The Unknowing Mentor

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You may ask, “What is an Unknowing Mentor and what am I looking for in an Unknowing Mentor?” Let’s start by explaining the concept of mentoring. Some companies utilize formal mentoring programs that pair less experienced employees (mentees) with more experienced employees (mentors) for the purpose of sharing knowledge. Mentors provide mentees with coaching, suggestions, and tips about things to watch out for in their job, ways to grow a career, etc. from the perspective of someone who has been there/done that. Mentors are typically not the mentee’s supervisor, because supervisors need to maintain an equal interest in responsibility for everyone on their team. If a supervisor was spending more time coaching/developing one particular individual over another, it could be construed as favoritism by the rest of the team. This could hurt the team’s ability to work together.

The intent of a mentoring relationship is to provide the mentee with someone to help move them along their career continuum and to be a sounding board for whatever questions, frustrations, or successes the mentee may have. The concept of an Unknowing Mentor functions a bit differently from a typical mentoring relationship because the “Unknowing Mentor” does not know they are mentoring you! You could schedule a meeting with them and let them know that you are glad they are your mentor and you are looking forward to getting to know them better. But I don’t advise that. Your Unknowing Mentor will not have a formal role in your development, but they will make a significant contribution. Being able to observe them and how they behave in the environment will give you a great deal of information to consider and use as you see fit.

I started using this method very early in my career and I was able to pick and choose various behaviors and skills from my Unknowing Mentors that helped me create my own personal style. One individual I used to work with always had managers and supervisors in his office talking over various things. I wondered, “How can I build the same rapport with people?” What I observed was that he was a good listener. When presented with a problem from someone, he did not solve it for them (although he easily could have) but instead he asked for background about the problem. How did you get here? What led to this? What else has been done? The person with the problem would talk, and as they talked, my Unknowing Mentor asked more questions. The person would start to see there were some options out there. They just needed someone to help them realize it, and my Unknowing Mentor did this by listening and asking questions.

Another Unknowing Mentor taught me how to deal with executives in an effective yet respectful way (which can be difficult from time-to-time). This same mentor also had a practice of owning a person’s problem until it was resolved. When it was necessary to pass along a request to someone else, she always told the requestor to come back to her if they did not get follow-up within a reasonable time. She would continue to carry the issue forward until the person was satisfied. Both these individuals were viewed as highly competent within our organization, motivated by the right things, and fit the culture of the company. I have been able to take their lessons, adapt them to fit my own style, and grow a bit faster professionally than if I had had to learn those lessons on my own.

Now that we’ve defined the Unknowing Mentor, where do we find one? Hopefully you will be able to find one or two potential candidates within your workgroup using the process I am about to describe. My process identifies folks who have habits and behaviors worth modeling that can lead to success in a career. I need to point out that my definition of success is not acquiring power, prestige and money but being a balanced, contributing and growing employee.

Over the years, I have started to evaluate people against three different factors. I like these factors because they are blind to any demographic indicator (race, gender, etc.) and can be measured by simple observation. I am sharing this because once explained, I feel this is a tool you can use to evaluate potential candidates for the role of your “Unknowing Mentor.” What you want to find in your work group/team/department, etc. is a person who demonstrates the positive aspects of each of the three areas I am about to explain.

The factors I use to evaluate people are:

1. How well they do what they do (Competence)

2. Why they do what they do (Motivation)

3. How well they fit within their employer’s culture (Fit with the Culture)

I define each of these in the following ways:

Competence: This is the easiest of the three to define because it describes someone who is technically good at what they do. There will usually be someone who by reputation is the “best” or one of the “top performers.” It may be the customer service rep who consistently receives high numbers for customer satisfaction, the sales rep who consistently meets or exceeds his or her targets, or the staff person who handles problems quickly and efficiently. In other words, the person knows his or her stuff and has a reputation for excellence. You can determine who meets this requirement through conversations with your manager, your peers or other folks within the group.

Your boss’ and co-workers’ opinions are equally important to your observations for this factor. Some individuals may LOOK like they know what they are doing, but they do not follow up with results or the results they provide are inaccurate. A friend of mine used the term “tennis whites,” to describe an employee who looked good but could not play. If you have ever noticed someone who is dressed in the latest gear on the ski slope, beach or tennis court but who looks totally lost when they are trying to ski, surf or play tennis, you understand what I am talking about. Your manager and co-workers will have a very strong opinion on someone like this. Any employee who talks a good game but does not deliver results impacts everyone in a negative way and usually has a reputation as such.

Motivation: Short of talking to the person to find out why they do what they do, you have to start depending on your judgment for this factor. With motivation, we are looking for someone with a work motivation based on the understanding of responsibility and the desire to deliver what they are supposed to. The best co-workers I have had were ones who understood that they had certain responsibilities and they carried through on those responsibilities because people depended on them, or because they held themselves to such a high standard of performance. These folks put a little bit of themselves into their job – not because their job defined who they were, but because they knew that whatever they did reflected back on them. They wanted to show their capabilities. If they could not deliver as promised, they made sure that you recognized such and that your needs were taken care of by whomever could do the job.

The folks who do not meet this factor are the ones who just come to work because they need the paycheck and will probably hang around until something else happens (layoff, termination, death, the lottery, etc.). They are really not interested in whether or not you get what you need or whether you get answers to other questions. If they are late with something you need, they are late. If you do not like what you received from them or what they did for you? Tough. They just work here.

You will not gain anything from observing these folks.

Fit with the Culture: This is one you will definitely have to gather from observation and it may take awhile to figure out who fits the culture. But people who fit the culture you work in carry some of the best information Unknowing Mentors can offer about how to survive in your current environment. Company cultures are defined by people, and since people are all, by nature, very different, some people thrive in certain cultures and some don’t. The people you see growing within a company are the ones who have responded well to the company’s culture, whatever that may be. Cultures tend to replicate themselves because if one type of person does well in a culture, and that culture is made of people like them, they tend to bring other people like them into the culture, and so on, and so on. This can be both good AND bad.

People with successful behaviors can bring in people with successful behaviors and conversely, people with unsuccessful behaviors can bring in people with unsuccessful behaviors. You have probably heard about “cultural change” and how it is SOOOOO difficult…almost impossible. Cultural change is difficult because there are usually a small number of people trying to convince a large number of people to change the way they think and act. It is not easy because the majority liked the way things were, and now this small group of voices is asking them to change. Without a compelling reason to change, folks tend to like to stay just as they are.

As stated, all companies have their own cultures. If someone has been with the company for awhile and has moved up and/or is viewed as successful, chances are they demonstrate behaviors that are consistent with the company overall. For example, if the company has a culture that desires action and the individual is one who seems be always on the go and is in the midst of many things, it would likely be a good cultural fit. Or, if the culture values hierarchy, respect for levels and titles, and the individual seems to have fostered respectful relationships with those at higher levels and knows how to manage those relationships, they fit the culture well.

Individuals who do not fit with the culture will stand out to you. Someone who may not fit appears to always be at odds with people, either through their words or through their actions, may not speak favorably about the company and/or their role in it, or behave in a way that does not seem consistent with the general environment. An example of the latter could be someone with a loud, boisterous communication style working in a company that is relatively low key and polite in its interactions.

Based on this brief explanation, I hope you understand how an Unknowing Mentor could be beneficial and how you can find one. You can have many Unknowing Mentors over the course of your career – there is no limit and you may find them to be an easy way to broaden your own capabilities with minimal effort. It is definitely a subjective call about who you choose to make your Unknowing Mentor, but the good thing is you have no downside to giving it a try. No one will ever know. If you follow the above guidelines, you may be pleasantly surprised by what you learn.

Excerpt from Leaving Campus and Going to Work

by T. Jason Smith

ISBN 0-9777237-6-3

Aspen Mountain Publishing

Release date April 12, 2006

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