Sherpa 101: Mentoring Tips for Guiding the Next Organizational Generation

MountainWhen many people think of Sherpas, they think of rugged tour guides. The value of a Sherpa, however, is not just their ability to lead you to the summit making sure you have the right gear and make the right turns on the trail. It is their ability to read the mountain, adjusting to cues you cannot see, as well as their relationships with others on the trail who can provide information and assistance that makes the journey with them so different than if you went with just another Bear Grylls. It is not Sherpas’ general skills as mountaineers that make them invaluable: it is their understanding of how to navigate both the people and the terrain on that specific mountain with all its nuances and unique features. Sherpas have a tacit knowledge of their environment – both physical and relational.

Moreover, some scientists have even proposed that Sherpas have a physiological anomaly that enables them to live and work at high altitudes longer than other people. Simply put, they have adapted to their environment. If you look at who in an organization has the tacit knowledge and has been able to adapt their personal style, you’ll see the making of a good mentor. If that person is you, then your organization needs you to mentor others even if no formal program exists.

When an organizational culture is highly complex – like Mount Everest, as most Federal agencies are, knowing how to get things done may not be obvious to those new to the agency. The mission may be clear, but when the formal roles and responsibilities don’t align with how things really work, or when systems and processes are unclear or inconsistent, mentoring can be the difference between a new employee reaching peak performance or being buried under an avalanche of confusion.

The good news is that those relatively new to the organization will naturally gravitate toward colleagues who can – and are willing to explain how to get things done: mentees seek and find informal mentors naturally. They will find a Sherpa. You should be prepared to guide them when they come to you.  If you connect as a mentor with a less-experienced colleague, here are a few tips that can make the interaction feel successful for all parties:

  • Invest in their success. Align your own success with the success of your mentee. The reward is helping them grow as a person, learn to navigate the culture, and become more productive in the process.
  • Make mentoring a priority. You are there as a resource for your mentee, and that suggests you and your mentee both value the relationship and its impact equally.
  • Meet them where they are. Make sure you meet the mentee where they are in terms of skill and motivation. If they are wary, bring them along more slowly. Likewise, if they are high energy, don’t drag your feet. You can’t help them mature in their role without their agreement, so you should work to be an enabling force, not an impediment to their development.
  • Be the change you want to see. Model the behavior you are trying to help them adopt. Remember this is a development opportunity for you, too. If you can model how to take risks appropriately, you both will gain by the experience.
  • Sometimes it is who you know. Focus on helping your mentee navigate the internal culture. If building key relationships are critical to getting things done, help the mentee determine who the right people are, and how to build relationships that lead to productive outcomes.

Honing your skills as a mentor will pay off for you in multiple ways:

  • Connect. Mentoring will help you connect more to the organization, as you become seen as a person who can help people find their way.
  • Navigate. Mentoring will help you get to know the newer people in the organization, which will, in turn, help you navigate the organization as it evolves.
  • Grow. Mentoring will help you build essential networking skills that will carry over into other elements of your life, such as when you look for your next assignment and meet new people in and out of your work context.

How have you informally mentored at your agency? What worked? What didn’t work?

What do Senior Leaders in the Federal Government, Members of Congress and Carp Have in Common?

CarpIn my role supporting Federal Government agencies trying to build leadership at all levels I often find myself discussing the differences between effective and ineffective leaders. Of course, there are many different opinions about the traits and qualities that separate the good from the bad when it comes to leaders in the Federal Government, and there is probably no single set of competencies and behaviors that completely discriminate between the two.

Personally, I believe an often-overlooked element of effective leadership is external awareness. External awareness is “the ability to identify and integrate key external factors into daily work activities.” Often, when we talk about effective leadership the discussions focus on building internal relationships, inspiring others, and building the next generation of leaders. But, in looking at recent data on Congressional approval and data from OPM’s 2014 Federal Viewpoints Survey (FEVS), the importance of external awareness seems to be rising.

One key element of external awareness is the leader’s ability and willingness to understand and keep up-to-date on trends that affect the organization and shape stakeholders’ views. According to the FEVS results, perceptions of senior leaders’ effectiveness, communication, and connection to the organization have steadily declined since 2011. For members of Congress, a recent Rasmussen Report found that 80% of voters feel most members listen more to political party leaders than their constituents, and a previous poll found that as many as 62% of voters believe their legislators have lost touch with voters. The data for both groups of leaders suggest that leaders aren’t aware of the external realities of their roles.

This is where the carp comes in. Celebrated author, futurist and physicist, Dr. Michio Kaku tells a story about his childhood visits to a Japanese Tea Garden:

When I was a child, I used to visit the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco. I would spend hours fascinated by the carp, who lived in a very shallow pond just inches beneath the lily pads, just beneath my fingers, totally oblivious to the universe above them.

I would ask myself a question only a child could ask: what would it be like to be a carp? What a strange world it would be! I imagined that the pond would be an entire universe, one that is two-dimensional in space. The carp would only be able to swim forwards and backwards, and left and right. But I imagined that the concept of “up”, beyond the lily pads, would be totally alien to them. (From Hyperspace and a Theory of Everything)

For leaders, being like the carp, only aware of adjacent issues – focused on the obvious dimensions of right, left, forward and backward, while failing to account for what may be just above the surface of the water, can be a powerful, but harmful temptation. With the barrage of pressures leaders face each day it can be easy (and rewarding) to tackle the immediate challenges. But, the best leaders know how to distribute their attention between near term, internal challenges, and the larger external realities that ultimately affect their organization.

Given the many demands on Federal leaders, how can they improve their external awareness without neglecting other responsibilities?

  • Identify Your Stakeholders AGAIN: Formal stakeholder identification processes can be rather long and complex. The problem with that is that stakeholder groups – not just their views – change. You aren’t identifying stakeholders for one project, you’re looking to find out who is invested in your organization’s outcomes as an ongoing concern. Spend time re-evaluating who your stakeholders are and what they want, but don’t get caught up in a lengthy, formal process. Focus on what has changed in who your new stakeholders are, who is no longer a stakeholder, and the implications thereof. Get to know the Millennials, for example. Expect that the whole community you serve is ever changing.
  • Read What Your Stakeholders Read: Don’t assume what you usually read for news and information is shaping your stakeholders’ views. Find out what your stakeholders are reading, and make sure you read it, too. Keep up with your stakeholders’ professional organization newsletters. You don’t need to read every article, but skim the headlines for anything that may change your perceptions and assumptions. For example, many of my clients read Federal Times, so I do, too, but only the articles relevant to my customers. No one has time to read everything.
  • Use Social Media Efficiently: According to an IBM study, social media will represent 30% of data available to Government organizations by 2015. Leaders don’t need a Facebook page, but it’s a good idea to keep an eye on what’s trending online. From #BringBackOurGirls to hashtags used by political activists (e.g., #tcot), social media often indicates what’s about to happen as much as it discusses what has already come to pass. Social media has been used in coups to dog rescues by politicians. Don’t waste hours a day on social media, but know what’s trending and what you need to do about it.
  • Put it in Context: Being in the know isn’t useful unless you know what to do about it. Have a plan in place to address external changes that affect your stakeholders. Identify who you would need on your team now, so you are prepared in the future. The focus shouldn’t be on taking immediate action unless the situation is emergent. The focus should be on having the right discussion to put the information into context as it applies to your stakeholders and organization, as in many cases the “action” is communications and further exploration.

What do you do as a leader to maintain external awareness? Do you have techniques for achieving balance between internal and external focus?

Leadership Lessons from the Battlefield: What We All Can Learn from Veterans

battlefieldAs I searched my on demand library for a movie to watch last weekend, I knew Veteran’s Day was just around the corner. I had dozens of war-related movies at my disposal and had to make a choice: classic or modern war story? That’s not an easy question for me. I am not a veteran but both of my parents served proudly for more than 20 years, and military service runs generations beyond them in my family. Getting lost in a war movie or listening to their stories is the closest understanding I will ever have to knowing what it means to wear a uniform in the service of our country. And, that isn’t very close as any veteran will tell you.

Thankfully, my work at Management Concepts has given me the opportunity to work alongside and help clients who are former military leaders, most of whom are now using their skills as civilians in agencies across the Federal government. As we celebrate the 11th day of the 11th month this year, I want to highlight four key leadership strengths that former-now-civilian Federal leaders bring to the table to serve their county in a new way.

“The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office.”

- Dwight D. Eisenhower

Personal integrity and trust. Nothing cripples organizations faster than rampant distrust of leadership and a lack of personal accountability. Civilian business is not war (all jokes aside), but successful military turned civilian Federal leaders know that in order to carry out a mission and achieve goals, moral principles and standards of professionalism matter. Period.

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

- Benjamin Franklin

Preparation. Preparation. Preparation. That is sage leadership advice from one of our Founding Fathers, and is a cornerstone of military training because there is no substitute for good planning. Theater conditions change, often quickly, and military leaders are taught to dream up the impossible and plan for it. The pace of change in civilian organizations shows no signs of slowing, and embedding the discipline to plan for a variety of situations starts with leaders modeling that behavior. It doesn’t matter if you are planning a meeting or writing a 5-year strategic plan, preparation is important.  

“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”

- George S. Patton

Don’t dictate. Collaborate. To you historians out there, it might seem odd that I picked a Patton quote to demonstrate how military leaders truly embrace teamwork over providing strict directives. General Patton was tough and had swagger, but like many other successful military leaders (past and present) he had great respect for those he led and confidence they could rise together to meet any occasion on the battlefield. When military leaders join civilian organizations, the best ones set clear goals for their employees and support their efforts to find novel solutions rather than taking a command-and-control approach.

“Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate and doubt, to offer a solution everybody can understand.”

- Colin Powell

Problem solving. Even when you act with integrity, engender trust among those you lead, diligently prepare for the unknown, and work side-by-side with your team, problems will arise. It doesn’t matter if you are in a war zone or a comfortable office in DC, either. Former military leaders are adept problem solvers because they are taught how to assess situations from multiple viewpoints and find the best path forward. They also use a variety of methods to help their teams think through people and process problems, both in advance (e.g., contingency planning) and in retrospect (ever heard of a hot wash?), and bake those practices into their operations.

I, personally, think we all stand to learn a thing or two from our veteran leaders and want to hear your stories. If you are a vet, what is the most important leadership attribute that you learned while serving? To those of us lucky enough to work for a veteran, how did they help you to become a better leader? 


2014 NAPA Fall Meeting Focuses on the Future of Public Administration

177818736Management Concepts will be participating in the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) 2014 Fall Meeting taking place November 13, 2014 in Crystal City, Va.

Management Concepts is an Academy patron-level sponsor and the event’s focus is on “Public Administration 2025 – How will Government Adapt?”   

The event’s theme aligns with our view that the government in the next ten years will look drastically different than how it looks today. With technology, priorities, and the workforce changing considerably, the government must remain agile enough to seamlessly adapt to provide citizens with a high level of service and transparency.

The Academy’s esteemed speaker faculty will bring an informative and innovative look to where government is going and how it will adapt to a rapidly changing environment. Management Concepts president, Stephen L. Maier, will join the Academy leadership in providing opening remarks to kick off the day’s events. Speakers will include:

  • The Honorable Katherine Archuleta, Director, Office of Personnel Management
  • Reginald F. Wells, Deputy Commissioner for Human Resources and Chief Human Capital Officer, Office of Human Resources, Social Security Administration
  • The Honorable Beth Cobert, Deputy Director for Management, Office of Management and Budget
  • The Honorable Dan Tangherlini, Administrator, General Services Administration
  • The Honorable Robert F. Hale, Former Under Secretary (Comptroller) and Chief Financial Officer, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense, U.S. Department of Defense

We all know that organizations are better positioned to meet their missions when they have the support and dedication of an engaged, motivated, creative, innovative, and collaborative workforce that finds ways to exceed the demands of their job and organization.

Transforming an organization to achieve this success requires proactive assessment and planning, consistent and holistic opportunities for workforce growth, and sustained support of people and programs. Change will be transformative, introducing new risks, but more importantly new opportunities and a chance for a restored public confidence in government. 

Does Anyone Look at Those End-of-Course Evaluations Anyway?

EvaluationWhen you complete an evaluation, do you ever wonder if anyone actually looks at your responses? Do companies take your feedback seriously and make changes based on what you have to say? If they are asking for your feedback, they should review it and take action when warranted.

Anyone who has taken one of Management Concepts training courses knows there will be an end-of-course evaluation to complete. Why? It’s good practice to collect students’ feedback on courses they’ve just taken.

We collect feedback about the learning experience including the quality and usefulness of the course materials, the instructor’s facilitation skills, and the extent to which the facilities were an appropriate learning environment. In addition to getting feedback on various aspects of their experience, the end-of-course evaluation serves another purpose. We can collect information such as:

  • How confident students are that they can apply what they learned back on the job
  • The degree to which the training will improve their job performance
  • The degree to which the training was a worthwhile investment in their career development

In case you’ve wondered if anyone at Management Concepts actually looks at your completed evaluations, the answer is yes.

Actually, lots of people at Management Concepts read the evaluations and it drives much of the work we do to create professional development programs. Of course we love hearing about positive student experiences, but we also need to hear about the negative ones. How else can we improve?

We use both the quantitative and qualitative feedback you provide to make informed decisions about possible improvements.

Here is a sampling of how different stakeholder groups within our organization use your feedback to improve your learning experience:

  • Instructional Designers who create the courses and are always looking for ways to improve the experience
  • Instructors/Facilitators who look for ways to improve their delivery and teaching approach
  • Resourcing Staff who schedule the instructors/facilitators and want to ensure the best delivery of each course
  • Logistics Staff who coordinate the course delivery and  want to ensure the course materials are complete and where they need to be when they are needed
  • Learning Technologists who produce online courses and materials and are looking for ways to improve the online learning experience
  • Facilities Staff who want to ensure a clean and inviting environment
  • Customer Service Staff who help students with registering for courses and want to ensure a positive experience
  • Administrators who review the data to ensure we are in compliance with Continuing Education requirements
  • Executives who oversee all these areas and use the information in short- and long-term planning and want to ensure we meet needs and exceed expectations

All of these groups work together to ensure your learning experience is valuable and enjoyable. Your responses help us know when to update courses, what new courses are needed, which instructors are most effective, which technologies add the most value, and what types of learning environments are most effective. So, next time you are asked to complete an end-of-course evaluation, make sure you do. We want to hear from you!