4 Examples of What Mentors Can Offer the Walking Wounded

Irving Buchen, Ph.D
Contributor: Irving Buchen, Ph.D
Posted: 02/22/2012

It is required to identify a unique source of direction and to search for developmental options which are incremental—that stretch existing managerial levels and roles beyond current limits and even job descriptions—but which also break new ground horizontally. Although a number of such options are available, the four examples below may suggest the range of what mentors can genuinely offer the walking wounded.

1. Productivity Gains

Research clearly shows that the gains in productivity between divisions are greater than within divisions. That is essentially a horizontal, not vertical, game. Moreover, it is a leadership game with a twist. Managers rally to make their units outstanding. And when it works, the achievement rightly binds the unit in absolute loyalty to its leader. But that can be counterproductive in a cross functional and cross disciplinary environment. The additional leadership challenge is then to demonstrate the new competencies of linkages—that the unit will now be judged by its performance across functions and disciplines—that it must supplement its traditional inward facing view with one that is outward facing.

Led deftly and gradually, our manager leader begins an exploration not solely in linear sequential terms but in increasingly wide concentric circles: Who receives our work when we are done? What do they then do with it? What form should that work be in for the receiving unit to make best use of? When must they receive our work for them to remain on schedule? And finally, should we even be talking to each other about all of the above?

Leadership on behalf of interface requires a shift from the traditional focus of receiving personal work satisfaction to contributing to the job satisfaction of others. It also opens the door to what for many is an intense stretch—understanding the discipline, ways of thinking and working of a division that may be 180 degrees away from that of the unit. Some creative managers have defined that as the ultimate version of diversity and a simulation of globality. It also can be used to provide a fresh approach to out-of-the-box group think. But however conceived, the variables assure that such lateral experiences of leadership engagement of multiple interfaces remain unfinished and without end.

2. Succession Planning for Teams

Another and equally different leadership assignment is to offer a new or challenging way of upgrading team performance. One promising way is to apply succession planning to team leadership following the practice of the Roman legion. Its motto was primus inter pares—first among equals. Although the leader of a squad or team was first, all others were expected or trained to be equals and thus to take over. Thus leadership is not permanent, but temporary—not fixed for all time, but rotational. Moreover, taking over was not an automatic matter of everyone taking his turn. It was situational—determined by the challenge being faced and who was best suited to lead the group to engage that challenge.

Clearly, our team leader has his work cut out for him. His first task is assessment—to what extent are all team members equal to the task of being first—of exhibiting leadership behaviors? And if not, what then needs to be done to bring them all up to that level—and to do so without compromising their difference? And to what extent can such upgrading be a collective task involving the team itself as the training unit? Finally, the range of both current and future challenges the team will face must be anticipated and identified, and what it will take for a member of the group to be selected to lead each charge--to be a first among equals.

Transforming teams along these lines is not an easy task. Team leaders are often stuck with the cards they are dealt. Resistance may also be high. Indeed, if it turns out that one is particularly good at succession, she may be assigned to work with other teams to bring them up to the level of being equal to lead. In the process, our disappointed manager may have discovered and recovered a new leadership distinction and future along horizontal lines.

3. Informal Learning

Then there is the fascinating area of informal learning and how we learn to do our job for better or worse from those we work with. But although obviously important, such unofficial modes of inquiry and knowledge acquisition are generally unacknowledged; and even when they are they are, they are given passing or token identity. But whether noted or ignored, they remain unexamined—until now—by leader extenders.

A new horizontal challenge recommended by our enterprising mentor is tracking such internal and informal learning—its dynamics, the nature of its network, and what is learned-- good, bad, and indifferent. The first step is to bring the underground culture to the surface. Each member of a team or unit is asked a series of questions: who do you typically go to when you need information about the following items on this list? Why that person and not someone else? Are there any official sources consulted? Why don’t you use them? How do you know whether that information is correct and reliable? What do you do with the information secured? And finally who else do you share it with?

The net result is the creation of a visual version of the learning network of each team or division. A master visual displays the total directional patterns of learning flow. A separate but still macro version depicts how recurrent and critical learning needs are typically pursued and satisfied. One unexpected variation is to track rumors and map those involved and those who are not; and then take a snapshot of the rumor mill in action.

Finally, profiles of individual team members can be produced, which capture the number of hits each member receives and in turn gives; and defines visually the role each one plays: whether he is primarily a receiver or a provider in this rich underground networking culture.

4. Information Gathering for Decision Making

There are at least two ways and directions for this process to go: the vertical and the horizontal. For simplicity’s sake, the first approach is led by an expediter leader, the other by a reflective leader. The former has a keen sense of creating a deliverable couched in familiar language and methodologies and designed to be presented vertically and accompanied by an executive summary.

The latter is more preoccupied with expanding parameters, being more inclusive horizontally, including voices and sources that are less familiar, trusting and testing the data, and including wild cards. Unlike the first report, there is the tendency for this one to be late and opaque and require further explanations and doctoring.

In any case, our eager beaver wants to get the job done, on time, on budget. He places a high value on end results. He is not interested in the journey of getting there or any of its deflective side issues. Thus if he sets up a panel of experts, he generally does not believe it is necessary to challenge their findings led alone set up a parallel team of alternative experts.

He finds it difficult to listen to conflicting advice and is generally uncomfortable with "Yes but" answers and with ambiguity in general. He is interested only in what the competition is doing —in the facts not in their patterns. He is tempted to fall back on what worked before—"After all if it ain’t broke why fix it’?—and to micro manage information gathering so as to hurry it along to where it has to be--at the solution phase. He worships implementation and execution, is a flawless project manger; and regularly endears himself and his information reports to a CEO who like him values strong and consistent direction.

Sadly, there is no point in examining the difference of a second report because it seldom or never happens. Typically, we authorize only one fact-finding expedition. We favor what has been done before. The vertical version is deemed sufficient. But the argument here is that there should always be a second or alternative report. What is more, it should be compiled and written by our unhappy leaders. It should mirror and model the inclusive range of the horizontal, and supplement the Senate version with that of the House of Representatives. It would never be wasteful: if it turned out the same it would be confirmatory; and if different, extremely valuable.

In any case, without the second report another key development direction—the circular—is left undiscovered or stillborn. It alone is inclusive enough to harmonize or reconcile the two versions. It can deftly step between thesis and antithesis and offer a higher level of integrated synthesis. Instead, there is now only one voice, one direction, one brand of leadership—it is all familiar and old hat. In short, if we did not have to solve the future fate of our unhappy leadership dropouts, we would have to create them in order to dramatize the impoverishment of the vertical singular perspective.

In summary then what are the key principles that emerge from mentoring discontent? The most obvious is not to be belittling. Do not recommend make-do assignments or offer pablum to those who eat steak. Select challenging leadership-extending options absent of CEO glamour and strictly horizontal in extent. Conceive of mid and upper level employees as both mangers and leaders who need to be given tasks that require a seamless, reinforcing relationship between the two. Add a new dimension to their development profile, that of researcher—both user and creator, and the role of interfacer so that it too is leadership-developing.

Finally, prepare in advance as a back-up or safety net to all leadership development programs what mentors can tap immediately when discontent visits the upper ranks. Of course, they may have to be kept out of sight lest they turn out to compete with and be more ground-breaking and leadership-creating than the standard and familiar fare offered in official programmatic journeys to the top. The ultimate test may be that, when reviewed by CEOs, they elicit the nostalgia of envy and the wish that he could start all over again— but this time with the horizontal.

Irving Buchen, Ph.D
Contributor: Irving Buchen, Ph.D
Posted: 02/22/2012