Don Jones

Tech | Career | Musings

As I work on the 2019 Edition of Be the Master, I’ve decided to add a chapter on bringing Mastery, often in the form of mentoring, into the workplace. After all, our own colleagues are often the easiest and most obvious potential learners that we can serve, but there often are hurdles within our organizations.

So I’m writing a chapter specifically to address it. I’ll paste the draft below (pardon the Markdown formatting), and I’m very interested in your feedback. What do you feel it does not address, that it should? Leave a comment right here in the blog, and I’ll gather all that up as I continue to work on this piece.

Don’t worry about typos and such; this hasn’t even been through a cursory check, yet. I’m after substantive feedback on what this could additionally address to help you better.

Please respond by 23rd March 2018, in order for me to incorporate your feedback into my next draft.

 

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Part 7: Being a Master at Work

For many of us, our most easily accessible and obvious audience of apprentices is at work, often in the form of junior colleagues. This Part of the book is intended to help you address that audience, and overcome the many challenges that often present themselves when you try to bring Mastery into the workplace.

I do, however, want to stress that work isn’t your only possible audience. If you’re really thinking broadly about the things you can teach, then it’s always worth looking outside the workplace, too. Just because work is the easily accessible audience doesn’t mean it’s the best audience, nor does it mean it’s the place where you can have the most impact. Yes, teaching outside the workplace will mean extra time, since you aren’t teaching as part of your job, but sometimes that extra sacrifice is well worth it in the long run.

So even if work is the right place for you to start serving as Master, don’t let it be the last place you serve.

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A Word on “Mentoring”

I need to preface this “Mastery at Work” discussion with an acknowledgement that, in discussing this with your superiors and colleagues at work, you’re going to end up using the word mentoring a lot. You’ll do so because it’s a work they already understand, and so I’m going to use the word liberally in the next couple of chapters.

But I don’t use the word a lot myself.

In greek mythology, Mentor is the name of various characters, including a son of Hercules and Asopsis, one of the sons of Eurystheus and Antimache, the son of Alcimus, and so on. It’s that latter one that most people refer to when they use the word mentor, because in Odyssey, Mentor was a tutor to Telemachus. The word mentee is both a modern invention and a stupid one; the student of Mentor is not “Mentee,” it’s Telemachus. That’s the main reason I don’t like mentor as a verb or a noun. You’re not mentoring someone, you’re tutoring them, except adults these days equate tutoring with not doing well in high school classes, and Heaven forbid we make anyone feel uncomfortable like that.

As near as I can tell, mentor (lowercase “M”) has been a thing since at least 1699, though, so I suppose I just need to let it go.

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The Pitch for Mastery at Work

There are a lot of good, and extremely valid, business reasons for reviving the old apprentice/Master relationship in the workplace.

First, all organizations suffer from a problem called institutional memory. This is the day-to-day “how we do stuff” that gets handed down from employee to employee, but never gets documented. In reality, few organizations could afford to spend the time actually documenting every little detail of their business. For example, my first career was as an aircraft mechanic for the Navy. The Navy documents everything. I mean, Every. Thing. All the things. For one kind of airplane, we had an entire 2,000 square-foot room full of documentation. Even so, that documentation was rarely enough to actually put one of the damn things together. You had to know, for example, that the F-14’s engine intake ramps couldn’t be installed unless you greased the side seals with petrolatum, and that you needed to use the white plastic side of the rubber mallet to beat them into place so that you could attach the actuators. Nobody documented those tidbits, but you literally couldn’t do the job without them. That’s why I was an apprentice, shepherded by several journeymen and Master mechanics, who passed on those bits of lore. It was far cheaper, and more effective, to pass those bits of craft down through oral history than it was to expand the documentation by 20% to include all those little tips.

Second, while formal training in your craft has its place, it’s not the best way to teach all things. Most carpenters’ unions in the US, for example, have regional education facilities and teach continuing eduction classes for their members. These classes often focus on new materials, new code requirements, and so on. Those topics are often best taught in a formal setting like a class. But that doesn’t stop the carpenters from maintaining their apprenticeships, because the fine techniques of the craft are still best passed down on-the-job, with an experienced journeyman or Master overseeing an apprentice. The same applies to any company.

Third, and this is a big one that a lot of organizations overlook, is sustainability. You know what one of the highest paying jobs in the information technology industry is? Mainframe programmer. It’s not sexy, dealing with code originally written in the 1970s and 1980s, but it pays a lot, because most of the people doing it are in their 60s, and companies are terrified that the only mainframe programmers on the planet are going to die any minute now. And it’s a valid fear, because you basically can’t get formal education in mainframe programming anymore. Nobody runs classes. You can’t even find teachers on the topic, in most places. Had these terrified companies engaged in apprenticeships a decade ago, though, they’d be fine. You see, your most senior people represent an immense investment and brain trust, but it’s all locked up in their brains. If you don’t let them – nay, demand that they – pass it on, then at some point, you’re going to lose all that and have to start over.

I spent some time working for Electronics Boutique, which was later known as EB Games, which was purchased by a company called Game Stop (I point this out only in case you’ve heard of one of them). When I started at EB, as we called it, I was a lowly sales associate. But my store manager had a very “apprenticeship” mindset. She didn’t have the “key holder” concept that a lot of small retail stores do, wherein only a few trusted individuals are allowed to open or close the store. Everyone in our store, even most of our seasonal part-timers, knew how to do everything in the store. Stocking. Cleaning. Opening paperwork. Returns. Closing paperwork. Everything. Ugh of it was documented in writing, but plenty of it was handed down from other employees. As a result, we were all easily promotable elsewhere in the company, and our store was in fact known as a place that new assistant managers came from. When someone left, the manager didn’t have to rush to replace them, because we all knew how to do every job. The company benefitted massively in both the small scale and large, because of her attitude.

What amazes me is that more organizations don’t insist on having Mastery be a part of their workplace.

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Hurdles to Mastery at Work

Companies don’t always understand the benefits of making Mastery, and apprenticeships, part of the workplace. In writing this book, I reached out to friends and colleagues and asked what hurdles they’d run into. I’ll use their (unattributed and somewhat edited) quotes to drive some of this conversation.

Time

Here’s one of the most common organization objections:

The objection I’ve run into is, “If we let people become mentors, they won’t have time to do the job they were hired for.”

I hear this a lot myself, and it’s especially common in the US, with our nose-to-the-grindstone, profit-minding mindset. I approach it in few ways:

  • Don’t think of mentoring as a time-suck, think of it as a force multiplier. If the person doing the mentoring is being paid more than the people they’re mentoring, then it’s a way to get those lesser-paid people doing more. Suddenly, that one mentor can do the work of many people, because they’ve created apprentices and journeymen to help out. Perhaps those apprentices and journeymen will demand more pay at some point, but the business can decide at that time if they’ve room for more productive, more effective employees. The right mentor can reduce or eliminate the need to hire.
  • If the counter-argument becomes, “we don’t want to teach people more, because then they’ll want more money and we don’t want to pay them,” then you need to seriously consider the life choices that led you to work for a company that actively wants to hold people back from personal and professional growth. This is not an organization that will “have your back,” and you might point out how that’s going to look to people.
  • Mentoring is the best way to get employees to work, and behave, the way the organization most wants them to. It’s a way of preserving the “institutional memory” that all organizations have – the stuff they never right down, but can’t run without. You can’t hire people who know exactly how you want things done, but you can raise them that way. Mentors can also pass down better work ethics, and companies that engage in mentoring tend to have lower turnover and higher overall productivity.
  • If mentoring is something that you, in your career, are ready for, and if it’s part of how you define yourself and define your success, share that with your organization. Let them know that while you value your position, you need to have mentoring become a part of it. You don’t need to make this a threat of quitting, but make it clear that you need things from your job, and you’re willing to incorporate those things with their permission.
  • Address the time-suck problem head-on. Ask for two hours a week, or some other reasonable, nominal amount of time. Track that time, and make the most of it. Track your results, too: are you able to point to improved performance, broader job responsibilities, or other growth in the people you’re mentoring? That can help show that the investment — those few hours a week — is generating a return, and open the door to further investment.

More broadly, start to ask why aren’t we hiring people who can be mentors to our teams? It seems like one of the most obvious things to want to have on staff, so why isn’t it built right into the job description of more senior-level employees? How much more self-sustaining and stable would the company be if it embraced a culture of education and helping, without having to constantly spend money having outsiders do that training? Especially when outsiders don’t know the company as well as its own employees do?

If the real fear is, “we’re afraid that you’ll only be teaching, and won’t do any of your original job,” then manage that. Schedule and assign teaching time like any other task. Track it, track the results, and start building a culture of mentorship.

The Optics

This particular quote is most obviously applicable to consulting companies, but it has meaning to other kinds of organizations, too:

We really embrace mentoring. The problem is that while on a customer side, it’s hard to be seen mentoring your own team when you’re all on the customer’s dime. So we now mentor customers’ employees and our own team members, at the same time.

This is so brilliant I almost don’t even know what else to say. But what’s really happening here is someone learning to expand their apprentice audience. It’s really tackling a problem head-on, too, which I’m a big fan of. “Hey, we want to mentor our people, but it’s making us look kind of awkward.” Well, okay, let’s engage in some empathy: what exactly is the customers’ problem? The problem is that they feel they’re being charged to train the consultants that they hired. So the ultimate problem is that the customer feels like they’re paying for something they’re not getting. Fine, let’s give them something! We’ll mentor their people, too, which is both objectively valuable, and shows that we’re okay with them becoming more self-sufficient and reducing their reliance on us as consultants. This is an incredibly professional and forward-thinking approach that probably wins the consulting company more business.

 

2 thoughts on “Seeking Chapter Feedback

  1. Topol Gigio says:

    Full disclosure. Reading at the bar after a couple beers. Most of the content is stellar. The “Word on Mentoring” section reads like an internal monologue or personal axe to grind. Why is this relevant? Let it breath for a couple days and see if you would care about this information if someone else cornered you at a party and started laying it down…
    Next thing, this will probably get cleaned in the edit. Extra words. I dig your conversational style, it makes the writing more approachable and friendly, but brevity…
    After reading the sample, I think I may cough up the necessary currency to get the recent version of the live product. One question that doesn’t require an answer. At any point during drafting this book did you watch parts of “The Last Dragon” . Cheers!

    1. Don Jones says:

      Dude, thanks SO much. And no, I didn’t – but I think I should!

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