Whew! We’ve made it! To the midpoint of the year, I mean. This is a good time to check in on yourself to see how you’re doing with the goals in your performance plan and any personal improvements you set when making resolutions six months ago. In this newsletter, we want to give you some strategies for a mid-year professional check-in including evaluating where you’ve been, letting the right people know of your achievements, and setting yourself up for a successful second half of the year. Conduct your own mid-year performance check-in Set aside time to brainstorm the milestones you’ve met this year. Consider writing a formatted list to help you visualize where you’ve achieved the most milestones and what areas need more focus for the remainder of the year. Here is a sample: Connect your achievements to your goals Look at the formal goals you set for this year in your annual performance plan. What were the measurable components of the plan you set? How do the achievements you’ve made this year line up with those objectives? Follow these steps: Review your goals: Assess which has been achieved, what is still in progress, and which might require adjustment. Consider how they align with your current job priorities. Specifically address progress: If you haven’t already, break your goals down into smaller bites so that you can attach achievements to them. See if you can correlate a milestone to each goal in your plan. Identify obstacles: Is there anything getting in your way? Consider time restraints, lack of resources, and know that recognizing them will help you determine what other support might be needed and ask for it. Now that you have a full picture, tell your supervisor about your progress If your organization does not have a formalized process for a mid-year performance review put a meeting on your supervisor’s calendar to do it on your own. This is your opportunity to let your manager know how well you’re doing, ask if you’re on the right track, and garner advice for positioning yourself for success in the second half of the year. When speaking to your manager you might: make a list of your specific contributions over the past 6 months. highlight any training or mentoring you’ve had. offer a specific anecdote for how you handled a challenging situation. Ask for feedback Ask for feedback on your current progress and what you could do better moving forward. Let your manager know how motivating their guidance is for you. Are there areas where they’ve seen specific improvement? What about areas that could still use a little work? Essentially, “Do I need to change anything to achieve my goal?” Decide what you want to do next Pick a few wins that you’d like to be able to say you made by the end of 2023: What skills would you like to have by the time of your next review? What new responsibilities do you want to take on? Do you have a sense of where you’d like to be three years from now? Do you need to shift your goals? If so, what needs shifting? Ask a mentor: How do you stay on top of your career goals throughout the year? Do you meet with your manager midway through the year? Do you initiate conversations with key leaders to let them know of your goal progress and recent wins?
Spring is in the air, and with it, a sense of new possibilities. The scene is perfectly set for mentoring partnerships to narrow in on how the mentoree can grow and prepare for future opportunities. Pairs can revisit the mentoree’s long-term professional ambitions and delve into the skills, experiences, networking, and planning that can help them get there. Skills. What technical skills will the mentoree need to develop or hone to be competitive as they advance in their careers? Identifying educational requirements, professional training, or development opportunities the mentoree can build into their plan will set them on the right path and provide a roadmap to the future. Beyond technical skills specific to a certain field, mentorees can also work to build transferable skills that are not specific to a single job but can be adapted in different roles. For example, an employee’s communication skills can be a huge help or a huge hindrance. These skills are used constantly in most workplaces and strongly impact how an employee and their work is perceived. Does the mentoree speak effectively and write well? How do they fare at influencing, negotiating, and persuading others? Are they comfortable listening and providing feedback? How confident are they delivering presentations or providing training to others? Considering the position the mentoree hopes to achieve, identify other skills they will need to be competitive for and successful in that role, such as leadership, project management, or planning and research. Experiences. Experience is an important but tricky thing, especially for those early in their career. As many graduating college students lament, you need a job to gain experience, but often struggle to land a job without experience. While those already in the workforce don’t face quite the same predicament, it can be challenging to compete for advanced positions without the experience those positions would provide. However, mentorees can proactively seek opportunities now to build experience they will need later. To gain technical experience, they could ask to assist with organizational projects or working groups, arrange a recurring shadowing opportunity that would expose them to a certain process or operation, or identify an external volunteer opportunity that would provide relevant experience. For example, if a mentoree needs project management experience and isn’t able to identify an opportunity at work, they could seek out a community volunteer opportunity that would allow them to lead and manage a project, not only gaining that experience but learning dos and don’ts they can carry forward to future professional projects. Networking. Regardless of a mentoree’s professional field or objectives, building a strong network is one of the most important things they can do. Networking is more than collecting business cards from everyone they meet—employees can develop strategic business relationships with people at all levels and positions in the organization. Who could potentially help them gain experience, visibility, or credibility? Developing a targeted list of potential connections and designating time to network with them could be instrumental in laying the path for mentorees to move forward in the future. Many organizations have committees, working groups, or extracurricular opportunities, like Toastmasters. Mentorees should familiarize with opportunities in their agency to get outside their team and interact. And if the opportunity to connect with a key contact isn’t available through those means, reaching out to request situational mentoring is a great way to start a professional relationship! Planning. The bulk of career planning involves the mentoree preparing for their next role. And it begins with understanding realistic career path timelines that will help them to backward-plan and ensure they hit milestones along the way. Looking at the average career advancement in a given field, mentorees can assess how much time they have to gain the skills, experience, and networking connections they will need to help assure their continued progress. From there, it’s a matter of identifying opportunities to achieve the necessary growth in each of those areas and getting to work! It’s never to early to start thinking, planning, and acting ahead. Ask a Mentor Here are some questions mentoring pairs can discuss to ensure a well-rounded mentoring experience. Discuss the roles the mentoree would like to hold in 5 years, 10 years, and the position they ultimately hope to reach. How long, realistically, does it take to achieve those roles? What technical and transferable skills will they need to build along the path to each of those three roles? What are some ways the mentor has honed those skills? What specific experience will they need to acquire to compete for those roles? How has the mentor gained needed experience they weren’t able to get directly in their role? What are some strategic connections the mentoree should develop? How might the mentoree go about networking with those individuals? Does the mentoree have a long-term career plan? Does it incorporate steps to gain the skills, experience, and connections that will help them move forward?
In Poor Richard’s Almanack, Benjamin Franklin coined the saying as “The rotten Apple spoils his Companion.” We’ve come to know it as, “One bad apple can spoil the whole bunch." But what about the good apples? Can a good apple have an equally opposite effect on the produce stand? How much influence can someone with positive energy, attitude and presence have on a team or working environment? If there is a Crabapple in the bunch, can a Honeycrisp apple help everyone overcome the Crabapple vibe? That’s a lot of questions, and the answers can vary with each situation, but in general terms, the answer is, YES! Absolutely! In my 40 plus years in the workforce, I’ve seen the damage that a negative co-worker, or manager, can bring to a team. But I’ve also seen the impact of what sincere, positive energy people bring as well. It seems to be more difficult to bring morale and energy up, than it is to take it down. We all need to be mindful of this. Patience, and persistence is the key. If you find yourself in a situation where a co-worker is creating a negative or hostile environment, the most important thing (and sometimes the most difficult thing) to remember is that responding with equal or greater amounts of the same emotion almost never works. Snapping at someone or chastising someone who is already in a bad place emotionally, will usually just aggravate the situation, and create more negative energy. Picture a pendulum that swings back and forth, negative to positive, grouchy to fun, mean to kind. A forcefully applied response or demand to a bad attitude may fix a hostile or tension filled moment, but it rarely solves the problem, it just swings the pendulum to a more negative place. Understand that there is strength in patience and great power in kindness. In ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’, my favorite habit is #5: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. This book was written to help create success in business, but this is a habit we should saturate our daily lives with, at work, at home, no matter where we are. I like to journal in the morning before I start my day, and the first line in my journal is born from #5: Take a breath. Nothing that happens in my day can make me lose patience. Patience is MY virtue. Seek to understand. Imagine a co-worker, we’ll call her Rebeca Ann Finkleheimer, or just Becky. Becky has days where it seems like she responds to every question with a sarcastic remark, or a sigh of impatience. This is just, “who Becky is. The team has gotten used to it, and obviously, it can be frustrating, but Becky isn’t going anywhere, so they avoid her as much as possible, and make the best of it. This is NOT a great strategy. A good apple might ask Becky to join them for a cup of coffee and simply ask how she’s doing. This might sound overly simple, and maybe it is… but would it hurt to try? Over a cup of coffee, ask about Becky. You might be surprised at what you find out. Becky may have been grouchy for so long that the rest of the staff just ignores her. She feels isolated, she feels like she’s not part of the team, and she may even feel that the “bad apple” is the role she’s supposed to play. It is very easy to fall into a pattern. Maybe a Good Apple can interrupt the pattern. In my career, I have worked with several highly successful salespeople. One of the most successful is an industry icon. He has worked for a handful of organizations, and every place he’s been, he has improved the business across all the measurables, and made positive changes to the culture as well. That’s how one becomes an icon! Icons can be a bit self-centered and can lean towards prima donna behavior (my personal favorite!!). We’ll call my “Icon”, Beauregard, or Beau, for short. Over a short period of time, Beau had become extremely disrespectful to other members of our team. He was short tempered, he hurled insults, and he never started a fresh pot of coffee after he poured himself the last cup. Come on man! This team needed to collaborate daily, and while Beau was not the boss, he was looked up to by the team. Consequently, his behavior had negatively affected the team’s unity, and created a culture of tension and even a little fear. The other team members began to just avoid Beau. Obviously, avoidance doesn’t work in an environment that requires collaboration. Take a breath… seek to understand. Beau was leaving the sales division, and going into operations to finish out his career. I didn’t want his behavior to influence the rest of our team, and more so, I didn’t want that behavior to have a lasting influence on his legacy as a sales professional. I reached out to one of my mentors, explained the situation, and asked for a little coaching on how to address this without putting Beau on the defensive. I was advised to put the reason for Beau’s grumpiness on me: “Beau, we’re looking at a new role for you, as you reach the finish line of an amazing career. You have become one of the most influential leaders in an industry stuffed full of great people (all true). I feel like these last several weeks, you’ve been unhappy, and the rest of the team feels that way too. Have I done something to create some aggravation? Am I doing something that triggers this unhappiness? This opened a floodgate emotional dialog. Beau is terrified by the thought of a role change. Beau doesn’t know who he is, if he isn’t Beauregard Aloycius Von Hammershmidt of the A.C.M.E Flour & Packing Company (these names may, or may not, be fictional). So consequently, Beau had a bit of the blues. Oftentimes, when a real human person has the blues, their personality will turn red. Beau didn’t want his legacy tarnished either (remember, prima donna). When his behavior was brought to light, he could look internally, and understand that he needed to make changes. As his manager, I could keep an eye out for triggers that created the emotional responses from Beau, and began navigating the transition to his new role much better. The Rebecca Ann Finkleheimer, and Beauregard scenarios are general examples, “mosaics” of different people I’ve worked with, but these examples are common. In both cases, the Crabapple was affecting the barrel, the bunch, the team. This is where good leaders and simple acts of kindness and maybe a pinch of seeking to understand, can make all the difference. You don’t have to be a boss to be a leader. Good apples can make a difference! ASK A MENTOR The next time you meet with your mentor, plan to share what you both have experienced in the work environment when a negative employee can bring down the morale of the team. And discuss whys you can prevent or manage them. Consider the following: What strategies do you employ to keep calm in stressful situations with a negative co-worker? What are your best practices for addressing negative behavior that is creating tension and fear in the work environment? What conversations do you have with others to understand their point of view?
January is a clean slate. The starting point for our newly set professional and personal goals. It’s possible, however, to be overzealous in planning our intentions for the new year. When the expectations we place on ourselves for doing new things and seeking fast results become too cumbersome, we often fizzle out. This month, we want to encourage you to take a slower approach to your resolutions. Here are some strategies for building the lasting power to accomplish them. Develop a progress mindset Understand that achieving your goals might take some time. Approaching your professional goals is similar to taking on a new fitness plan. The best results happen when you work new habits into your already existing life routine and keep them going over a long period of time. It would be unrealistic if a person who doesn’t normally work out could suddenly find four extra hours every day to do nothing but exercise. Even if they could sustain such rigor, that kind of regimen might lead to burnout after a while. But if that person instead decided to pick three mornings a week to go to the gym or committed themselves to a 10-minute walk every day after lunch, they might be more likely to stick with it and then start to see real results. Keeping a progress mindset is similar. The results won’t be instantaneous, but intentional, well-planned changes spread out over time will put you on a path to longer-lasting success. *A Progress Mindset Trick* Don’t forget that all movement is progress, even when things don’t seem to be going your way. Even when you make mistakes. You might even develop a calculation to retool things that don’t go your way as symptoms of progress. For example: “That presentation didn’t go very well. Okay! Now I know that this team needs more data for evidence. I’ll be ready next time.” Or “My supervisor seemed frustrated when I didn’t have a status update on that project. Okay! Now I know that status updates are very important to my supervisor and can plan to have them ready weekly.” Break your goals into smaller bits Try organizing each of your goals as an outline. Attaching actionable steps to each goal not only powers them with momentum but it also converts them from a broad, overwhelming idea in your mind to something that you can actively tackle over the course of the year. Consider this example of a goal that has been broken into measured pieces. Goal: Secure a senior project manager position. Update resume Shadow a colleague already in this role Connect with supervisor about openings Ask HR for list of needed competencies You might drill into each step further with additional incremental tasks and even firm dates. Like this: Update resume Add current role- Feb 2 Read resume examples on LinkedIn- Feb 9 Updates/edits/condense oldest job description- Feb 16 Ask a friend to review- Feb 23 While it takes effort to think though each goal in such detail, breaking big ideas into small morsels makes things seem more possible. And, if you attach dates, you will practically be putting them on autopilot. No decision-making fatigue or wondering “what should I do next?” (Which sometimes results in doing nothing at all.) On February 2nd, you know to add a paragraph description of your current role to your resume. Revisit your goals throughout the year Pick a few times throughout the year to evaluate your goals and the progress you’ve made toward them. Maybe even set a quarterly calendar reminder. Take a minute with each individual goal and ask yourself the following questions: Why is it important that I meet this goal? How would meeting this goal make my job more fulfilling? How does this goal bring me closer to achieving my overall career plan? Refreshing your memory of why you are working on certain corners of your career will reinforce your own belief in yourself. And, from a pragmatic perspective, if your priorities have changed because a teammate has left, or you have been assigned to a new project- whatever the circumstances- checking in on your goals periodically will assure their relevancy. Ask a Mentor Talk to your mentors about the strategies they have used to make sure they stick with their goals even after the sheen of the new year has worn off. Some questions you might ask: How do you plan goals with accountability attached to them? Do you set deadlines for your goals? Do you have a system for evaluating progress? Is there anyone you talk to when needing career support or encouragement?
Each of us carries individual qualities and talents that make us uniquely gifted. However, not everyone recognizes these strengths within themselves or knows how to discover, develop, and share them. The season of giving offers a timely opportunity to reflect on what special gifts you have to offer and how and where you can best use them to contribute. Discover your gifts. Discerning what makes you an asset to others around you can be more difficult than it sounds. For many folks, it is easy to see what makes other people stand out, but much harder to pinpoint what sets us apart. This is made even more challenging by our propensity to second-guess ourselves and compare ourselves to others. Many of us fall into the trap of trying to imitate the greatness we see in others rather than tapping into our innate abilities. But every team needs a variety of talents and abilities to be successful. Some, like leadership and vision, are obvious. Others, like writing or interpersonal skills, are less evident but equally important. After all, what good is a vision if you can’t communicate it or persuade others to buy in? Figuring out where you shine and how that can be useful to your team means putting aside modesty and self-doubt and asking yourself a few key questions. What do you know how to do that you excel at with ease? During your daily tasks, pay attention to where you contribute the most to your team or have your best results with the last amount of effort. Also ask yourself what you enjoy doing (or, if you find this difficult to answer, think back to what you most enjoyed doing as a child)? What have others asked for your help with or told you that you are good at? If you’re drawing a blank, ask people who know you in different areas of your life. Ask your friends and family, who know you best and may share some out-of-the-box feedback that wouldn’t have occurred to you. Ask your peers and colleagues, who have the unique perspective of working with you on projects and day-to-day operations. Ask your supervisor, who assesses your performance regularly and can provide candid feedback about where they’ve observed natural aptitude and how you benefit the team. And, of course, ask your mentor, who can offer you objective feedback based on their observations from your interactions, but also from their own experiences of what different gifts have helped make their teams and projects successful. Develop and share your gifts. Discovering your gifts and developing them takes more than thought and feedback—it requires action! Whatever gifts you’ve identified in the discovery phase are only going to make an impact if you use them and use them well. Legendary musicians and athletes are great in part because they were born with something special, but also because they practiced and then practiced some more in order to perfect their craft. They didn’t settle for being naturally talented—they worked diligently and consistently to refine their gift. Look for opportunities to flex and build your unique talents. If your superpower is attention to detail, perhaps you could use that gift by attending all project-related meetings to take notes and take charge of the list of tasks and deliverables for your team. Or perhaps you should be the last set of eyes on any document going forward for approval. If you excel at critical thinking, you could ask to be involved in reviewing proposals or reports. If you’re a gifted communicator, are there opportunities for you to present, facilitate, or pitch? If you don’t see an obvious place to put your gifts to work on your own, tap into your deepest reserves of creativity and courage and make a space! Challenge yourself to seek opportunities by consulting your supervisor to ask outright to handle certain duties or by paying attention to areas in your work unit’s processes that have room to improve and considering what solutions you could offer. Teams thrive when every member is engaged and actively bringing their talents to the table, and we all feel better about ourselves and our work when we feel like an important, valued, and contributing part of our team. We don’t have to compare and compete with our colleagues; we can focus instead on leveraging our unique gifts in a way that benefits the team and contributes to the mission. Ask a Mentor Here are some questions mentoring pairs can discuss to uncover and highlight your natural gifts: What would you say is my special gift, or which of my strengths have you observed that could be useful to my team? What opportunities do you see for me to share and apply those gifts/strengths? How do you think I could further develop my gifts/strengths? In your experience, what are some “behind-the-scenes” gifts that may be less obvious but contribute greatly to a team’s or project’s success? What are your gifts and how do you use them?
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?