By Ty Kiisel
I started flyfishing almost 20 years ago. I wish I could say I was really good at it, but I consider myself one of the weekend warriors who just enjoys spending time in the river smelling the fresh air and catching a few fish. Some days I do much better than others, which is why I consider myself to only be a fair fisherman. I work with a young guy who should probably be a guide. He’s on the water every possible moment, knows the local rivers, knows which flies to use and when, and consistently seems to catch gobs of fish (which is why I convinced him that I would be a willing pupil if he wanted to take me under his wing and show me the ropes).
A couple of weekends ago, we hit the river early in the morning and spent several hours casting over very unmotivated fish. I did bring one in—my friend did a lot better than that—but we’ll likely go out together again. This experience reminded me of some lessons I learned a long time ago about mentoring new people and nurturing internal talent. Over the last several years I’ve worked with a lot of young people and had the opportunity to share the same types of insight into a successful career that older and wiser colleagues shared with me when I was a younger member of the team.
1. Advise: I’m a real fan of creating an environment where people can take ownership of their responsibilities—but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will know everything they need to know to be successful. Over the years, I’ve noticed that a lot of managers think their job is to give people an opportunity to sink or swim. I disagree. As a teenager, I was on the High School swim team, was a lifeguard, and taught swimming lessons to kids. I was known as a teacher who would push the kids, which is what a good leader will do, but I never allowed sinking to be an option. I wanted them to learn how to be safe in the water on their own, which required that they stretch and try things they’ve never done before, but it didn’t mean I could throw them into the water and expect them to make it on their own. The same is true for inexperienced folks who are trying to take ownership of a new responsibility. I advise and counsel, but allow them to take responsibility for their own work. Should they come to me for help or to collaborate on a problem, I try to take the time to work through the problem together. There are times when I think I know the answer and there are times when I don’t know either. Instead of playing games, I share my opinions and try to work out a solution with them (as part of their team). My focus as a leader is to help them be successful—that often means being a sounding board for ideas and offering advice. By the way, advice is different from a directive. Sometimes I’ve given advice that is ignored.
2. Teach: Teaching is an important part of nurturing and mentoring. Sometimes teaching takes place in a formal setting and sometimes it doesn’t. At one company I set aside time every week to share best practices in a formal team setting, but that isn’t always the case. Nevertheless, It’s unreasonable to assume that someone new to any role will never need any training. If the young people in your organization seem to struggle and flounder, maybe it’s because you fail to adequately train them in what you need them to do. I’ve observed over the years that very few, if any, people show up to work each day with the attitude of “I wanna suck today.” Most people really want to do a good job and be successful. Our responsibilities as leaders is to teach and train. If we fail to do that, we fail.
3. Encourage: Let’s face it, success is a hard won proposition. And, most of us tend to wade through a few mistakes and a lot of disappointment along the way. Where new initiatives are concerned, that is certainly the case. I’ve noticed a number of managers over the years seem to be the first to throw a young teammate under the bus when the performance of a new initiative doesn’t meet expectations. I think this is a big mistake. Disappointments are a part of building a successful organization or executing on a new initiative. This is not a plea for business leaders to become Pollyanna, but a suggestion that advice, teaching, and encouragement will get you a lot further than beating a dead horse. If you’ve got the right people on your team, they already know that their results are disappointing and have already beat themselves up pretty good over their lackluster performance. Now is the time to offer some encouragement, go back to step one and two to see how to make improvements. If I had a nickle for every mistake or failure I’ve experienced over the years, I could probably retire. How about you?
4. Praise: If they only time an employee has a private chat with the boss is to get chewed out, there is a problem. People shouldn’t be leery of being called into the boss’ office. I have had bosses over the years who thought it was their job to intimidate and belittle me to get the most out of me. I’ve also had bosses who praised my good work and inspired me to do my best work. A little bit of praise or a kind word goes a long way toward helping people perform at their best.
Far too many times business leaders think the path to a strong organization requires hiring people with experience from the outside. That is sometimes the case. However, I’m convinced that homegrown talent is often a better choice. They know and understand the company culture, they understand the history of the organization, and will likely welcome the challenge of new and exciting things. Hiring someone from the outside shouldn’t be the first choice.
What are you doing to nurture talent within your organization?