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Posted by on Nov 20, 2014

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?

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