The Mentor as Partner

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Author: Chip R. Bell
Date: Feb. 2000
From: Training & Development(Vol. 54, Issue 2)
Publisher: Association for Talent Development (ATD)
Document Type: Article
Length: 3,096 words

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How to make the caged bird sing again.

My mother-in-law had a five-and-dime-store parakeet named Pretty Boy. Over the years, she taught Pretty Boy to sing a bunch of songs. One day, she ordered a new vacuum cleaner. It came with a tube-shaped attachment she thought perfectly suited to clean Pretty Boy's cage. You know where this story is going! The phone rang, and Pretty Boy ended up in the vacuum cleaner bag. Panicked, she tore it open and found the poor bird alive but totally covered with dust and dirt. She rushed him to the bathtub and turned on both faucets, almost drowning the hapless creature. Realizing the error of her solution, she grabbed the hair dryer to blow him dry.

A few days later at a church social, the editor of the local newspaper heard of her catastrophe and sent a reporter around to get this unique human-interest story. As the reporter concluded his interview, he asked my mother-in-law, "So, how is Pretty Boy now?"

Without expression, she answered, "Pretty Boy doesn't sing anymore. He just sort of sits and stares."

We live in times of turbulent change. Far too many employees hired to "sing a bunch of songs" are almost daily traumatized by downsizings, reorgs, mergers, and just plain old uncertainty. Some end up like Pretty Boy, sitting and staring. Customers experience traumatized employees through rigid Rules """" Us frontline behavior. Managers witness compliance instead of commitment, inflexibility rather than creativity, resistance in lieu of responsibility.

There is one group of employees, however, who sing in the midst of turmoil. Thriving on discord, this group turns dissonance into harmony. They are the perpetual learners in the organization. Philosopher Eric Hoffer wrote: "In times of massive change, it is the learner who will inherit the Earth, while the learned stay elegantly tied to a world that no longer exists." Learners are not only happier employees, but they're also less likely to disconnect or depart in the face of change and confusion. Increasing the number of singers isn't likely to quell the chaos; massive change is here to stay. Nor does calm come through adding more training programs or expanding the tuition reimbursement policy. It entails fundamentally altering the role of leaders from corporate parent to compassionate partner. It involves having all leaders add learning coach or mentor to their repertoire.

Mentor. The word conjures up the image of a seasoned corporate sage conversing with a naive, still wet-behind-the-ears young recruit. The conversation would be laced with informal rules, closely guarded secrets, and "I remember back in '67..." stories of daredevil heroics and too-close-to-call tactics.

Mentoring has had an almost heady, academic sound, solely reserved for workers in white collars whose fathers advised, "Get to know old Charlie."

But what is mentoring, really? Simply put, a mentor is someone who helps someone else learn something that he or she would have learned less well, more slowly, or not at all if left alone. Notice the power-free nature of that...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A59949727