfamiliar perspectives that we don’t understand or agree with. It helps us learn to consider without judgment, and to connect without needing confirmation. This kind of growth can only take place in a trusting relationship were each partner feels free to be their authentic self and speak openly.
One of the most important outputs of your capacity for critical thinking and planning is your written communication such as team emails, project reports and various project updates. This month, we’ve organized a study of the nuances of effective communication through writing. Write with strength and without defensiveness Directness without defensiveness is a powerful way to convey intelligence and authenticity. Recently, my children missed a couple days of school for a weekend family trip. My son fell behind in two assignments and, as a result, his math grade sunk. One morning at breakfast he hastily composed a desperate email, begging the teacher for a second chance. Looking over his shoulder, I read: Dear Mrs. Murray, I looked on the gradebook and I think that I might have two incomplete assignments because I went on a trip last weekend with my family. I stopped him. “Too wordy! It’s too much work to understand what you need.” So, he rewrote: I have two incomplete assignments because I went on a family trip last weekend. Better, as far as wordiness. But something about his tone was off-putting, almost as if he was saying, my teacher created this problem, because of an obligation that couldn’t be helped. He polished the message further. I need to complete two missing assignments. I’m sorry I was away with my family on a trip. Can I finish them in class or bring them to you on Wednesday? His final message was effective for three reasons: He got to the point. 2. He took responsibility. 3. He offered solutions. Mrs. Murry wrote back immediately, gave him time to wrap up the work, and restored his A. Be interesting, vary your sentences Another path to effective writing is to adding variety to sentence structure. You might, for example, adjust the length of each sentence, alternating between simple and involved phrasing. Which of the following examples is the most engaging, example A or B? Example A: Our team meeting is today. The project is starting soon. We need to provide the budget. Our manager wants to see it. The project starts next month. Example B: Our team is meeting today about our upcoming project. Our manager would like to see the budget beforehand so I’m hoping you can help us gather the numbers for her. She would appreciate it. The first example drones on like a slow, monotone drum beat without much warmth or intrigue. The second is far more vivid, connecting multiple ideas in a single sentence and drawing conclusions. Here are a few more tricks for adding variety to your writing: Alternate your sentence starters, mixing things up between pronouns (She, They, We…) and adverbs (Surprisingly, Usually, Sometimes….). Choose one sentence- because it’s important not to overuse this technique- to include hyphens and an interrupting statement (see the example in this very sentence?) Consider transitional phrasing to connect what might have been two separate sentences (We plan to meet today, even though we haven’t finished the project yet.) Provide concrete examples Providing examples lends credibility to your writing and demonstrates your competence in observation and critical thinking. It is especially important to give your reader adequate context when presenting a problem. Consider the difference between the following narratives: Example A: The project is meeting expectations on several different metrics. Let’s plan a team huddle to talk about the next steps. Example B: The project is meeting expectations on the following metrics: 1. We are still on target to meet our completion goal. 2. The budget is on target. 3. We have planned and received approval for the next phase. Are you available next Wednesday at 10 for a team huddle? The first example not only lacks any insight to the project status, but the receiver would also have no idea what to expect or how to plan for the “team huddle.” Conversely, a manager reading the second example would feel looped into the project parameters and could easily roll this information up to their own supervisors or team leads. Organize the words to be visually appealing It is difficult for most readers to follow several paragraphs of densely packed text with no visual break. Use bullets, boldface, italics, and tabs to emphasize important points and list like pieces of information. You can see that, even in this newsletter, simple spacing and formatting adjustments make it easier for you to digest the main ideas. Give it a minute You might feel like you don’t have the time, but the truth is you can almost always wait a few minutes before sending your email. Ten minutes is a great rule but honestly, you can catch a lot of errors and omissions if you take another glance after three minutes.
As with any relationship, from time to time, mentoring partnerships can snag, stagnate, or outright stall. Changes in schedule, workload, or circumstances can make it difficult to connect. Or partners may find that they underestimated what would be required as a mentor or a mentee and feel overwhelmed. Other times, pairs find that their personalities or communication styles just don’t seem to mesh. Whatever the reason, most partnerships can course-correct if both parties are willing to work together. Below are some simple steps that can help a struggling partnership get back on track. Look in the mirror. Before you give up on your partner or call them out for what you think they could do better, pause to reflect on how you have shown up in the relationship. Are you proactive and engaged? Are you open and candid, and do you clearly communicate your needs and expectations? Just as important, are those expectations realistic? Unrealistic expectations on either side of a partnership can be detrimental. For mentors, unrealistic expectations can lead to overloading the mentee with suggestions and information, pushing them to take on more than they can realistically manage, or pressuring them to make decisions the mentor thinks are best. Likewise, a mentee who expects the mentor to steer the mentoring experience or provide more support than is reasonable can also hinder the relationship. And perhaps the most unrealistic expectation of all for either partner is assuming that the other half of their mentoring pair would (or should) sense they are unhappy and understand why. Acknowledge the issues openly. For most pairs, the mentoring experience can easily and effectively be “fixed” simply by addressing the issue. If there is something your partner is or isn’t doing that is frustrating you, the most important thing you can do is talk to them about it. They may have no idea that something is amiss, or if they do, they may not be able to pinpoint the problem. Either way, if you don’t clearly communicate what you would like to change, your partner will not have the opportunity to correct it and you will likely continue to feel frustrated or, worse, resentful. While the thought of having such a conversation with your partner might seem intimidating, take a step back and look at it as a chance to practice engaging in a difficult conversation. If nothing else, carefully plan out what you would like to say, including specific examples of what you would like to change and ideas for a way forward. Schedule a time to speak (not e-mail) with your partner when you will have adequate time, energy, and attention to fully discuss the matter. Go back to the Mentoring Agreement. A great place to start in recalibrating the way you and your partner work together is the Mentoring Agreement, which documents the goals and expectations that you set at the beginning of your partnership. Identify areas you can adjust or revise if the initial plan is not meeting your needs. Revisit the mentee’s stated goals, needs, and aspirations. Identify what progress has been made, and list out clear, actionable steps that each party can take to push further toward those goals. For example, if the mentee hoped to increase their network, the mentor might share a list of potential situational mentors the mentee could reach out to, invite the mentee to attend a business meeting, or share details for networking events in the area that the mentee might find useful. Meanwhile, the mentee could ask the mentor to help them plan and/or practice what they would say in an interview meeting, facilitate an introduction with a potential situational mentor, or read and discuss a book on networking as part of their mentoring activities. Outlining steps that each partner can take and ensuring that these steps are specific, clear, and achievable could plot the roadmap for partnership success. Revisit the DISC assessment. While you are revisiting documents, set aside time to refresh on the DISC assessment results you each received at the beginning of the program. Even if you get along great, brushing up on each other’s DISC styles can be a helpful reminder of how your partner functions at their best and in times of stress and how best and most effectively to communicate with them. Check in and reevaluate. Once you’ve had that initial difficult conversation to identify the issues you would like to address, be intentional about checking in with your partner to gauge whether the adjustments you’ve made have been effective for both parties and make additional tweaks as necessary. Reach out to the Mentoring Program Coordinator. Sometimes, partners may need some outside assistance to get back on track, and in rare instances, it may be clear to both parties that their partnership will not work out for reasons such as a lack of commitment from one of the partners, serious personality conflicts, or a breach of trust or confidentiality. In such instances, one or both partners should reach out to the Mentoring Program Coordinator to either seek their assistance in helping the pair reconnect or, if there is no hope that the match can work, determine the best course of action for both partners.