In Uncertain Times, Mentoring Is the Silver Bullet Solution Leaders Need

Organizations across all industries have been hit hard over the past two years. The pandemic and its impact have left executives desperately wondering: What will happen next? And how do I deal with it? If you don’t have a crystal ball, there’s no way to answer the first question exactly, but I have a suggestion to help you tackle the second: mentoring.

I’ve worn many hats throughout my 40+ year Waffle House career, but my overarching passion has been mentoring.

I have mentored hundreds of emerging high performers from every industry, and when I became President and COO, one of my top priorities was to create a company-wide mentoring program to maximize the development of emerging high performers. Five years later, our middle and senior management had quadrupled.

So yes, I know from experience that mentoring can be the long-term solution to weathering storms like the one we’ve been through recently. Regardless of your industry, mentoring attracts and helps retain talent, increase employee satisfaction, increase individual and organizational performance, build a large workforce of adaptable and engaged employees, and support new hires.

Also, mentors themselves typically experience a revitalization of their commitment, self-development, and goals.

You don’t need a big budget to get great ROI from mentoring—but you do need the right mindset and skills to initiate, guide, and sustain productive mentoring relationships. Here are eight things prospective mentors should keep in mind:

Be prepared to invest time and energy. You can give a new hire some quick advice over a cup of coffee, but this is casual conversation, not mentoring. Many mentor-mentee pairs meet once a month (sometimes more often!) for an hour. My own mentoring relationships typically last at least a year, some for decades.

Always be on the lookout for potential mentees. Don’t wait for them to come to you! Once, while visiting a Waffle House location as an executive, during the busy evening shift, I pitched in and began speaking to the restaurant’s brand new manager.

Once this young man asked me, “Bert, how will I get promoted?” As we both continued to work behind the counter and bus tables, I told him to make himself the “most obvious choice” and explained what that meant. That conversation was the first of many we’ve had over the years – and today my mentee is an operational executive vice president at Waffle House.

Before you pass on your knowledge and advice, get to know your mentee. Your first task should be to get to know your mentee as well as possible. You need to learn as much as possible about their personality, background, education, experiences, goals, strengths and weaknesses, etc.

This information will help you determine 1) that the two of you are a good match, 2) that you understand your mentee’s motivations, and 3) that you are able to offer appropriate guidance and advice.

Remember to develop the whole person, not just the employee. There’s a lot more to building a successful career (and life!) than acquiring technical skills and industry knowledge.

That’s why I rate each mentee on what I call the “Big Eight Social Tells”: attitude, energy, looks, fluency, engagement, conversational skills, demeanor and body language. Mentees need a solid foundation in each of these areas to be successful, and you may need to focus on one or more of these traits before providing (or along with) business consulting.

For example, when I met one of my favorite mentees, I quickly realized that her gentle nature could potentially keep others from realizing how dedicated and brilliant she was. One of my main goals in mentoring was to help her use her voice confidently to share her ideas, accomplishments, and beliefs. Today she is a very successful manager, so it must have worked!

Good mentors don’t take it “one day at a time”. Instead, they purposefully create a plan for their mentee’s development over time. Start where you see the greatest need and expand from there. What does your mentee need to learn now, next month and next year? I call this the “learning list”. It has been used with great success in developing emerging leaders at Waffle House.

Make sure you’re always learning. You may speak with the voice of experience, but you don’t know everything – and the external environment is constantly evolving. In order to provide your mentee with the best and most up-to-date information, you must view your own education and personal development as an ongoing project. Strive to consistently consume an impressive selection of books, articles, websites, podcasts, etc.

Realize that mentoring goes both ways. The initial assumption about mentoring is that mentors give and mentees receive – but the opposite is also true. Be open to learning what your mentee can teach. For example, meeting a member of a younger generation might prompt you to think differently about what a diverse, inclusive workplace looks like.

Your mentee may guide you on how to get the most out of your office’s shared calendar and productivity apps. Or by answering their questions, you can look at your own accomplishments and viewpoints from a different angle.

Consider extending mentoring to your entire organization. Throughout my mentoring journey, I’ve often reminded myself of an important truth: no matter how talented they are, no one drifts in greatness. No one is born with the skills (or even college degrees) required to lead and work in today’s business world.

For this reason, a well-planned, well-executed mentoring program is always one of the best tools available to help companies grow, thrive and innovate, regardless of whether the external circumstances are favorable or turbulent. If the majority of your seasoned leaders aren’t actively mentoring emerging high performers, you’re underutilizing one of your organization’s most valuable resources. There is no substitute for a system that provides consistent, quality development for all new hires.

I believe that we “old gorillas” – those of us who have been scarred and turned gray while struggling through the jungles of business and life – have a responsibility to bring what we have learned to the new to pass on to a generation of aspiring leaders. Under our leadership, they can become prosperous and strong while avoiding many of the pitfalls that have slowed and held us back.

They will also be equipped with the support, skills and best practices they need to meet the challenges of the years to come – and beyond – with resilience and confidence.

Bert Thornton is the former President and COO of Waffle House. together with dr Sherry Hartnett, he is co-author of the new book, High-Impact Mentoring: A Practical Guide to Creating Value in Other People’s Lives.

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