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By Ian Munro, director, Legitimate Leadership.

Leading people is not the same as writing code, operating a machine or compiling a document. Writing code is a skill. It can be taught and learned in a classroom or on the job. The issue is ability. The same could be said for operating a machine or compiling a document.

Leadership is different. The primary issue for excellence in leadership is intent, not ability. Is the leader willing to suspend his or her agenda in the interests of others? Today’s most enabling leaders have earned legitimacy not because they are good at any particular leadership skills, but because they have repeatedly passed the “intent test”. Of course, they may possess well-developed leadership skills as well, but it is their maturity, their capacity to act above self-interest, their willingness to align to a deliberately-chosen set of fundamental values, that people find compelling.

Unfortunately, values cannot be taught. Teaching applies to skills and abilities. Values are not skills or abilities. Values talk to judgement, to integrity, to intent, to maturity. The person who helps you to develop these, as an adult, we refer to as a mentor.

In South Africa in particular, but also more generally in countries where we operate, people entering the workplace have very different starting points when it comes to values.

As children we learn values and associated behaviours from our parents, our extended families, our communities and our schools. In South Africa, despite their best intentions, many parents are simply too impacted by their working circumstances (long commutes, work away from home, two working parents, single working parent) to have the time to deliberately develop their children’s value systems. Extended families are often absent too. Communities frequently offer the poorest of role models. There are some fantastic schools and teachers that are increasingly focusing on values and service as guiding principles. But unfortunately these types of schools and teachers are not in the majority.

Example: a few years ago I had a conversation with a graduate working as an apprentice – learning what he could in the field of law. Thinking him one of the lucky ones who managed to find employment as a graduate, I asked how he was finding his job. “The job is good,” he replied (paraphrasing), “my concern, though, is that I don’t earn very much and my friends call me a sell-out because they say I am working for too little and I allow myself to be taken advantage of. Of course, they say this while I am paying for their drinks, so I try not to take them too seriously. But it is a problem. Do you think I am doing the right thing? Should I demand more money? Am I being taken advantage of? Should I quit if I don’t get the increase I demand?”

I am certain that this person’s experience is not unique. I have spoken to other young individuals who, at the first sign of difficulty, have asked me for my opinion on whether they should resign. These cases almost never relate to technical difficulty; almost always they are about relationships: “My boss doesn’t treat me well”; “I don’t like my colleagues”; “I can’t trust management”.

The strange thing about these situations is not the questions. The questions are normal. The strange thing is that the people asking me these questions have typically known me for less than a day.

Being in the fortunate position of having a mentor to turn to, I would probably have asked my father. My father would probably have said something like: “Well, what have you done to impact the relationship negatively? What have you tried to do to change her mind? It takes two to tango.”

This advice would likely have been very helpful, and also very different from the advice I would have received had I asked my similarly disaffected colleague-friends. The conversation I would have had with my mentor father would have challenged me to take ownership, to not run away, to do the right thing, and not the expedient thing. In short, I would have come away from the conversation a little more grown-up, a little stronger, a little less of a victim.

While I imagine that many leaders currently reading this article can recall similar stories relating to their early mentors, there are far too many young people today who have never had a mentor-type figure in their lives.

As the current leaders of future generations of managers and leaders we can certainly help. One way to do that is to make mentoring as much a part of the development landscape in our organisations as is skills training. A structured, maturity-focused, mentoring programme provides the mechanism.

Guidelines for implementing a mentoring programme in your organisation

As said before, at Legitimate Leadership we believe that teaching and training are good ways to build skills, that coaching is about developing competency, and that mentoring is about intent, values and, ultimately, maturity. These distinctions are important.

In our experience formalised mentoring programs are either totally absent, or frequently play second-fiddle to skills development programmes. Skills development is important, but so is mentoring. Mentoring is about helping individuals to develop judgement, to build networks that will challenge and expand their thinking, to make a contribution for reasons other than self-interest, to build better organisations and societies.

Implementing a mentoring programme that achieves the outcomes above isn’t easy (few worthwhile things are), but it is certainly an attainable goal in any organisation. Here are some guidelines:

  1. The programme must be genuinely opt-in – for both the mentors and mentees.
  2. Mentees must choose their mentors.
  3. Both individuals must be open to growing through the process, and both individuals must be willing to check their rank at the door.
  4. Mentors don’t have to have all the answers, but they should be willing to ask the difficult questions.
  5. Mentoring only works if individuals are willing to make time for one another, give one another attention, and stick to some basic ground rules.
  6. In mentoring, confidentiality is everything.
  7. An unethical and/or self-centred mentor will likely produce an unethical and/or self-centred mentee.
  8. Use a catalyst (initial workshop, coffee sessions, etc) to get things going on the right track.
  9. Ensure that mentors understand the difference between mentoring, skills development, and coaching.
  10. Setting goals and understanding expectations is critical.
  11. Set up opportunities for formal reflection.
  12. Agree an end-point. It’s hard to know how to pace yourself when there is no end in sight.