Is Mentoring a Program or a Management Style?

In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8, I did some thinking about how women have helped other women along their career paths in my own field, communications.  And I thought about my own career and about my own approach to mentoring women – and men – over the years.  My own agency has had a more formalized mentor program for as long as I can remember wherein a more experienced team member is assigned to help another younger person in the agency with career advice and guidance.  I’ve participated in that program many times over the years.  But regardless of whether I have an official mentee assigned to me, I’ve always informally mentored many women in communications, both within the agency and within the industry.  I think at the end of the day that mentorship is a management choice and style more than it is a program and I began building that style in my journalism days pre-agency.

Good editors are natural mentors.  Good editors inspire and lead, with a combination of pressure, threats and praise.  A built-in part of their job is to guide and shape journalists, even when they sometimes seem like the relentless tormentor J.K. Simmons played in his Oscar-winning role as a never-satisfied music teacher in “Whiplash.”  You learn very quickly as a young journalist in a news meeting when you suggest an idea for an article and a half dozen people shoot it down immediately and say it’s been done to death.  You never bring a tired idea again. 
Since agency life is a series of teams collaborating for specific goals, there are many opportunities for mentoring style management for the team leaders:

Always look for teachable moments.  They are ephemeral and you have to act quickly when you spot one.  When you see a piece of writing that was good, but could have been so much better with the right guidance, you need to provide the specific feedback at that moment for it to stick and for the person to learn from it. 

Lead publicly, but mentor privately.  A team meeting is a perfectly acceptable time to provide overall pressure, if it’s warranted.  But it’s not a time to call out someone and provide coaching in front of the group.  It’s always better to provide specific feedback and coaching separately.  The privacy will be appreciated and the guidance will be that much more effective than if it was doled out in public.  Sometimes the biggest role a mentor/coach can play is to build someone’s confidence in their abilities by showing them they can do it even better. 

Never assume good work is its own reward.  Those of us who were editors and have managed teams and people often look for the problems and the errors to correct.  We smile when we see the good things, but we don’t always take the time to acknowledge them.  The people you are leading and mentoring need to hear that they did something really good at the moment they did it.  They need the feedback and the praise – both private and public.  To build a strong organization, you want to call out excellence so others know how high you are setting the bar.  You want those people to be your examples that others emulate. 

The brutal teacher in “Whiplash” says that the most harmful two words in the English language are “good job” because they allow and applaud mediocrity.  But a good mentor, who praises the excellent work, setting the bar very high for performance and success, clearly defines what constitutes a “good job.”  When you hear those two words from that mentor, you know you are on the right track and need to keep repeating that and improving on it.

Lois Paul, President and CEO of LPP

As a former technology journalist, Lois co-founded LPP in 1986 as a new kind of agency that would serve as an informed resource – almost a “news bureau” – for the influencers and a strategic partner and advisor for her clients. LPP is a positive, people-oriented place to work where you can learn from the best.

As the leader of LPP, Lois oversees all areas within the agency, personally managing a small number of accounts directly and providing strategic counsel, as needed, to all LPP clients. Clients often look to Lois for help with repositioning, crisis communications and major event planning. Lois personally leads LPP’s Executive Storytelling Services personally, including spokesperson and presentation coaching and workshops. Lois has trained or coached hundreds of CEOs and top executive spokespeople over the years and has shared best practices about executive storytelling and presentation skills over the years.