My reflections for this month will focus on my encounters with five young people who have been quite constant in my life for the past year and a half. The primary reason for our encounters was for me to mentor them. But over time they have begun to influence me in quite a profound way which has made me rethink my own outlook. They are all at different levels and doing completely different things and yet they have been a source of inspiration to me with respect to my pursuits as a mentor, a budding blogger and change management consultant.
Introduction to Mentorship
In my journey as a mentor I have come across many young dynamic women. I thought I was a dynamic young lady in my youth. I don’t come quite as near to these women. The fundamental difference is that they are doers! They have ditched the idea of a regular salaried job and followed their dreams. This means they have taken on more risk than I ever had the courage to take in my life, therefore, dynamic does not describe me! I was merely trying to maximize my options in the work place. The only risk I faced was whether I would get the promotion earlier rather than later, if at all. These young women are entirely responsible for the outcomes and their timing. They plan and execute with precision and the outcomes are influenced by the decisions they make. Yes, I understand complexity theory, leadership and management theory and practice but these women are putting me to work. We are past the admiration stage, they want to know what I am made of and get it for themselves and get on with the job. Not in a negative way I might add. They are on a mission and they know there exactly where and how to get it and have little time to linger.
I have had the good fortune to be associated with the Alchemy Women in Leadership (AWiL). As one of the early participants and members, I have taken advantage of the various trainings that are on offer. I have mingled with some of the best women in leadership in Zambia. It is through these mentorship trainings that we have been paired with young professionals to mentor and help them walk through some of the tough times that creep up from time to time.
Becoming a mentor
Alchemy Women in Leadership (AWiL), in partnership with United Nations Development Program (UNDP) have done a fantastic job of bringing in some of the renowned people who have achieved much in the women’s sphere like Mrs Tolu, CEO of African Womens’ Development Fund which is based in Senegal, and others from Oxford University etc. These are eminent women who have achieved much in their careers and are typically willing to share. They were flown to Zambia to offer their time and impart some of their experiences with all of us. In many respects it was a see-saw experience because we were all being mentored. It was also a learning curve because some of the practices, omissions or vulnerabilities cited by speakers were true for many of us.
It was a wakeup call for me.
Even though I now qualify to be a mentor, I never know where my next learning or challenge will come from. The trick was to be aware and accepting of these circumstances.
At the end of the day, the challenge was to find answers not as individuals in silos, but as teams. This gave us the courage to own up and acknowledge our own limitations even when we were mentoring others. In a nutshell the message was that when you mentor; remember that it is also an opportunity for you to learn something from the mentee. Solutions lie everywhere there are people. Every human being has something to offer.
In a way it was also a lesson to managers and people in leadership. Managers sometimes tend to think they have a monopoly of knowledge in finding solutions to management challenges. Listening and sharing is a more productive approach.
Being a Mentor
I have mentored a few young professionals since these programs began. I will describe my experience with each one in no particular order.
She was assigned to me about a year ago. Since that time she has blossomed to be an assertive goal seeking, chatty and confident individual. She asks and interrogates the situation when she is not sure and she has learnt to embrace risk in her life; whether this is with respect to her options in the work place or indeed assuming new behaviors to achieve her goals is anyone’s guess. The difference between then and now is that she has learnt to ask questions and measure her contribution to the company. As a result, she was able to demand recognition any time it was appropriate no matter how short. She wanted them to know that she was there and doing something.
Her situation in the workplace is still fluid in that she is yet to ‘arrive’ at a place where her full potential can be utilized. Small organisations are particularly prone to this confusion, where skills are misplaced, but it will be her call to determine how long she wants the situation to last. She is now in a position to exercise her options, including voting with her feet. I am proud of the fact that after our sessions she has assumed a confidence that enables her to manage herself and make decisions about her situation. She makes decisions about her situation and does not abdicate those rights to anyone. She has assumed ultimate control. The powerlessness she once must have felt about her environment is now a thing of the past. I trust that with a new tool set of confidence, assurance, discernment, courage, risk management and assertiveness she can chart her way forward.
So, looking back, what are the main issues that needed working on for this change in perspective to happen?
My recollections are of a young ambitious lady who was unable to move forward. She was not aware of her own role in the change she wanted to see. All she saw was obstacles and herself as a victim of people around her, people whose opinion of her she could not control. She had no idea how or where to start. There were many areas to start from however. A skills analysis was one; a situational analysis was another. What skills did she have and was she using them to her best advantage? Did she need new skills in the immediate, medium and long term? What was her long term plan with respect to her current job; did she need to change jobs? Recently she had a job offer and was confident enough to turn it down because it did not fit in with her plans!! This is commendable! It is very common for people to drift from job to job for that extra 100 or so increase to salary. Training oneself is critical especially if the company only offers on the job specific courses. Pursuing self-training requires planning and saving.
What was her asset position? Did she have anyone directly dependent on her? How much savings did she have, in the event that she had to take drastic decision to walk away from her job in a crisis; would she be able to live? After we had walked through all these and other questions like her family circumstances, we slowly started to sort out the issues in a neat scheme that revealed her options; what was possible and what was not in the immediate and long term. Given this new found strength, I strongly believe that she is a much more valuable team member than she ever was in the past.
This young lady is phenomenal! She has come full circle from her university training, to her extracurricular activities which now form part of the portfolio of services to her expanding business. What amazes me is that a big part of her business model is community based but she is still able to convert that to successful business activities. She draws much of her power from working with others, integrating others with their concepts and trying to create clusters. She never works alone or in isolation. This model is quite unique in that fatigue is rare as there will always be people to drive the processes as others tire away. When I first met her I had no idea what I was dealing with. She targeted me for mentoring being very sure as to what she was looking for. She is one of the mentees who realistically is now my role model.
One of the things I noticed about her is that her ideas emanate from the life experience she has lived. This makes for clarity and deep understanding of the nitty gritty bits that one has to deal with in a business idea. No doubt as with many life experiences these ideas are simple, scalable and provide spinoffs. This means that one idea can spin off into various new avenues. For example an idea to inculcate cultural norms in children can lead to etiquette and deportment classes which can lead to fashion and grooming. All these ideas at different levels are mutually exclusive but can also be integrated into one activity. All the while she is collaborating with others to roll out her plans. She already has superior knowledge of the things she is doing and has worked in 3 very different sectors. One can see the harmonization of knowledge from these sectors working together. Her application of knowledge to the things she is doing is seamless. Her effort is consistent and production of her work is excellent. People have begun to take note. She has been awarded some recognition for her work as a youth, and some of this recognition is from abroad.
Her creativity is admirable. Each meeting we schedule to have is a revelation of an idea she had which she has converted into an activity. I am amazed at the ease in which things are happening on her end. I only wish we had 10 young creatives like this young lady and we can surely compete neck and neck in the area of fashion with Kenya or Nigeria.
This young lady has mentored me to start with what I have in my hands, literally. With my hands, I started this blog. I started off by writing my observations regarding my experiences in the work place. Slowly I am including material from the many books I have read. I have learnt to be a doer as opposed to just being an eloquent speaker on my favorite subjects. I was motivated to do things like sorting out the many beautiful plants that I have scattered around.
The lesson I came away with while mentoring this young lady is stick to what you know, what you are comfortable with and make it simple. Success lies in the ability to motivate others through your thorough knowledge and passion about something that you are totally familiar with. The blogging and the growing of nurseries of plants is something I am really comfortable with.
This mentee walked into my office, introduced herself to me and asked if I had time to chat with her. I was impressed with her boldness and confidence. I did not hesitate to give her my time as I was sure she had something to say which was important to her. Well, she was looking for a job and wondered if there was a position in my organization. I enquired what she was currently doing and why she was thinking of leaving? She said she had burned out and she wanted out. I asked her what made her think this organization was the one for her. She said was willing to try anything as she had had enough!
I was happy with the fact that she recognized that she was in an unhappy place and she needed to go away. Work places can be very toxic and bad for your health. People have been known to develop hypertension, anxiety and depression arising from bad vibes in the work place, which invariably leads to poor performance. But people continue going back these jobs and by the time they leave, they cannot work anymore due to poor health. When you realize what is going on, be honest with yourself, do a quick self-assessment and take charge of your situation.
After some reflection, my mentee left the job. I don’t think I had anything to do with it. She called me up one day to tell me of her new circumstances. She could deal with the challenges because she was in a situation that she could control. A lot of frustration among people in formal employment is the lack of control about their situation. When one cannot do anything to change anything, it is a source of helplessness.
My role as a mentor was to encourage her when she stopped being optimistic. My role was also to discuss with her other opportunities going on around her which were within her reach to seize. We also touched on her personal relationships and figured out how these could be used to enable her to get where she wanted to go.
In her journey through the transition, she needed mentoring as a benchmark to check the decisions she was making. Many a time decision making is what most people are unable to do even though they have every right to make them. Risk management at a personal level is something most people are unable to do. For every decision, there are options abandoned which form part of the decision tree. Most work places do not train you to manage risk or even to understand the decision making process and how it can be applied when making personal decisions. As a consequence, people are stuck with issues which can otherwise be easily dealt with if only people had the skills to do so. Work places are stuffed with under-performing people who could purge themselves if only they had the courage and honesty to do so. I believe in my role as mentor, I was able to raise awareness to her about ‘trading off’ in the event when options are ranked equally. There is no haphazard way of deciding.
My Mentee was determined. She set benchmarks for herself. She had made up her mind that she would not stay at this employment for longer than was necessary, as she had decided to start her own business.
How many times do people make such life changing decisions? When to change jobs, who to marry, whether to have children? These decisions have to be made and I was close by when my mentee was decisively planning for what she really wanted to get done. I was only there to support and encourage.
I learnt that planning lends to decisive decision making.
She was the worst Mentee. This is the worst case of someone not knowing what to do. This lady is a professional who has no clue what she is worth. As a result, she has made little progress by way of career progression. Listening to her, she has made a few poor decisions and as a result, even the employer who head hunted her (at some cost I believe) doesn’t seem to care whether she stays or goes. They have totally failed to use her in the way that they envisioned she would deliver. I am horrified at her lack of confidence and more so at her lack of belief in herself.
As I sat listening to her story I was in shock. I had never encountered such helplessness. She had a sense of entitlement for the simple reason that she was in that employment at the time. She believed that the company owed her and everything around her had to change while she had to do absolutely nothing!
First of all we had to refocus on issues that she could do something about. Slowly, we were in agreement about the responsibilities and where they lay.
She acknowledged that there were issues, like learning and recognition, that she could influence and do something about. In the work place there were accountabilities that stopped at her feet and then there were systems that she could do nothing about.
Further interrogations revealed that she could take decisive action where she was unhappy. The only thing missing was her ability to make those decisions and be responsible for the outcomes. If she decided to go back to school, it meant that she could not also be at home to be with the family like she preferred. She would have to communicate this with her children and partner and make them aware of the consequences of the decisions she had made. There was no way any decision would come without consequences. In the past it is this inertia that was part of the frustration.
At the end of the day, she could only maximize her objectives by negotiating with her family and others around her that her decisions would hurt some people but in the long run, the aim was to be in a different but better place. Prior to our interaction she was in a state of inertia because she was afraid to take risks and disrupt anything good that she had. Because she was in a job for which she was headhunted, she did not voice out her opinion even when the systems she had to work with were not delivering the desired results. She did not seize her privileged position with the organization to influence the change that she wanted to see that would benefit the company.
Slowly we built a voice of choices which she could use to make decisions at a personal and professional level. A voice also means that if you are not happy you can vote with your feet. She needed to understand that a voice is a strong alignment to standards, expectations and beliefs.
What was my learning from this encounter? Her lack of motivation, confusion and frustration was because she had no minimum standards or sense of direction for herself. Her measurements were proxy, like a stable family life or stable office situation; even though these benchmarks did not in themselves deliver very high marks. Risk taking comes with it disruptions to the status quo.
It is a fact of life.
Mentee P is an energetic young man. He is bubbling with new ideas to change the world he lives in. He has an NGO dealing with young people and trying to give them any opportunity to get ahead. He does not have much himself but he feels he is endowed sufficiently to commit all his energy to the needs of others. To be honest, I cannot remember how I got roped into his scheme.
He was ushered into my office one day as he asked to see me. I had no idea who he was or why he wanted to see me. He quickly introduced himself and explained why he was there. He was looking for corporate support to finance his idea. The company was not in a position to donate any money for obvious reasons (companies in Zambia should routinely set money aside for young people who can demonstrate that they are worthy of support). Anyway, I told him I wanted to hear the full story for myself. When I learnt of his idea, I was sold. I was willing to lend my name to the exercise. Mentee P does not need my mentorship, he is sensible and has surrounded himself with people I look up to in terms of social standing and professional accomplishments. From time to time he used my networks and I am happy to do so. From time to time I review what he is up to and I always find, he does not need any more input. How driven is that!
He has given up his day job to commit fully to this endeavor. He has built up a cluster of his young friends who are also totally sold by his various projects. I suspect that the project design does it all. The people that come on board run the various activities. The first level of engagement with the candidates is when they are interviewed for scholarships. Many scholarship designs are designed to help you through formal education, after which point you are on your own. He has started other vocational activities where some of these graduates can be trained to acquire various skills. So far I have witnessed a growing number of confident and assertive young men and women. When they come into the system they are young and shy. I see that mentee P is friendly and disarming and these young people are beginning to trust him.
The only thing missing is capacity building for sustainability, he is the brain child but in the long run, more of these people need to feel some ownership of this idea and run with it and contribute their ideas too.
My conclusion from these five encounters is that people must be self-driven, set goals and pursue them. As a mentor I have found that it is easier to mentor someone who is already going somewhere than one who is waiting to be told what to do. I can easily state that my worst mentoring experience was with the individual who had done nothing and was clearly waiting for something to happen without their input.
There are many professionals out there stuck in positions and barring younger ones to come through simply because they don’t know how to make decisions…even the decision to leave is beyond them.