Fit for Mentoring

Fred Smith writes from his 50+ years of mentoring exploring expectations in mentoring

By Fred Smith

Fit is foremost, whether in organizational structure or in mentoring relationships. There are several ways to measure this element. One of the key elements is that the mentor should be knowledgeable in the subject and objective in his criticism. The mentor who simply says what the other wants to hear is irresponsible. He should not counsel in matters in which he is not an expert or pass judgment in subjects beyond his limitation. It is important that the mentor on occasion admit, "I don't know. I've had no experience with that." It is good when he has a broad network of knowledgeable friends who might be helpful on occasion. That is one of the strengths of Mayo Clinic. An individual doctor can call on an expansive list of experts when he gets beyond his expertise.

A young, brash president of a growing corporation was being dangerously extravagant. Though I was on the board, he wasn't accepting my authority on the subject. I got him an appointment with the CEO of a major corporation who successfully warned him and possibly saved the company. I saw what was needed, but he wasn't listening. My network gave me the right source for him and brought him back on course.

The mentor must genuinely believe in the potential of the mentored. A mentor cannot do serious thinking about the needs of the learner or spend the necessary time with him without believing in his potential. A mentor isn't doing what he's doing to be a nice guy. Then there may be times when the learner loses confidence in himself, particularly after a failure, and he will need the mentor to restore his confidence.

I had breakfast with a young executive in Dallas, and I asked him to tell me his story. He said, "Until early in my twenties, I amounted to nothing. I think that was due to the fact that I was raised in a fundamentalist family who believed it was wrong to say anything good about anyone that might stir up his pride. I felt there was nothing special about me until my Sunday school teacher put his arm around my shoulders and said, ‘I believe in you." Gradually this young man began to believe in himself. From that time, he started to climb the executive ladder. I am convinced that the words, "I believe in you" are some of the most powerful in human relations. But this must be authentic belief, not puffery or false compliments.

A good mentor helps define the vision, the goal, and the plan.

So many young men I talk to have several options for their life, and they are not equipped to choose the right one. They hesitate at the thought of giving up the others.

Recently I had lunch with a young man who graduated from a prestigious European university with high marks and told me he had "tested genius in thirteen areas." Yet he had done nothing, though he was in his early thirties. Another man with a similar dilemma came to me. I asked if he were married and upon hearing that he was I said, "You could have married six or eight girls, but you chose one. You will have to do the same with your goal."

Choosing a specific goal is the key to many other activities. The goal defines the discipline, creates the energy, and gives the measure of progress.

Clarifying the goal is a crucial step in the mentoring process. It controls so many other elements. I try to find whether the individuals goal is formed by external or internal influences. Is his accomplishment to please or impress others or to satisfy himself? The image of success has become prevalent in our society. I want to know what gives him his deepest satisfaction. What, to him, has meaning? What does he do easily? What does he learn quickly and remember clearly? Is the goal realistic, considering his talent, opportunities, and facilities?

Sometimes a person will say, "I know where I want to go, but I don't know how to get there." I have found it much easier to work out the map once you know the destination. Be sure the plan is as simple as it can be. Elaborate plans seldom get carried out. Too often, complicated plans are a subconscious attempt to avoid doing.

Paul J. Meyer, creator of Sales Motivation Institute, spent the day with me when he was a young salesman going over the four-step program he had for his life. I was so impressed I asked him for a copy, and he gave me the original, written on a piece of yellow paper, which I still have in my files. In our original conversation, he said that after you set the specific goal, you work the plan, then forget the goal, and develop enthusiasm for the plan, knowing that if you work the plan, you will reach the goal.